In that tiny spider hole, his sons dead and his country occupied, Saddam Hussein clung as tenaciously to life as he had to power.
The images broadcast around the world shortly after his capture showed us an unkempt, compliant Saddam, dutifully submitting himself for examination.
It wasn’t long before international human rights organizations were protesting his treatment and calling for Saddam to be treated as a PoW, under the Geneva Convention – an oddly indulgent way, it seems to me, to treat a former dictator, but who am I to judge?
While the ignominious removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq will give ordinary Iraqis a shot at freedom, the real fight for moderate Islam will likely not occur in the Arab world.
In The Two Faces of Islam, the journalist Stephen Schwartz, who spent several years working with the Muslim community in the Balkans, describes the ominous rise of Wahhabism – what Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, calls “desert Islam”.
The Two Faces of Islam is not without its flaws. During the course of his travels, Schwartz, whose father is Jewish, converted to Islam. This goes a long way toward explaining his rather idealistic polarization of Islam into “good” Islam, mostly represented by Sufism – Schwartz’s own brand of Islam – and “bad” Islam, a role unequivocally played by Wahhabism. Schwartz, known to co-religionists as Sufi Master Suleyman Ahmad, manages to give the Ayatollah Khomeini an impressive whitewash as a sincere and earnest man of piety – in stark contrast to the playboy princes of Saudi Arabia – who presciently denounced the “Satanic power” of Wahhabism in his will. Under Schwartz’s skillful pen, even the Ottoman Empire gets a boost as a comparatively benign and enlightened kind of place. One gets the distinct sense that Schwartz is manufacturing some mythic vision of a tolerant and pluralist traditional Islam that existed, Atlantis-like, in the misty and shrouded past.
As a resource for anyone seeking to understand the role of Wahhabism in shaping modern Islam, though, The Two Faces of Islam is invaluable.
Both Wahhabism and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the creed, had as their birthplace the 18th century central Arabian region of Najd. Najd, where the Saudi capital of Riyadh would later be established, was ill favored even by the Prophet Mohammed himself. By all accounts, the Prophet does not seem exactly to have clicked with the good people of Najd, purportedly referring to them, not altogether respectfully, as “naked and destitute shepherds and camelherds.” A Hadith cited by Schwartz has the Prophet Mohammed doing a spot of prophesying about Najd: “From that place will come only earthquakes, conflicts, and the horns of Satan.”
Among Najd’s sins were those of having produced not only a false prophet, rather succinctly known to history as “Musaylima the Liar,” but a rebel sect called the Khawarij, who were responsible for the assassination of Mohammed’s nephew and fourth caliph, Ali – an event pivotal to the rise of Shi’ism. The same powerful tribe that produced the Khawarij, the Banu Tamim, was to produce al-Wahhab over a thousand years later.
Al-Wahhab’s political partner was Muhammad ibn Saud, a rebel leader of the village of Dariyah in Najd known chiefly for its primary economic activity – banditry. A series of daughter-swapping between the two clans ensued to cement the alliance, and today’s House of Saud represents the exalted union of these two lineages.
The Wahhabis began their political ascent with a series of daring campaigns throughout the Arabian peninsula, extending into present-day Syria and Iraq. In the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala in Iraq, the Wahhabis slew thousands of Shi’a infidels. The city of Ta’if in Western Arabia was the scene of a horrific Wahhabi-led carnage that all but decimated the population, and set the stage for a Wahhabization of the surrounding region. Two centuries later, 12 of the 15 Saudi terrorists of 9/11 would hail from there.
In 1901, Ibn Saud assassinated the ruler of Riyadh and established control of it. After 23 years of fighting that saw half a million inhabitants killed and one million flee, Ibn Saud finally reconquered Mecca. When, in 1924, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be established out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire – the only country in the world, as Schwartz points out, to be named after a living person – it would be born in bloodshed.
Ibn Saud had the machinations of a former Indian colonial officer, Harry St. John Philby, to thank for promoting his claims over that of the rival Hashemite Sharif Hussein of Mecca. (Hussein, with the aid of Lawrence of Arabia, had led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during WWI.) The Philbys would prove to have a gift for ending up on the wrong side of history. Philby’s son Kim would become infamous as the British spy who betrayed his country to the communists. The elder Philby, who eventually converted to Islam, would be interned by the British for his pro-Nazi agitations, including but not limited to the expression of such admiring sentiments of Hitler as a “mystic.” With encouragement from Philby père, Ibn Saud gave shelter to both the radical pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, and to Rashid Ali, the leader of a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq.
The region of Najd would still have a part to play in the history of Saudi Arabia. 1912 saw the formation of the Ikhwan, or Brotherhood, a paramilitary band of young Bedouins hailing primarily from Najd and loyal to Ibn Saud. The Ikhwan were not deterred from furthering their cause by such moral niceties as, say, a distaste for murdering women and children. Eventually, Ibn Saud would create the infamous League for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as a check on the Ikhwan, who resented the deviation from strict Wahhabism in Ibn Saud’s concessions to political expediency. The League’s brutal secret police became known as the mutawiyin – volunteers or devotees. These were the same charming fellows who, in March 2002, would force students of a girls’ school in Mecca back into a burning building because they were immodestly clad, an act that claimed the lives of 14 girls. According to journalist Lawrence Wright, writing in the January 5, 2004 issue of the New Yorker, today the mutawiyin are popularly thought to be comprised of ex-convicts who memorized the Koran in prison, and are paid a bounty for each unfortunate they arrest.
