The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in the news for yet another of its barbaric practices. This time it is the story of a woman about to be executed on a charge of witchcraft. The court convicted her on the evidence of a man’s claim she had made him impotent and also that of a divorced woman who reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month the accused woman predicted. The woman, Fawza Falih, also made a forced confession which she later retracted. She told the court she was illiterate and did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint.
Human Rights Watch said the charges were absurd and had no basis in Saudi law. Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and “witchcraft” is not a defined crime. HRW have called on King Abdullah to halt the execution. They said judges never investigated whether her confession was voluntary or reliable nor did they investigate her allegations of torture. They also did not enquire whether she could have been responsible for the supernatural occurrences she supposedly did. Instead, the court judges sentenced her to death for the benefit of “public interest” and to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country.”
Of one thing there is no doubt and that is the creed, souls and property of Saudi Arabia need protection; but the danger does not come from witchcraft. The real problem with the oil-rich kingdom is the nefarious alliance between the ruling House of Saud and its venomous court of Wahhabi scholars, the “uluma” that is a key part in Saudi decision making. Not only do the uluma rule on the law, they are also responsible for spreading a toxic brand of intolerant Islam that is spreading across the world. Funded by the world’s largest oil reserves, it is an alliance that has directly led to the rise of Al Qaeda and 9/11 and is responsible for sponsoring an education of hatred in Saudi-funded madrassas in the Third World and beyond.
The story of this alliance and its terrible consequences for the world is brilliantly told in Dore Gold’s “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia supports the new global terrorism” (2003). Gold is a partisan: He is an Israeli and the president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN between 1997 and 1999. But he is also superbly knowledgeable about Greater Middle East affairs. He was a diplomatic envoy to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States and the Palestinian Authority. He also has a PhD in International relations and Middle Eastern studies and is a world-renowned expert on Saudi Arabia.
Gold's thesis in Hatred’s Kingdom is America has grossly overlooked Saudi Arabia’s role in the promotion of international terrorism. In fact, says Gold, Saudi is responsible for Middle-Eastern inspired terror. The cause is its dominant religious creed: Wahhabism, which regards all non Wahhabists (not just non-Muslims) as “mushrikun” (polytheists), or idolaters. According to Saudi religious textbooks, mushrikun have no rights to live and it is permissible to “demolish, burn or destroy” the bastions of these infidels. Gold says the Wahhabists who preach this dangerous nonsense are not extremist “Saudi versions of the Ku Klux Klan”, but are instead the product of Saudi mainstream society and culture and are sponsored by the government.
The founder of Wahhabism was Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab who was born around the start of the 18th century in a village in east central Arabia. His father was a qadi (a religious judge) and he instilled a love of learning of Islamic law in his son. Wahhab travelled to Medina where he learned the Hanbali Islamic tradition and later moved to Baghdad and Damascus where he learned the ways of the Shiites and the Sufi. He became an exponent of mystical Sufism but later abandoned it. On his return to his homeland, he announced that Islam had been corrupted by foreign influences. In his Book of Tawhid, he expounded on his view of Islam which was a rejected of all Gods except Allah. He also denounced the veneration of tombs as a Christian influence. In the name of strict monotheism, he launched a jihad against the mushrikun (polytheists).
Wahhab antagonised the local uluma (religious leadership) with his extremist ideas and was expelled from his home town. He sought refuge from the ruler of Riyadh Muhammad ibn Saud. Wahhab married Saud’s daughter and the two men launched an alliance that survives to this day. Saud would provide military protection for Wahhab while the latter would legitimise Saudi rule over local Bedouin tribes subjugated by jihad.
The Wahhabists were brutal to their enemies. If captured, they were offered the choice of conversion to Wahhabism or death. Unlike most Muslims, they gave no respite to the “people of the book” (Jews and Christians). Wahhab himself advocated an anti-Christian and Jewish agenda describing believers as “sorcerers who believed in devil worship”. Wahhabi writings elevated jihad to the “ultimate manifestation of Islam”. When ibn Saud died in 1765, the cause was taken up with relish by his son Abdul Aziz. Wahhab himself died in 1791 but the Saudi empire expanded in his memory. In 1802 an army of Wahhabists attacked the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala. There they massacred 4,000 Shiites and sacked the shrine of the tomb of Hussein, the martyred grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
The Saudis stormed Mecca in 1803 where again they attacked shrines including the chapel on Jebel Nur mountain where Muslim traditions says the angel Gabriel brought the Koran to Muhammad. Controlling the entire Arab peninsula they were now a serious threat to the Ottoman Empire. The empire fought back led by the Albanian born governor of Cairo Muhammad Ali who launched a series of raids across the Red Sea. French trained Egyptian forces retook the cities of Mecca and Medina and captured King Abdullah in 1818 to end the first Saudi reign.
