Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

In bed, but not in good faith

Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Robert Baer, Crown: 226 pp., $24.95

August 10, 2003|Stephen Schwartz | Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam" and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

Saudi Arabia and its ultraextreme Wahhabi sect of Islam have come to the forefront of the American consciousness, especially after last month's release of a congressional report on the atrocities of Sept. 11 from which some 28 pages of material, which everybody assumes have to do with the Saudi kingdom, were "redacted," or blacked out. Nobody can predict how disclosure of Saudi involvement in the horrors at the World Trade Center will finally affect the U.S.-Saudi partnership, but it is likely that the long period of "sleeping with the devil," in Robert Baer's phrase, has come to an end.

The warnings of Islamic scholars and European travelers about the dangers of Wahhabism were ignored for generations, especially after oil made the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance a valuable partner of the Western powers. That is the story Baer tells in "Sleeping With the Devil." The broadening of interest in the problem has led, inevitably, to a coarsening of commentary upon it that one must expect from an audience that wants a faster and easier way into the controversy and not a textbook treatment.

It was said of Prussia 200 years ago that, rather than a country that possessed an army, it was an army that possessed a country. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is less a state with an official religion, Wahhabism, than a sect with a state structure that protects and advances its interests. And, curiously, the ascent of Prussia coincided with the rise of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who founded his doctrine in the cultureless wasteland of Nejd in central Arabia. But though the Prussian state is only a historical memory today, the descendants of the rude preacher from Nejd still control the religious affairs of a state named for the clan that governs its political affairs, the house of Al Saud.

Until Sept. 11, analysis of this peculiar phenomenon in Islamic history was limited to a handful of specialists in the West and a mass of anti-Wahhabi polemicists in the Muslim world. Neither read much of the other's work. Thus, a recent history of Saudi Arabia by Russian historian Alexei Vassiliev, which has become a standard volume in English, includes the manifestly false claim that it is "difficult nowadays to find anti-Wahhabi writings." In reality, everything was always there for someone who knew where to look. But Wahhabism has been treated as a novel and even invented topic, while the debate over Wahhabism is anything but new among Muslims.

We have known for some time of the Wahhabi menace. In the early 19th century, a now-forgotten English writer, Thomas Hope, composed an extraordinary novel, "Anastasius, or, Memoirs of a Modern Greek" that was immensely successful in its time and was falsely ascribed to the pen of Lord Byron. Hope was a typical specimen of the wealthy traveler and aesthete of his age and had journeyed extensively in the Islamic world. The first 19th century seizure of Mecca by the Wahhabis and their clearance from Arabia by an Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, sounded across the globe. "Anastasius" includes an exceptionally detailed account of Wahhabism, chilling in its parallels with the phenomenon of Al Qaeda. Like its present-day acolytes, the Wahhabi movement of two centuries ago practiced assassination and other forms of terror, and it was commonly said that, "in the very midst of Baghdad, in the broad face of day, Wahhabis had been seen -- scarcely disguised -- taking note of the individuals and marking the houses, which their vengeance or their avarice had devoted to destruction." Similarly, William Brown Hodgson, a writer from Savannah, Ga., wrote of the Wahhabis in 1835 as "formidable enemies of the Muslim faith ... an heretical sect which for so many years had defied [the sultan's] authority, desecrated the holy places of the Prophet, and interrupted the annual pilgrimages."

A former CIA Middle East case officer and the author of a memoir, "See No Evil," Baer provides a hasty book that mixes memoir and superficial analysis, some of which is wrongheaded. His book, in fact, has more in common with Hope's 19th century novel than with a serious examination of the Saudi issue; the dunes rise high and the shadows grow long in the desert, where they are surrounded by cliches and macho posturing. The wham-bam idiom is typical of ex-CIA personnel, but in this case the effect is more slapdash than slam-dunk.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|