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SLUG: 7-37744 DATELINE: Wahhabi Islam and Saudi Arabia
DATE:
NOTE NUMBER:

DATE=AUGUST 13, 2003

TYPE=DATELINE

TITLE=WAHHABI ISLAM AND SAUDI ARABIA

NUMBER=7-37744

BYLINE=JUDITH LATHAM

TELEPHONE=202-619-3454

DATELINE=WASHINGTON

EDITOR=CAROL CASTIEL

CONTENT=

DISK: DATELINE THEME [PLAYED IN STUDIO, FADED UNDER DATELINE HOST VOICE OR PROGRAMMING MATERIAL]

HOST: Since the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, people have been asking what connection there might have been between the al-Qaida terrorist network and Osama bin Laden's country of origin, Saudi Arabia. And beyond that, what links might there be between the philosophy of al-Qaida and the conservative form of Wahhabi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. In today's Dateline, the first of a series of programs that explores a possible Saudi connection, scholars examine the extremely complex relationship between religion and politics. Here's Judith Latham.

JL: John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, says Wahhabi Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century as a reform movement within Sunni Islam.

TAPE: CUT #1: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, who was a religious leader and reformer, joined with a local tribal chieftain, a member of the House of Saud, and they began a movement a 'religio-political' movement. The reform movement had its ups and downs over the years. But eventually their descendants became responsible for what we today call Saudi Arabia. When you look at what today is referred to as the Wahhabi movement, it's important to keep in mind that the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is a very conservative some might call it an ultra-orthodox or fundamentalist form of Islam, as compared with some other liberal forms of Islam."

JL: Professor Esposito says that one of the problems people have in understanding the role of Wahhabi Islam today is that the term itself tends to be used in a "very broad, indiscriminate manner."

TAPE: CUT #2: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"So it will be used to refer to mainstream expressions of Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as militant forms of Islam that have come out of Saudi Arabia. For example, Central Asian governments have taken to referring to any movement for reform whether influenced by Saudi Arabia or not as simply 'Wahhabi movements.' It's almost equated with Osama and radicalism and global terrorism. So it's a term that has many meanings. It can be very confusing in terms of trying to get a handle on it."

JL: Wahhabi Islam is viewed today as anti-Western and anti-modernist, but Professor Esposito says Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab was concerned with the purification of Islam.

TAPE: CUT #3: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"The movement of ibn Abdul Wahhab within Saudi Arabia was not responding to the threat of European colonialism or the West. For ibn Abdul Wahhab, the threat to Islam was coming from other Muslims who had adopted local practices. And what he basically said was that the Islam of his day needed to be purified, and the best way to do that was to go back and start with what the Qur'an had to say and what the Prophet had to say. It is sometimes referred to as a 'fundamentalist' movement meaning going back to the fundamentals."

JL: According to Wahhabi Islam, says Professor Esposito, Islamic society requires the implementation of shari'a law.

TAPE: CUT #4: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"But some of what has come to be preached by more conservative religious leaders in Saudi Arabia in recent decades is out of tune with what ibn Abdul Wahhab himself actually taught. One has to realize that his interpretation of the shari'a would have been conditioned by the fact that he was living in the 18th century. And he was responding to those realities, as opposed to the 20th or 21st.

JL: Graham Fuller, a former high-ranking official in the C-I-A, and author of The Politics of Islam, says Wahhabi Islam is associated with the most conservative of the four major schools of law in Islam. And, he says, it has little tolerance for those who do not share its theological vision.

TAPE: CUT #5: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"Not only are Shi'ites seen as absolute heretics within Islam but other schools of Islam are also viewed with great disapproval and have been crushed in Saudi Arabia as alternate forms of jurisprudence that are widely accepted in other parts of the Muslim world."

JL: Another aspect of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Fuller says, is the seclusion and veiling of women. However, he says, it's hard to determine how much of

this practice can be attributed to conservative Islam and how much of it reflects the culture of the pre-Islamic Arabian peninsula.

A distinguishing characteristic of Wahhabi Islam is its close connection with the Saudi royal house, which began in the 18th century. But, Mr. Fuller describes the relationship today between the Muslim clerics and the Saudi royal family and its 24,000 members as one of "tension."

