Wahhabi religious nationalism turns ugly

Wahhabi Islam has replaced national identity with a doctrine that encourages intolerance and terrorism, explains Madawi Al-Rasheed.

[This article was originally posted at Politico.eu and is republished here with their permission.]


The contemporary wave of terrorism sweeping the world has its ideological roots in the revival of a militarized religious nationalism with Saudi Arabia at its heart. Unbounded by territory, it combines religion and politics to create a “pure” and godly community and brings together fragmented and culturally different people whose only common bond is Islam.

In the Arab world, religious nationalism was invented early in the 20th century in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom whose goal was to unite dispersed people and purify their religious beliefs and practices under the leadership of the Al-Saud. This unification took place as a result of a fringe Islamic revivalist tradition, commonly known as Wahhabiyya, which morphed into a military religious nationalist movement. With time, the project went beyond simple piety: Sharia law and conformity to Islamic teachings were rigorously applied. Under state patronage, this Wahhabiyya was turned into a quasi-nationalist project. Its ideology has proliferated and now inspires Muslims across the globe, fueled by petrodollars and globalization.

Early in the 20th century, an all-encompassing Wahhabi religious nationalism inflamed the imagination of a substantial section of the population of Arabia. It provided the ideological tool to band together to achieve independence from an ailing Ottoman empire that had little control over this peripheral region of its realm. With a political leadership eager to expand throughout Arabia and to assert its control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Al-Saud militarized the fragmented tribal population, united them under an Islamic flag and mobilized them to wage war against all those who refused their homogenizing theology and radical Wahhabi message.

From the heart of Arabia they spread across the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. They created a state that has remained hostage to the Wahhabi agenda, bigoted interpretations of religious texts, and violent strategies whose aim is to control the behaviour of Muslims and non-Muslims in its jurisdictions.

With the consolidation of the state, the various Saudi kings who have ruled since 1932 had to tame the beast they created. They had to convince the vanguards of this militarized religious nationalism to respect borders, not harass pilgrims to the two holy cities under their domination, and allow Al-Saud full control of foreign relations.

In its efforts to institutionalize this unruly Wahhabi religious nationalism, the state was forced to make concessions: It merged the armed vanguards that had unified Arabia in the state’s nascent military institutions, and granted the movement’s ideologues full control of domestic social and religious affairs, especially education and the judiciary.

Wahhabi religious nationalism was essentially detached from local cultures, and as such had little respect for international borders or the idiosyncrasies of local folkloric Islam. It sought to spread its hegemony wherever it could, and to gain spiritual reward for bringing Muslims back to the right path — as defined by their theologians. The Wahhabis thus aspired to eradicate difference, diversity and pluralism not just inside Arabia but beyond its frontiers. The latter project could only take place once they controlled Arabia’s oil wealth.



This religious nationalism was ironically both universal and local. Its universalism was rooted in its quest to spread among the global Muslim ummah (or community). But this universalism was tainted by sectarianism, and thus excluded those Muslims who did not share their theology, both Sunnis and Shiites, not to mention other fringe sects within the vast world of Islam.

The first wave of the militarized religious nationalism — dubbed as jihad against unbelievers during the first three decades of the 20th century — consolidated within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia. This was supposed to make jihad turn inward, to launch local religious purification programs to eradicate blasphemy, heterodoxy and other social and religious behaviour that deviated from their norms.

But vigorous proselytizing in the local context was not enough to please the Wahhabist vanguard. They sought a global role, which was granted to them by the Saudi leadership as it struggled to establish its legitimacy both inside the country and abroad.

They had to pledge to correct Muslim beliefs and practices everywhere, using their newly acquired petrodollars to globalize their movement. Religious education, mosques, and religious centres had to be established around the world to ensure Muslims would be brought back to “authentic” Islam. From the 1960s onward, Wahhabi religious nationalism went global.

With the Cold War, Western governments, especially the United States, mistakenly considered the Wahhabis an antidote to leftists and secular nationalist revolutionary movements. Together with its Saudi ally, the U.S. unleashed Wahhabi religious nationalism on the world, especially in the hotspots of Afghanistan and beyond.

Preaching was not enough: The vanguards had to carry arms, mixing their proselytizing with an armed struggle to defend Muslims from occupiers and transgressors. These short-sighted policies resulted in a global jihadi movement, intellectually associated with the original Saudi-Wahhabi nationalism of a bygone era.

Today, the discourse, symbols, strategies and iconography of this old Wahhabi ideology are inspiring pious and not-so-pious Muslims across the globe. The message is known for its zeal and promise of empowerment, both of which are associated with the fraternity of a recently acquired religious identity, separate from local culture or tradition. The originators of this wave watch and applaud the spread of their teachings from their comfort zone in Riyadh.

This religious group believes in the eradication of cultural and religious difference, in sectarianism, gender discrimination, and the destruction of archaeological and cultural artefacts. It preaches hatred against a whole range of groups.

* * *

Their reading of religious texts is literal and ahistorical: They imagine the past as a glorious episode to which all Muslims should return. In their relations with non-Muslims, they focus on historical atrocities committed against Muslims and seek revenge. For many Saudis, the recent attacks in Paris prompted a process of remembrance of historical atrocities committed by the French in Algeria. Images of Algerian martyrs were widely shared on social media — as if this attack could be considered a response to the horrors of the Algerian war of independence. The attack on the Russian civilian plane in October was also labelled as an act of revenge, retaliation for Russian atrocities committed against Muslims in Afghanistan, Chechnya and, more recently, Syria.

Those who have experienced the ugly side of globalization — permanent exile, uprootedness, anomie, and disempowerment — are most susceptible to the identity that religious nationalism promises. You can be rich or poor, educated or ignorant, settled or immigrant. It doesn’t matter.

This is an ideology based on a false sense of history, victimhood and revenge. Its quasi-universalism, clear lines between good and evil, insiders and outsiders, and fixed gender roles are appealing in a world where fluid identities are celebrated. With no real alternative, and given the world’s increasing connectedness, it is likely to keep attracting zealous followers.

The zeal of religious nationalism turns ugly when it moves from the mosque to the military. And even uglier when it becomes the religion of the state. Whether in Saudi Arabia or in the nascent so-called Islamic State, where religious nationalism holds people together by the power of the sword, it is difficult to imagine an alternative way of being Muslim.

In Saudi Arabia, the airstrikes on Yemen launched in March proved a shrewd move for the government: They sparked the imagination of many Saudis who saw them through the prism of their old Wahhabi tradition as countering the hegemony of a rival Shiite power, namely Iran and its alleged Zaydi Houthi clients. The Saudi leadership could not simply watch a rival power such as the Islamic State take all the credit for eradicating heretics. Both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State came into being as a result of the same type of ideology. Their interests may clash but they share a common goal.

Unless religious nationalism is replaced by new identities about being citizens in a bounded nation in which people enjoy equality and rights, we will continue to see a repeat of the terrorist atrocities committed in the name of Islam.

Dr Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious trans-nationalism and gender. She is a columnist for Al-Monitor. Her latest book, Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia, was published by Hurst in October 2015.

On Twitter: @MadawiDr

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