Wahhabis: Adherents to a strict form of Islam

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Wahhabis: Adherents to a strict form of Islam

By Neil MacFarquhar The New York Times


JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The faith that drives Osama bin Laden and his followers is a particularly austere and conservative brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, which was instrumental in creating the Saudi monarchy, and if sufficiently alienated, could tear it down. Throughout its history, the Wahhabis have fiercely opposed anything they viewed as bida, an Arabic word for any change or modernization that deviates from the fundamental teachings of the Koran.

The telephone, radio broadcasts and public education for women were at one point condemned as innovations wrought by the Devil. Riots ensued over the introduction of television in 1965. Similar tensions exist today. A recent ruling suggested the music played as mobile-phone rings should be outlawed on religious grounds.

Whenever the forces of change prevailed, it was usually with the argument that the novelty could help propagate the Koran. When that argument fell flat, change stalled. So, for example, there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia — they would promote the mingling of the sexes — and women are banned from driving.

But above all, the Wahhabis believe their faith should spread, not giving ground in any place they have conquered. Thus Saudi Arabia was a main financial backer of the Mujahedeen fighting to expel the godless communists from Muslim Afghanistan, and bin Laden became the public's poster boy for that cause.

The dream of creating an Islamic state along Wahhabi lines has also inspired fighters of the faith to join the cause of the Muslims who were threatened in Bosnia, and the sect was at the center of some of the boldest attacks by Chechen separatists in parts of southern Russia.

The ferocity with which the Wahhabis fight for their cause is legend. One Arab historian described followers of the sect, founded in the 18th century, as they engaged in battle: "I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies, utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank after rank with only one desire: the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men."

Today Wahhabis extol the Taliban's purist state as one that subscribes to their vision, and they would seek to replicate it.

"To the religious people, the extremists, the Taliban state is the ideal Islamic society," said a professor at King Abdel Aziz University, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In trying to balance U.S. demands that it join the fight against terrorism and the grassroots popularity of bin Laden and the Taliban, the Saudi government is walking a tightrope. It broke relations with the Taliban but has ruled out any role in attacking Afghanistan.

For the Saudi ruling family, the Wahhabis form a vital base of legitimacy, as well as an unpredictable threat. Since King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud unified the country in 1932, the royal dynasty has had to balance the demands of modernization and the intolerance of the Wahhabis, whose antecedents were vital to the battles that established the kingdom.

Many in the kingdom view Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703-87), the founder of the sect, as the co-founder of Saudi Arabia, and indeed the royal clan and the religious clan have long intermarried.

"As the princes wanted to expand, they needed the backing of the spiritual leaders," said a prominent Jidda lawyer. "The best form of alliance is marriage."

Al-Wahhab descendants continue to hold prominent positions. Being a descendant of the founder naturally does not automatically mean being a religious zealot. King Faisal, for example, who was a descendant on his mother's side, introduced schooling for girls and television.

While the Saudi rulers essentially owe their power to the Wahhabis, the followers of Wahhabism have long been a fickle source of support, fiercely loyal as long as the royals followed Wahhabi ways, ready to turn when they did not.

"They believe that Islam is a total system, that it has an answer for every question," said Yahya Sadowski, a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut. "They believe there is a kind of blueprint that you can write out. It is all in the Koran."

Their Islam is an ascetic one. Men should wear short robes and even avoid the black cords used on headclothes. Mosques should be without decoration. There should be no public holidays other than religious ones, and even the prophet's birthday should not be celebrated. Alcohol is forbidden.

Punishment should be meted out as described in the Koran. The right hand should be amputated for theft. Adulterers should be stoned to death. Murder and sexual deviation merit beheading. To this day Saudi Arabia metes out these punishments, especially beheading for capital crimes.

No one can put a number on those who support Wahhabism. Estimates range from 10 percent of the population to more than two-thirds. At least 10 of the hijackers who carried out the attacks in the United States came from Saudi Arabia.

Adherents make no apologies for their beliefs.

For bin Laden, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and enjoys significant support in the kingdom, even Saudi Arabia's extremely conservative society and government — where the Koran is proclaimed the constitution and all law must conform to Islamic law, or Sharia — are not pure enough.

He abhors the alliance of the ruling family with the West, their dependence underscored by the hundreds of thousands of American and other foreign troops who flowed into the kingdom to defend it during the Gulf War. And he is committed to the overthrowing of the Saudi regime.

