Moderating Wahhabi influence in kingdom

April 03, 2005|By Frank J. Mirkow

THE MIDDLE EAST, more than most regions in the world, is where you should be careful what you wish for.

The drumbeat of information linking Saudi Arabia to international terrorist groups, the 9/11 commission report and the memory of the terrorist attacks have resulted in frequent and adamant calls from Congress and the news media for the Saudi government to rid the kingdom of Wahhabism and its particularly extremist and virulent brand of Islam. The Bush administration should understand that asking the House of Saud to destroy Wahhabism is like asking it to destroy itself.

Wahhabism is a distinct strain in Sunni Islam that originated in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in the 18th century. It stresses the reform of Islam, personal austerity and a return to an Islam as practiced by the prophet Muhammad and his original followers.

The alliance between Wahhabism and the House of Saud is older than the modern state of Saudi Arabia. It dates to 1745, when Muhammad ibn Saud, the patriarch of the House of Saud, joined with the itinerant preacher Abdul Wahhab. When the House of Saud came to power in the early 20th century to form modern Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism came to power with it.

The House of Saud and Wahhabism formed a grand social and political compact, allocating power to each in its own sphere. Wahhabism gave the House of Saud legitimizing religious and ideological support. The House of Saud provided Wahhabism with nearly unfettered influence in religious, cultural and social policy.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that calls for the Saudis to crack down on Wahhabism have been met with pretense and inaction. A sincere effort by the Saudi government to eradicate the Wahhabist ideology would, in all likelihood, lead to the collapse of the House of Saud and a return to the kind of instability and tribal warfare that ravaged the Arabian Peninsula before the ascension of the House of Saud.

But these potential consequences should not be an excuse for inaction. The Wahhabist ideology imbedded in the Saudi government constitutes a threat to the stability of the region and U.S. strategic interests worldwide. U.S. policy should focus on developing bases for Saudi political legitimacy other than the imprimatur of Islamic puritanism. Such a policy would consist of a series of discrete, incremental steps, sustained over a period of years, leading to the development of alternative political institutions in Saudi Arabia. The recent restricted local elections were laudable, but much remains to be done.

One place to start would be the king's consultative council. Established in 1993, with no small amount of U.S. prodding, the council consists chiefly of tribal leaders and religious elders, all appointed by the king. The right combination of appointments to and "retirements" from the council would slowly wean this body from its dependence on the religious establishment. Such a step would be a far cry from even the limited experiments in parliamentary government under way in Kuwait and Oman, but would constitute a step in the right direction.

Second, key government ministries that long have been considered the exclusive domain of the Wahhabist establishment could be placed in the hands of technocrats. The Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and, perhaps most daringly, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da'wah and Guidance, could be assigned to individuals less closely identified with traditional Wahhabist circles.

Third, Islam's two holiest sites, the mosques in Mecca and Medina, could be entrusted to imams less closely associated with the most venomous of Wahhabist teachings. The imams of these two mosques carry enormous authority in the kingdom and throughout the Muslim world. A greater degree of circumspection in the selection of these imams would go a long way toward moderating the message that emanates from Islam's holiest sites.

Admittedly, these are small steps and fall far short of President Bush's soaring rhetoric about democracy and freedom as expressed in his second inaugural address. But those who advocate more dramatic and immediate change underestimate the historic and symbiotic interrelationship between the House of Saud and Wahhabism and the extent to which Wahhabism has provided a foundation of legitimacy for the House of Saud.

We might wish that the Saudi government would deliberately and swiftly eliminate its dependence on Wahhabism as a legitimizing ideology without tarrying to develop an alternative basis of legitimacy. We should be careful what we wish for.

Frank J. Mirkow, a Washington attorney, has lived and worked extensively in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

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