The Saudi Global Counterrevolution

The cross-fertilization of ideas between Wahhabism and other brands of Islamic fundamentalism began in the 1960s as part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy of strengthening Islamic identity as a bulwark against secular Arab nationalism.

Thus bonds that had been forged to stop Nasser and the other Arab nationalists could be mobilized to thwart Khomeini. Far from lacking religious legitimacy, Saudi Arabia in fact had impressive ideational and organizational resources at its disposal. To counter Shia fundamentalism, the House of Saud could mobilize Sunni fundamentalism. In fact, the Saudi regime saw an opportunity in containing Shia resurgence to turn the sharp edge of the rising religious extremism inside the kingdom—which manifested itself not only in the seizure of the Grand Mosque but in the growing number of Saudi youth trekking to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviets—away from the ruling regime and toward defending Sunni power.

The implications of the Saudi-Iranian—or Sunni-Shia—divide for Muslim-world politics became clear in 1982, when the Alawi regime of Hafez al-Asad in Syria crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama, killings tens of thousands. Iran had built an alliance with Syria around the two countries’ opposition to Saddam’s regime in Iraq. Sunnis such as the Muslim Brothers often reviled Alawis as beyond the pale of Islam and therefore not fit to rule Muslims. This belief only gave greater intensity to their rebellion against the Asad regime. Khomeini’s refusal to support the Muslim Brotherhood during the Hama uprising earned him the Brotherhood’s lasting contempt and showed that despite his eagerness to pose as a pan-Islamic leader, relations between Shia and Sunni fundamentalists were breaking down along familiar sectarian lines. When it came to choosing between a nominal Shia ally such as Asad and the militantly Sunni Brotherhood, Khomeini had not hesitated to stick with the former.

As rising oil prices poured untold billions into Saudi coffers from 1974 on, the kingdom began to subsidize various Islamic causes through charities and funds such as the Islamic World League (Rabita al-Alam al-Islami). This was a facet of the Saudis’ growing confidence and claim to leadership of the Islamic world. A portion of the money went to propagating Wahhabism. Once upon a time, Wahhabi tribesmen had invaded Arabian cities to spread their faith. Now that work became the task of financial institutions funded by the Saudi state and Wahhabi ulama. Thousands of aspiring preachers, Islamic scholars, and activists from Nigeria to Indonesia went to Saudi Arabia to study, and many more joined Saudi-funded think tanks and research institutions.

Muslim Brotherhood activists were joined by Jamaat-e Islami thinkers and leaders from South Asia as well as many more Islamic activists from Africa and Southeast Asia. Saudi Arabia did not just sponsor Islamic activism but facilitated its ideological growth. Many of those who studied and worked in Saudi Arabia then spread throughout the Muslim world to teach and work at Saudi-funded universities, schools, mosques, and research institutions. Today ambitious ventures such as the International Islamic Universities in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are staffed by men who were trained in the kingdom. These de facto ambassadors for the Saudi viewpoint, influenced by the harsh simplicities of Wahhabi theology and fmancially dependent on Saudi patronage, work not only to entrench conservative attitudes in communities from Kano, Nigeria, to Jakarta, Indonesia, but also to defend Saudi Arabia’s interests and legitimacy….

Governments from Nigeria to Bahrain, Indonesia, and Malaysia sought to drive wedges between Sunnism and Shiism, casting the former as “true” Islam—and the incumbent government as its defender—while branding the latter as obscurantist extremism. In 1998 the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha accused the Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zak Zaki of being a Shia just before he went on trial for antigovernment activism. In the 1990s the government of Bahrain repeatedly dismissed calls for political reform by labeling them as Shia plots. In Malaysia in the 1980s, the government routinely arrested Islamic activists on the pretext that they were Shias, thus avoiding the appearance of clamping down on Islamic activism while projecting an image as Sunnism’s champion against subversive activities.

In India and Pakistan, Sunni ulama confronted the Khomeini challenge head-on, branding his vitriol against the House of Saud as a species of fitna (sedition) wielded against the Muslim community. The Saudi rulers, conversely, were routinely painted as Sunnism’s greatest defenders and the symbols of its resistance to Shia attempts at “usurpation” in a historical context stretching all the way back to the early Shia rebellions against the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The Shia-Sunni struggles for the soul of Islam that had punctuated Islamic history were thus reenacted in the late twentieth century, with the Saudi princes in the caliphs’ role.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 154-157

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