While the Saudi government has deemed overt donations to bin Laden's cause to be illegal, he receives support, both popularly and through donations.

But just as the Christian world often found the Puritans intolerable in their strict adherence to the Scriptures, so the rest of the Islamic world does not always welcome the Wahhabis' joyless interpretation of faith.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 07, 2001


Hyperlink: http://www.debka.com

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), October 08, 2001.

Hyperlink: http://www.debka.com

Bin Laden Upsets Three Applecarts 8 October:

Two hours into the very limited US preliminary assault in Afghanistan, its prime target the ex-Saudi Islamic fundamentalist terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, appeared in a canned videotape broadcast of Arab TV. He was got up in fundamentalist Islamic folk hero gear – an Afghan turban and battle fatigues - and filmed against a stony, rough wilderness background. By his side were his chief operations deputy, the Egyptian Jihad Islami leader Ayman al-Zuheiri and an aide.

The US-UK offensive in Afghanistan was launched on a very limited scale with no more than 15 B-1 and B-2 bombers and 50 cruise missiles striking at obsolete Afghan radar stations and air defense systems and empty Al Qaeda training facilities. Four towns, Kabul, Kahandar, Jalalabad and Heart were struck. There were few if any casualties because the Taliban leaders like Osama Bin Laden and his men took refuge in the inaccessible Afghan mountains in good time. The ground operation coming next will have no more military value than the opening shots – even if forces of the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance, with the help of US, British and German commando units, reach Kabul, because the US-led offensive has not begun to tackle the formidable problem posed by the Taliban and Bin Laden’s mountain fortresses in the Jalalabad region, Hindu Kush and Little Pamir. President George W. Bush warned that the war would be long and broadly based – not just in Afghanistan. Bin Laden said he had been preparing for it for many years.

Both were saying the same thing in different ways. America made the first move; the fundamentalist terrorist will strike back, promising to make sure that no American feels safe until he is the victor. He makes no bones about treating American and Israel targets the world over as fair game.

Bin Laden began his address with fulsome praise if the attacks in America - without admitting responsibility for them. Then, in a few words, he put to naught the strenuous US diplomatic efforts to leave Israel on the sidelines so as to tempt the Arab world into America’s coalition alliance against terror. Israel played along with these efforts, providing the United State with intelligence, but declaring it was not involved. President Bush gave prime minister Ariel Sharon less than one-hour’s notice that the offensive was due to begin. But no sooner did President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, decree that Israel was firmly outside the anti-terrorist coalition, than Bin Laden declared that the objectives of his war included Israel disappearing and the Palestinian people and the Aqsa Mosque being saved from the non- believers. Underscoring the strong US-Israel link, he declared: “America has announced its total support of the Zionist entity - a stupid policy.” He went on to vow: “America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine.” The objectives Bin Laden set himself were clearly laid out: The war on “the infidels” would go on and no American could dream of security before “we have it in Palestine” and “all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad”.

DEBKAfile’s experts on terror advise Israeli authorities to treat Bin Laden’s threats seriously and prepare for the onset of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. The assertion by President George W. Bush minutes into the assault on Afghanistan that the war was not against Islam but the terrorism practiced by Moslem extremists, brought forth this response: ”The war against Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden is a war on Islam.”

In Islamic terms, he disposed neatly of Yasser Arafat’s yearlong attempt to turn his confrontation against Israel into a holy war and to crown himself the defender of Al Aqsa. To this end, Arafat was ready to enlist the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and the extremists Jihad Islami and Hamas, turning his security organs into the operational arms of these militant groups. Bin Laden easily cut the Palestinian leader and his intifada down to size as no US president or Israeli prime minister has ever done. He referred to him as “debauched” “a follower of injustice” and deserving the “wrath of God”. With one hand Bin Laden hallowed Arafat’s Jihad; with the other, he pronounced him unfit to lead it, placing himself at the forefront of the holy war.

DEBKAfile’s Palestinian sources report that Arafat hurried over to Cairo to confer with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the embarrassing situation in which the Palestinians and most Arab rulers find themselves. Bin Laden’s contempt for those rulers is manifest and deeply feared as capable of generating popular unrest in their capitals. The meeting of Islamic and Arab foreign ministers opening in Doha, Qater Tuesday, October 9, will be hard pressed to take a stand on the conflict and formulate an attitude on the Bin Laden issue.

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-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), October 08, 2001.

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