Wahhabism in the Service of Western Imperialism: The Politics of a Fatwa

Yaqub Shah

Posted Sep 7, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Wahhabism in the Service of Western Imperialism: The Politics of a Fatwa

Yaqub Shah

This July, shortly after the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, a Saudi Wahhabi cleric, Sheikh Hamid al-Ali Jabreen, issued a controversial fatwa titled “The Sharia Position On What Is Going On.”  In it, the retired member of the Saudi government’s official fatwa dispending committee condemned Hezbollah in no uncertain terms. Aware that Hezbollah’s persistent opposition to Zionist and Western imperialism had endeared it to vast numbers of Sunni Muslims across the world, (in addition to a significant number of Christians in Lebanon itself), Jabreen’s denunciation of the Hezbollah carefully ignored this most central aspect of the resistance movement. Instead, in order to counter the growing appeal of the movement among many Sunnis, it castigated Hezbollah simply for being Shia.

Rather than use the commonly accepted term ‘Shia’ (the full form of which is Shiat-e Ali or the ‘helpers of Ali’, Ali being the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad), Jabreen referred to the Shias, and, specifically Hezbollah, with the contemptuous term of ‘Rafizis’ or ‘rejectors’, a phrase often used for the Shias by many hardliner Sunni ulama who consider that Shias have ‘rejected’ Islam. Being allegedly ‘rejectors’ of Islam, Jabreen sought to argue, the Shias, including the Hezbollah, were not Muslims at all. Hence, he advised Sunnis ‘to denounce them and shun those who join them to show their hostility to Islam and to the Muslims’, adding that it wad forbidden for Muslims to pray for Hezbollah’s victory.

Jabreen’s fatwa was soon followed by another one, again much highlighted in the Western and Israeli media, issued by another Saudi Wahhabi cleric, Shaikh Safar al-Hawali, who is said to have been among the sources of inspiration of Osama bin Laden. Al-Hawali denounced Hezbollah as the ’ party of the devil’.

In a number of articles posted on the web, Muslim critics of the fatwas argued that they had been probably issued at the instigation of the Saudi authorities. They insisted, and rightly so, that these fatwas would only further strengthen the forces of Zionist and Western imperialist forces.

Although the authors of the fatwas sought to use religious arguments to denounce Hezbollah, the underlying political motives were clear. Hezbollah’s fierce resistance to Israeli and Western imperialism is not favourably looked at by the Saudi rulers, whose very survival depends on American protection. Further, Hezbollah’s links with Iran, which, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has consistently opposed the Saudi rulers both for the un-Islamic system of monarchy and for its servitude to America, has won it the wrath of the Saudi establishment. The fatwas thus come as no surprise.

Meanwhile, the Western and Israeli press have been highlighting Jabreen’s fatwa, touting it about as a major achievement. A search on the web reveals several dozen Western and Israeli websites, including online versions of newspapers, that have discussed the fatwa in glowing terms. Jabreen is hardly famous, but that does not stop these Western and Israeli papers from presenting Jabreen as a ‘leading’ scholar, bestowing on him the authority and following that he clearly lacks outside the limited circle of hardcore Wahhabis.  Thus, for instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation refers to Jabreen as a ‘well-known sheikh’; the International Herald Tribune calls him a ‘a prominent Saudi cleric’ and the Jerusalem Post piously proclaims him as ’ a top Saudi Sunni cleric’.  Since 9/11, ‘Wahhabism’ has been projected by the Western and Israeli media as the biggest danger to ‘civilisation’ and ‘security’, and so their enthusiastic highlighting of the Wahhabi Jabreen and his fatwa in order to lend weight to their campaign against Hezbollah for its resistance to Western and Israeli oppression is not just a little curious.

Jabreen’s fatwa is also being bandied about in the Western and Israeli media in order to promote divisions between Sunnis and Shias and thereby weaken the resistance to the American-backed Israeli offensive against Lebanon as well as the American occupation of Iraq. Thus, an article about the fatwa that has been reproduced in dozens American and Israeli newspapers quotes the little-known ‘anti-terrorism expert’, Rita Katz, the Jewish head of the SITE Institute, a staunchly Zionist ‘anti-terrorism’ outfit in America, as saying, ‘I think that fatwas like Jebreen’s are significant, because the division between Sunnis and Shia is more apparent than in the past”. These newspapers refer to Katz describing the obscure Jabren as ‘one of the most respected and more mainstream Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia’.

The attention that Jabreen and his fatwa have received in the Western and Israeli press is hardly surprising. It reflects the carefully selective and self-serving policy that Western imperialist powers have for long pursued vis-a-vis the Wahhabis. The Wahhabi movement was funded and propped up by the British as part of a broader strategy to dismember the Ottoman Empire. And, with the discovery of oil in the sands of Arabia, the Americans stepped in, funding the Saudi king to remain firmly seated to his throne while American companies pumped out cheap oil to the West and established huge markets for their products, including weapons, in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism emerged as a powerful tool of the Saudi monarchy, backed by the West, to counter Leftist and nationalist movements all across the Muslim world, these being branded as ‘irreligious’ and ‘un-Islamic’ by Wahhabi clerics in the pay of the state. In the wake of the fiercely anti-Western, anti-Saudi and anti-monarchical Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Wahhabism was, once again, pressed into service by the Saudis and the Americans, seeking to counter the influence of the Revolution among Sunnis worldwide by denouncing it as an alleged Shia plot and by branding Shias as non-Muslim apostates and ‘enemies of Islam’. Wahhabism received a further boost when it was actively promoted by the Americans and the Saudis in the wake of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. All manner of right-wing Sunni Islamist movements and outfits in large parts of the world received generous Saudi funding, and in this the Saudi were backed by the Americans as they saw Wahhabism as a powerful counter to anti-imperialist forces.