But the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was to survive this setback. After the Egyptian army was forced to withdraw to bases in the 1840, the Saudis retook Riyadh with Wahhabism firmly seated at the centre of power. This second Saudi state was terminated in the late 1860s by an Ottoman Empire revived by the newly built Suez Canal. But this was a temporary respite for the Sick Man of Europe. Britain was starting to assert its influence on the region. They struck an alliance with a new Saudi leader. Abdul ibn Saud returned to power in Riyadh in 1903 with help from Lord Curzon’s naval flotilla in the Persian Gulf.
Ibn Saud co-opted his old family allies the Wahhabists and provided them with funds and religious instructors. In World War I, Britain took control of all of the old Ottoman Arab territories and established a relationship with Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite ruler of Mecca since 1908. The end of the war meant that the map would need to be redrawn to establish the border between Hussein’s and Saud’s kingdoms. Wahhabi armies terrorised its neighbours but were hemmed in by the airpower of the RAF.
When the new Turkish republic abolished the Ottoman caliphate, King Hussein proclaimed himself caliph. An enraged Saud declared a jihad against the Hashemites. The war was enthusiastically pursued by the Wahhabists who wanted to “purify” the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Hussein abdicated and his son Ali fled to Iraq in 1925. Seeing the changed landscape, Britain transferred the northern cities of Maan and Aqaba to Hashemite Transjordan. Saud returned in triumph to Mecca.
The greater Muslim world was appalled by the Saudi government of the Holy Cities. Indian Muslims called for an internationalisation of the Hijaz area and the Egyptians also voiced their disapproval. Ibn Saud succeeded in calm Muslim fears by declaring they had nothing to fear from Wahhabism. But quietly the movement was building up a new head of steam. In 1928 Muhammad Rida set up a new militant movement in Cairo called the Muslim Brotherhood. Rida espoused Wahhabi doctrines and was now about to export them overseas.
Back in Arabia, ibn Saud was suffering from the world’s Great Depression. With his country on the verge of bankruptcy he signed a deal in 1933 with Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) to grant them a huge oil concession in Eastern Arabia. They struck oil five years later and Saudi royalties grew fast as war demand grew. Saudi royalties went from $3 million in 1938 to $10 million in 1946. By 1952 that had increased to $212 million. The Wahhabi uluma were not happy about the “infidels” in their country but bought ibn Saud’s argument they were helping to extract the material resources “placed by Allah” underneath the land.
In return for their support, ibn Saud allowed the Wahhabis a monopoly over education and religious policies. After ibn Saud died in 1953, his weak second son, Saud became king. Saud terminated the US airbase in Dhahran and plunged his country’s finances into disarray. The uluma deposed him in 1964 in favour of his younger brother Faisal. Faisal’s mother was a direct descendent of the original Muhammad Wahhab and her father was a major Wahhabi scholar.
As a counterweight to the secular Arabism espoused by Egypt’s Nasser, Faisal turned to Islam. Arabia established the Muslim World League dedicated to the spread of the religion. The League became a mouthpiece for Saudi Arabia, run by Saudi government employees and was an effective promoter of Wahhabi Islam. At home, Faisal created new government ministries in 1970 and the Wahhabists won control of justice and education, including universities. The entire generation of Saudis born in the 1960s grew up on Wahhabi doctrines.
Faisal gave renewed powers to the mutawain (religious police). They scrutinised public behaviour, ensured men and women did not mingle, checked for suitable attire, and made sure people attended public prayers. Thanks to Faisal they were given back powers of arrest, which they had lost in the 1930s under ibn Saud. Meanwhile Saudi oil revenue was skyrocketing. They earned $22.6 billion in 1974 and funds were becoming available for the export of Wahhabism.
Riza’s Muslim Brotherhood had suffered under Nasser in Egypt and many members had fled to Saudi Arabia. There they became prominent scholars and were influential in the creation of the Islamic University of Medina. The Brothers had a great deal of affinity with the Wahhabists. The university was directly controlled by Wahhabi clerics and it quickly became a hotbed of Islamic militancy. Later 85 percent of the university’s students would be foreigners, making it a crucial tool for the export of Wahhabi ideas.
The university also imported Muslim brotherhood ideas especially from the hugely influential Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb spend some time in the US where he became extremely anti-American. He predicted a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West which Islam would win. Although executed by Nasser, Qutb’s call for a militant jihad was taken to Arabia by his brother Muhammad who taught Islamic studies in Jeddah. In the 1980s Saudi Arabia welcomed another Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri who had been jailed for a part in Sadat’s assassination. Later he would leave for Afghanistan where he became Al Qaeda’s second-in-command and chief ideologue.
