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The Saudi brand of fanaticism

The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror, Stephen Schwartz, Doubleday: 312 pp., $25 A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, Malise Ruthven, Granta Books: 324 pp., $16.95 paper Militant Islam Reaches America, Daniel Pipes, W.W. Norton: 310 pp., $25.95

November 17, 2002|Emran Qureshi | Emran Qureshi is co-editor of "The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy," to be published by Columbia University Press.

Imagine if you will the delicious and absurd fantasy of the Beverly Hillbillies taking over the Vatican and proselytizing worldwide after striking crude oil. Stranger than fiction but closer to truth is the case of the House of Saud. Unlike the nouveaux riches of the television fable, the House of Saud has for many decades used its wealth to spread the most extreme and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, intolerant toward all those who do not share its narrow sectarian Wahhabi creed.

While the Wahhabi sect has been the state-supported religion in Saudi Arabia since the kingdom was established a century ago, its influence and reach have been invidious, gradual and largely unnoticed by the West. Wahhabism had even slipped under the radar screens of America's scholarly apparatus. One example is Princeton's eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who admitted to Charlie Rose in a January television interview on PBS that he vastly underestimated the dangers of Wahhabism: "I hadn't realized its importance until these last months ... this particular strain of Islam, which is very far from mainstream ... which suddenly becomes, if not dominant, at least extremely important."

Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the sect's founder, was a puritanical 18th century "reformer" who militantly repudiated 1,400 years of Islamic tradition and culture while seeking to impose a version of Islam "cleansed" of what he deemed idolatrous and un-Islamic practices. (Incidentally, Wahhabis do not call themselves Wahhabis but salafis, or simply faithful Muslims, and accuse anyone using the term "Wahhabi" of smearing good Muslims with an epithet.) Wahhab also thought that all Shiites, Sufis and followers of sects of Islam other than his own were not Muslim. Further, he forbade the celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, the veneration of saints and the visiting of tombs. But above all, Wahhab and his followers loathed vocal or instrumental music in all its forms, a point that Stephen Schwartz, in his book "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," finds to be "extremist to the point of derangement."

Schwartz recounts a recent instance of Wahhabi fanaticism, the story of 15 Saudi girls who perished this year in a schoolhouse fire. Religious police prevented the girls from leaving the burning school because they were not shrouded in abayas (black robes) and thus lacked "Islamic modesty." The girls were beaten back into the school while anguished parents looked on.

In the holy city of Mecca, the Wahhabis have razed tombs containing the remains of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Saudi religious police guard the leveled sites carrying sticks to beat pilgrims who are seen praying. It is Saudi Wahhabi aid agencies, Schwartz notes, that are responsible for the gutting and "reconstruction" of historic Bosnian mosques and bulldozing of Kosovar Muslim cemeteries.

While tolerant and richly varied forms of Islamic tradition around the globe were thus zealously eradicated, Saudi Arabia was considered to be a "vital, moderate" American ally. The foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the United States dovetailed from the 1950s through the 1980s. There are two distinct stages in this sordid love affair: Until the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia fought the forces of godless communism by supporting conservative and revolutionary Islamist organizations as a counterweight to secular and nationalist movements in the Islamic world. In 1979, twin disasters befell Saudi Arabia: the Iranian revolution and the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Saudis funded madrasas in Pakistan, proselytizing the Wahhabi version of Islam to combat the Shiite clerical ascendancy in Iran, and funded extremist Sunni fundamentalist groups worldwide to rally what the late political scientist Eqbal Ahmad termed a "Jihad International" to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Malise Ruthven, in his book "A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America," suggests that Saudi Arabia is the leading exporter not only of petroleum products but also of fundamentalist Islam. He argues that the Saudis are able to proselytize effectively not just because of their oil wealth but also because of their role as "Custodians of the Two Sanctuaries" (Mecca and Medina), which conveys upon them religious legitimacy. Wahhabism today is disseminated by organizations such as the World Muslim League, which was established by the late Saudi Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, among the most reactionary Islamic clerics in the last century. One of Bin Baz's more memorable rulings concerned the permissibility of women to wear brassieres (yes, provided there was no attempt at deception). Bin Baz also lent his moral authority and support to the jihad in Afghanistan.

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