But when a section of radicalized Wahhabis, irked by the Saudi monarchy’s blatant servitude to American dictates, emerged in the form of Osama bin Laden and vocally denounced the monarchy and America, Saudi and American policies on the export of radical Wahhabism underwent a sea-change. Wahhabism now transformed itself in the Western media as the dangerous ‘green peril’, being projected as the major cause of all that was wrong in the Muslim world and in relations between that world and the West. However, this denunciation of Wahhabism was selective. While radical Wahhabis who fiercely opposed the Saudi monarchy and Western dominance were to be stiffly opposed, pro-establishment Wahhabi scholars, paid servants of the Saudi rulers, were to be projected in a somewhat benign light, for they followed their masters in denouncing their radical opponents, who accused them of having sold their souls in return for their patronage that the Saudis showered on them. This explains the Western and Israeli media’s enthusiastic reception of Jabreen and his fatwa.

Jabreen is certainly not the first Wahhabi scholar to denounce the Shias as apostates. Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, was himself fanatically opposed to the Shias, and when Ibn Saud established the Saudi state he embarked on a large-scale anti-Shia pogrom. The allegation that Shias are not Muslims, that they revile the Prophet and his companions, that they do not actually believe in exactly the same Quran that the Sunnis do, that the Shia faith was invented by a Jew who wanted to destroy Islam from within, and so on, is tirelessly repeated in writings and fatwas by numerous Saudi Wahhabi clerics and is a central pillar of the Wahhabi version of Islam. The late Abdul Aziz bin Baaz, chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, who issued a controversial fatwa allowing for American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia , was said to have been so fanatically anti-Shia that he refused to shake hands with them, considering them to be impure.

Oil wealth has helped the export of Saudi-style Wahhabism to other parts of the world, leading to mounting intra-Muslim sectarian rivalries, including anti-Shia sentiments. In India, sections of the Ahl-e Hadith movement, in particular, have been the favourite recipient of Saudi largesse. This is because the Ahl-e Hadith are the closest to the Wahhabis in terms of their understanding of Islam, this closeness having led almost to identicalness because of the Saudi financial connection. The Ahl-e Hadith, like the Saudi Wahhabis, are stern literalist Sunnis and are fiercely opposed to the Shias, besides to various Sunni groups whom they do not see as authentically Sunni at all. Saudi funds, from both official and private sources, have gone into the setting up of a number of mosques, madrasas and publishing houses by certain individuals and organizations connected with the Ahl-e Hadith. Not surprisingly, these institutions have played a major role in fanning inter-Muslim rivalries in the country. Numerous Indian Ahl-e Hadith publishing houses have brought out volumes of literature denouncing the Shias as heretics and ‘enemies of Islam’, besides also condemning other Sunni groups, such as the Barelvis, Deobandis and the Jamaat-e Islami, for having allegedly deviated from the Sunni path. Often, this argument is based on minor issues on which the other Muslim groups differ from the Ahl-e Hadith and the Saudi Wahhabis, such as praying in a slightly different manner.  Besides, these publishing houses have brought out masses of propaganda material in praise of the Saudi rulers, parroting their claim of being the most committed defenders of Islam and presenting the Saudi monarch as the ‘khadim al-harimayn al-sharifayn’ or ‘the custodian of the two holy shrines’, located in the cities of Mecca and Medina.  In this way, these institutions must be seen as playing a key role in promoting the interests of the Saudi monarchy, something that is also true in the case of similar Saudi-funded institutions in other countries.

The Ahl-e Hadith have not been alone in promoting the cause of Saudi Arabia’s rulers by presenting them as model Islamic rulers. Saudi funding, from private or official sources, is also said to have benefited certain institutions or individuals in India associated with the Jamaat-e Islami and the Deobandi tradition, although details of this are hard to come by. Certain Muslim magazines published in the country are also said to receive Saudi money. This sort of Saudi funding has been repeated in almost every other country with a sizeable Sunni population. In this way, the Saudi rulers have sought to stamp out any vocal criticism of their internal and external policies, including the enormous corruption and untrammeled despotism at home, Saudi Arabia’s key role in sustaining and promoting American imperialism and, of course, the very un-Islamic institution of monarchy. It is thus unlikely that institutions, in India and elsewhere, that receive Saudi funding will openly oppose Saudi Arabia’s denunciations of the Hezbollah and the sort of fatwas that the likes of Jabreen are now issuing.

Meanwhile, as is evident from numerous Muslim websites, many Sunnis have fiercely condemned Jabreen and his fatwa, angered at the lengths to which Wahhabi clerics aligned with the Saudi rulers are willing to go to please their bosses. If at all this is any indication, it appears that opposition to Wahhabi sectarianism and its historical and continuing nexus with Western imperialism is growing more vocal, fuelled further by the Saudis’  opposition to Hezbollah and their continued subservience to American dictates.