TAPE: CUT #6: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"The ultra-orthodox members among the Wahhabi groups criticize the royal family for what they see as lax moral standards. Members of the royal family are always going off to Europe and are known to lead very luxurious lives while they are there. Some would argue immoral lives. There is a struggle that is going on between the two groups, but the family still needs the clergy for reasons of legitimacy to the family's own rule."

JL: Wahhabi Islam now has influence far beyond the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Fuller says, the Saudis have lavished their financial resources on other Muslim countries, especially poor ones, providing social services, schools, mosques, and hospitals.

TAPE: CUT #7: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"As a result the mosques that have been funded by the Saudis preach the same very narrow and intolerant view that can very quickly lead to exploitation by 'jihad-ist' groups or even terrorists. But that has not been the intent of the Saudi government."

JL: For years the Saudi Government has engaged in what westerners called "checkbook diplomacy" according to Mr. Fuller.

TAPE: CUT #8: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"Saudis have over the years given money to radical organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, mainly to keep the P-L-O off its own back. The Saudis have felt that, if they don't fund some of these more radical Islamic organizations overseas and win their support, then other countries that are hostile to the Kingdom maybe Iran or Iraq would support these same movements, and they would turn against Saudi Arabia. We all know that in recent years this policy has not been successful, and groups like bin Laden have actually turned against the Kingdom in very dangerous ways. So we now see the failure of much of this 'checkbook diplomacy.'"

JL: But, Graham Fuller says that, despite the literal way that the Qur'an has been interpreted in Saudi Arabia, there was no "tradition of violence" practiced within the Kingdom.

TAPE: CUT #9: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"In other words, the whole business of training people in jihad and the use of terrorism within the country has not been present until very recently."

JL: But today analysts disagree about the degree to which al-Qaida is a logical extension of Wahhabi Islam. I asked John Esposito of Georgetown University how he views that controversy.

TAPE: CUT #10: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"That gets very tricky. Clearly, Osama bin Laden and the majority of the September 11th hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. And the form of Islam that they would have been exposed to would have been Wahhabi Islam. I would argue that Wahhabi Islam within the Kingdom, while it might be 'exclusive-ist' and very narrow-minded as indeed radical elements of the Christian Right can be very 'exclusive-ist' and intolerant of other believers and beliefs. It normally does not advocate violence or militancy. But the theology of 'exclusive-ism' can easily become a theology of hate. And that is what I think Osama bin Laden and those Saudis who were involved in 9/ll moved to. When you look at 'exclusive-ist' theologies in any religion, they are usually people who see the world in terms of 'I'm right, and therefore you're wrong.' Militants take an 'exclusive-ist' theology and draw the conclusion that they have an obligation to act in God's name. And then they move into their acts of violence and terrorism. And that's what we see in this kind of distortion, if you will, of faith."

JL: Professor Esposito goes on to say that it has never been in the interest of the House of Saud to actively promote violence and extremism.

TAPE: CUT #11: ESPOSITO [FM LATHAM]

"It has had its problems over the years with extremists within the Kingdom attempting to bring down the government."

JL: Graham Fuller says there is nothing "inherent" in Wahhabi Islam that leads to terrorism or attacks against authority.

TAPE: CUT #12: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"Indeed, the theological version of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia would abhor attacks against authority and would specifically support Islamic teachings that say that it's better to suffer bad governance than it is to suffer chaos and anarchy."

JL: Nonetheless, in the case of al-Qaida, there is a link between Wahhabi Islam and anti-Western attitudes, Mr. Fuller believes.

TAPE: CUT #13: FULLER [FM LATHAM]

"Certainly, the Saudi funding of mosques and overseas movements, including bin Laden in the very early days, has had a very important role."

JL: For example, Graham Fuller says, the mujahideen movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 was partly fueled by rich Saudis, including Osama bin Laden. And, terrorist groups like al-Qaida drew upon those very fighters who shared a narrow, rigid interpretation of Islam.

TAPE: CUT #13: MUSIC [SOMBER] Establish 5 seconds, fade under, and bring up after sign-off.

JL: The precise linkage between Wahhabi Islam, as practiced in Saudi Arabia, and terrorism, is a subject of controversy among Islamic scholars and regional experts. But, most analysts agree that intolerant and exclusive religious beliefs can be easily transformed into hatred and violence.

For Dateline, I'm Judith Latham.



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