Meanwhile, intermarriage between the Wahhabi and al Saud clans continued, and the voracious appetite of the Saudi royals for wives and concubines contributed to the swelling of princely ranks. There are now estimated to be on the order of forty thousand Saudi princes, who are generally a philandering, profligate bunch who have no qualms about bankrupting the country to finance their lavish lifestyles. Corruption is rife among the princely set. The disparity between private princely behavior and public Wahhabi ideology continues to grow.
Today’s Saudi Arabia has no functioning middle class and, as Robert Baer reports in the May 2003 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, an average per capita income of $7000. (That’s down from $28,600 in 1981, just over twenty years ago.) Two thirds of all PhDs awarded in the kingdom are in Islamic studies. The Saudi birth rate is 37.25 births for every 1000 citizens, one of the highest in the world. Half the population is under 18, yet 70% of all jobs – and almost 90% of private sector jobs – are held by foreign nationals. A recent study of students aged 13 to 25, cited by Wright, rather unsurprisingly found that 65% of boys and 72% of girls showed signs of depression.
Out of this environment rose Osama bin Laden, the son of an illiterate Yemeni laborer for Aramco who became a construction magnate, popularizing a style Schwartz calls “Islamic kitsch.” The rise of a figure like bin Laden seems inevitable by Schwartz’s account – despite the glossy Saudi-sponsored brochures that appeared recently in certain magazines, lauding the Saudi state’s efforts on behalf of the global war on terrorism.
We are by now all familiar with the emerging truths about Saudi state sponsored terrorism against the West. But just as threatening to the West is the ideological foothold that Wahhabis seek in other Muslim countries.
Schwartz recounts how the so-called “Afghan Arabs”, those dispatched to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, formed a network of trained mujahedeen that were free to fight other causes after the Russian defeat. The embattled Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo provided the first pretext for Wahhabi intervention. It soon became apparent that the Wahhabis had nothing but disrespect for local traditions and culture, going so far as to desecrate Ottoman-era graves, and were concerned more with establishing Wahhabi mosques and schools in the Saudi style, than in alleviating suffering or rebuilding traditional structures that had been damaged in the war.
In fact, while the Serbs were slaughtering Muslims with wanton abandon, Iraq, Libya and the Palestinian Authority remained openly supportive of Milosevic, the PA even inviting him to celebrate Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem in 1999, and Syria and Lebanon remained neutral. (This contrasts sharply with reaction from Israel, which donated food and medical supplies, took in 112 non-Jewish refugees from Kosovo, and vowed to arrest Milosevic should he accept the PA’s invitation.)
Christopher Hitchen reports the same imperialistic behavior in Indonesia, where Wahhabi elements tried to eradicate remnants of Indonesia’s animist and non-Muslim past, and were similarly rebuffed. The same Wahhabi infiltration was attempted, with varying degrees of success, in Algeria, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya – and, of course, the West Bank and Gaza.
The Wahhabis have been no slouches in Europe and North America, either. Wahhabi-funded mosques and schools abound; this weekend, a feature in my local paper on Montreal-area Muslims mentions at least one mosque whose bookstore offers a full complement of Wahhabi books and audiovisual material (in Arabic, English and French, we’re told).
The Islamist infiltration of Western society has become so pervasive in some places that it is perhaps not surprising, then, that France would seek to so urgently to counteract it by enacting a law that prohibits overt religious expression in the public sphere. But the unintended effect of imposing secular behavior and curtailing religious freedom will be rather to drive moderate Muslims right into the waiting arms of extremists. Muslim girls and women who suddenly find themselves unable to attend public school without removing their headscarves will instead choose, or have their parents choose, Saudi-funded Wahhabi institutions instead. And France will have become just another example that those in the Muslim world can point to of the great yawning gulf with the West. A multicultural society like France that seeks to marginalize the religious expression of its strong Muslim minority will end by polarizing itself.
In the same vein, allowing Turkey entry into the European Union would both advertise the West’s embrace of moderate Islam and, by deflating the arguments of Muslim radicals, encourage its moderation.
While being careful not to reward extremism, as Allen Dershowitz argues powerfully in Why Terrorism Works has been the West’s approach, we must reward moderation. We must seek to contain the sinister creep of Wahhabism around the globe. We must support the reform movement in Iran, the right to wear headscarves in France, the entry of Turkey in the European Union, the threatened pluralism of Southeast Asian Islam, the resistance to Wahhabism in post-Soviet Europe, and an inter-faith dialogue with moderate Muslims in the West.
In the war against Muslim extremism, Iraq is only a skirmish.