The “peace plan” of Crown Prince Abdullah has put the Saudi Kingdom at the center of Middle Eastern diplomacy, as well as at the center of media attention. Misconceptions about Saudi Arabia, which are rampant, need to be dispelled in order for the U.S. to adopt policies which will be in the interests of the free world.
Saudi Arabia is commonly thought to be an ancient kingdom with a homogeneous people. But, in fact, the kingdom is less than 80 years old, the result of the British-supported conquests of Abdul Assiz ibn Saud, a magnificent feudal potentate and shrewd diplomat who conquered most of the Arabian peninsula and created the country that now belongs to the Al Saud family—which has been able to keep its power over the diverse peoples of the peninsula because of the oceans of oil discovered under the conquered territory.
Ibn Saud, whose family is from the central desert province of Najd, put the country together during a reign of over 50 years by modern methods of money and force combined with the traditional technique of cementing relations with leading tribes and clans by taking more than 20 wives. One result is that he had 44 sons and literally countless daughters (because no one there counts daughters). Thirty-five of the sons were alive when Ibn Saud died in 1953. Since then, four of them have become king, and the royal family has grown to an estimated 6,000 consumers of the national wealth.
Before its conquest by Ibn Saud, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (EP), which lies along the shore of the Arabian Gulf and which contains all of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, was populated mostly by two groups of Shiite Muslims who were quite different culturally and religiously from their Najdi conquerors. One group was Bedouins and settled date-growers and farmers living around two groups of oases. The other was pearlers, fishermen, and traders living in coastal villages along the Gulf.
Since the vast recent expansion of the oil industry, the population of the EP has multiplied, partly from natural growth of the original local population, but also by migration from other parts of Saudi Arabia and a much larger immigration of foreign Arabs and other Muslims and some professionals and managers from Europe and the U.S., all of whom are excluded from citizenship.
Appreciating the predicament of the people of the EP requires some information about the official religion of Saudi Arabia. It is unofficially known as Wahhabism—which is conventionally described as a form of Hanbali Islam—begun by the Najd preacher Mohammed bin Abdul-Wahhab in 1745, who spread his faith by partnership with the local Najd warlord, who became the founder of the Al Saud dynasty. (Some Muslims resentfully say that calling Wahhabism a school of Islam is like calling the Branch Davidians of Waco a school of Christianity.) Wahhabism is an austere desert belief, based more on fanatic intensity than scholarly roots in Islamic writings and teaching. In addition to objecting to any memorials to the dead, and any freedom for women, it holds that most Muslims who are not Wahhabis are “polytheists” who should be treated like infidels, and killed if they refuse to convert to Wahhabism. They specifically deny that Shia Muslims are true Muslims and therefore insist that they have no rights in Saudi Arabia, even in areas where they had been living for many centuries before Saudi Arabia existed. (A newly published book, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, by Berkeley Professor Hamid Algar calls Wahhabism “a peculiar interpretation of Islamic doctrine” that was “stigmatized as aberrant by the leading Sunni scholars” since it was first put forth.)
Wahhabi clerics have established an official religious police force that walks the streets of the EP with whips to lash women whose skirts or sleeves are not long enough or who are with a man other than a family member. They stop couples to demand identification proving that the woman is under “proper” supervision.
For many years the Wahhabi religious persecution of minorities, the Najdi exclusion of other clans from participation in government, and the vast spending on palaces and decadence by the thousands of descendants of ibn Saud have been treated as quaint customs of a country with which it is good business to maintain good relations. But in recent years, Wahhabi actions have taken on a more dangerous cast.
Since Saudi oil wealth exploded in the early 1980s, Wahhabi organizations have been given more and more money to spread the Wahhabi message of anti-American and anti-Western hatred around the world. Recently they have been spending well over a billion dollars a year converting young Muslims from Indonesia to America to their intolerant brand of violent zealotry. And in most of the world it doesn’t take much money to get a lot of attention. Even in the U.S. the Saudis have spent enough to buy control of the majority of the mosques and schools, many of which they built.
If the militant strain of Islam, with its belief in the duty of spreading the faith by attacking the U.S., because it is the leader of the world of non-believers, continues spreading, the U.S., and later Europe, will have no way of preventing a campaign of terrorist attacks that will make September 11 only a prelude. If terrorists have a safe harbor in the Middle East and in the giant Muslim countries of Asia, there is no way that the U.S. can protect itself from terror attacks, which even without weapons of mass destruction can kill 10,000 Americans a year. And there is no reason to believe that the terrorists would not use biological, and eventually nuclear weapons. Millions of Americans could die if the present opportunity to stop the spread of militant Islam is not taken.
There are two views about the basic approach to minimizing the influence of militant Islam: One view—found in the State Department and CIA and in Middle Eastern Studies departments of universities—holds that to prevent militant Islam from becoming stronger, Americans need to understand their responsibility for the root causes of Muslim antagonism and to make concessions to the needs and concerns of Muslim governments.
The other view—which is held by some of the most profound students of Islam and the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Fouad Ajami, and Kenan Makiya, as well as the political leadership of the Defense Department—is that only the determined exercise of American power will prevent the growth of Muslim support for militant Islam.
Fortunately for those who find it difficult to decide between the two approaches, we have recently had a powerful demonstration that the second view is correct. The sight of Americans dying and running in fear on September 11 produced an immense upwelling of support for militant Islam all over the Muslim world. While there were contrary voices, moderate and realistic Muslims were on the defensive when the U.S. seemed as if it might be beatable. The tide of support for militant Islam ebbed only when the U.S. quickly defeated the Taliban in a fearsome display of military power and of the will to use it despite warnings by Muslim leaders and hand-wringing concern throughout the West.
When President Bush displays the strength he will need to resist the immense pressures against attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime—which will disintegrate even faster than that of the Taliban—a much bigger step will have been taken in the effort to head off militant Islam before it is too late. Removing Saddam Hussein will make the other necessary steps infinitely easier—which is why Arab dictators are so desperate to escalate the conflict in Israel, to divert the U.S. from removing Saddam and beginning a process that threatens their control.
One essential measure will be to stop the flow of Wahhabi money from Saudi Arabia. The great vulnerability of the Saudi regime that could make it possible for the U.S. to stop this flow is that the Wahhabis are only a small minority of the population of the EP of Saudi Arabia, from where all their money comes.
It is well within the power of the U.S. to make it possible for the EP to become independent from the Wahhabis, a new Muslim Republic of East Arabia. Especially if the independence of the people of the EP were gained in part by a promise to give half of the oil revenue to non-political Muslim charities throughout the world, instead of to the al Saud family, there would be no objection among Muslims around the world to ending the al Saud family’s obscene wealth and to relieve themselves of the Wahhabi preaching to their children that all other Muslims are infidels. The U.S. would neither seek nor gain control of oil policy or any oil profits. Its help to Muslims in the EP, like its help to Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, would be a result of U.S. resistance to oppression and pursuit of a safer world.
This article originally appeared in the New York Sun on April 26, 2002, and was reprinted in the Jerusalem Post on May 9, 2002. It is reprinted here with permission.