A lesser known but equally important import was the Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and he joined Muhammad Qutb at Jeddah University. There Azzam and Qutb were both teachers of a young Saudi student named Osama Bin Laden. Azzam was instrumental in the resurgence of jihad as a central facet of Islamic fundamentalism and said it was “obligatory on all Muslims”. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was the trigger Azzam needed to preach jihad. He went to Pakistan where he ran the Muslim World League office as a terrorist front. This office would become a feeder for Bin Laden’s later network. Although successful in removing the Russians, he was killed in 1989 by a car bomb, probably planted by Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet intelligence services.
Azzam’s effective successor was his Saudi student Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was heavily influenced by his Wahhabi upbringing. He was immersed in officially sanctioned Saudi religious texts that labelled Christians as “polytheists” which effectively removed the protection they were owed as “people of the book”. This teaching also influenced Juhaiman al-Utaibi who attacked Mecca’s grand mosque in 1979 taking hundreds of hostages. He declared himself to be the “mahdi” (guided one). Al-Utaibi held a particularly pure strain of Wahhabism believing Muslims should not have any contact with the kufar (infidels) and called the Saudi regime corrupt. After two weeks, Saudi troops stormed the mosque and killed and executed the kidnappers.
However the rattled government began to take on al-Utaibi’s ideologies. Women were banned from appearing on television. Music disappeared from the media. Stores closed during daily prayers and the religious police were granted further prohibitive powers. Wahhabists were angered by the US build up in the region in response to the Iranian revolution and the Carter Doctrine. The Saudis supported the Iraqi Sunni Saddam Hussein in his war against the hated Shiite Iranian leadership. Meanwhile they poured $4 billion towards the Afghan mujahideen via Azzam’s Peshawar office. After Azzam was killed, Bin Laden evolved the movement into Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was dedicated to the task of spreading Wahhabism in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban militia who had similar radical ideas about Islam. The Saudis were one of just three countries (Pakistan and UAE were the others) to recognise the Taliban rule of Afghanistan.
But the biggest impact to the homeland was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Overnight, Saudi Arabia’s 1980s ally was now its primary enemy. King Fahd (who inherited the throne after Faisal’s assassination by his nephew in 1975) consulted the uluma and reluctantly allowed an American force into the country. After the 1991 Gulf War thousands of US troops roamed the country even setting up their own radio station which could be picked up across the kingdom. Their presence fed a huge sense of anti-Americanism. The uluma began to tell Fahd the real enemy was not Iraq – but the west. In 1994 Fahd denied Bill Clinton’s request to agree to host a US armoured brigade.
Bin Laden meanwhile had moved to Sudan on the invite of local Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi. There he established contacts with Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas and Algeria’s Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). Bin Laden sent forces to oppose the US in Somalia and an affiliated group bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. He also attacked King Fahd as not sufficiently Wahhabi. But he was not in favour of the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. He supported Crown Prince Abdullah who succeeded Fahd in 1995. Abdullah was noticeably less pro-Western. In 1998 Bin Laden called for a jihad “against Jews and Crusaders” and lambasted the American “occupation” of the lands of Islam’s holiest places. He was supported within Saudi Arabia by mosque sermons which were full of anti-Jewish themes. The Clinton administration put pressure on Sudan to extradite Bin Laden but Saudi Arabia refused to take him. He was expelled to Afghanistan instead in 1996.
In 1998 Al Qaeda struck the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing 240 people. Two years later they bombed the USS Cole in port in Yemen. Saudi citizens and money were responsible for all three attacks. On 11 September 2001, 15 Saudi citizens and four others hijacked four airplanes attacking the Pentagon and destroying the World Trade Center at the second attempt. Saudi Arabia denied all involvement. Yet within days of the attack, Saudi Sheik Hamud al-Shuaibi issued a fatwa announcing “whoever supports the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel”.
The Saudis had a deep PR problem and they paid US advertising company Burston-Marsteller $2.7 million to place ads in American media depicting Saudi Arabia as a staunch ally. They paid retainers to Congress insiders and paid Patton Boggs to educate congressmen and their staff on issues of concern to the kingdom. Back home however, a confidential poll of Saudi men found 95 percent approval of Bin Laden’s cause. Meanwhile, the religious police showed their contempt for human values when in 2002 they prevented Saudi firemen from rescuing 15 girls caught in a school fire in Mecca because they were not wearing their headscarves.
Though Abdullah took responsibility for girl’s education away from the Wahhabists in response to the Mecca fire, he cannot afford to unduly rock the boat. The uluma’s power remains strong. Wahhabi hatred remains at the core of Saudi society. Through the Muslim World League and the sponsorship of madrassas and Islamic universities they have taken this peculiarly Arabic version of Islam across the globe. Oil money has spread what Bernard Lewis called “this fanatical, destructive form of Islam” all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil, they would have remained a lunatic fringe. Instead they are a serious world power dedicated to hatred. And a poor illiterate witch pays the same price for this hatred as the Western mushrikun.