I must start by frankly admitting that Saudi Arabia has always been an extremely efficient factory for the production of myths. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend. The name ‘Arabia’ or ‘Araby’ is in itself a myth-maker. The mere mention of the name evokes all kinds of magical scenes: the noble Bedouin, the folding tents, the exploits of Lawrence, the legendary wealth, the crazy hospitality and a hundred other things. Many westerners will throw in the Arabian Nights, complete with flying carpets and the intrepid Sinbad, totally unaware that Baghdad is not part of the Peninsula. So to an extent, there will be no total escape from myths. As a poet, I find this delightful. As a diplomat, I find this most frustrating.
It has always been part of our destiny to live with myths in the past. Perhaps we are also destined to live with them in the future. A touch of fatalism is a powerful antidote against depressions and nervous breakdowns. However, following the terrible events of September 11, the myths about Saudi Arabia took a very nasty and vicious turn. The romantic legends of the past disappeared. New images appeared, images of an extremist country, terrorism-friendly, inimical to the West: or, in short, the hub of the axis of evil. I will try to deal with four of these post-September-11 legends.
Let us start with the mother of all myths: Wahhabism.
We Saudis – and this may shock you – consider Wahhabism a myth. No so-called Wahhabi ever accepted to be called a Wahhabi. The term was coined by the enemies of the reformist movement of Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab and soon gained wide currency. We will continue to refuse the label in the hope that one day the outside world will listen, as it did when it stopped the earlier common practice of referring to Muslims as Muhammadans. In the meantime, and with no prejudice as the lawyers say, I will use the term Wahhabism for convenience.
The misunderstanding surrounding Wahhabism is truly mystifying. There is plenty of literature on the subject, and the movement of reform started by Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab has been discussed in a thousand scholarly works in all main languages. I will quote directly from the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition):
“Members of the Wahhabi call themselves Al-Muwahhidin, ‘Unitarians’, a name derived from their emphasis on the absolute ‘oneness of God’ (tawhid). They deny all acts implying polytheism, such as visiting tombs and venerating saints; and advocate a return to the original teachings of Islam as incorporated in the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions of Muhammad), with condemnation of all innovations (bideh). Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence based respectively on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah and on the legal school of Ahmed ibn Hanbal, stress literal belief in the Qur’an and Hadith, and the establishment of a Muslim state based only on Islamic Law.”
This is a concise and precise statement. If we have to use labels, the appropriate name for the Wahhabis would be the Hanbalis. As anybody with even a nodding acquaintance with Islam knows, the Hanbali school is one of the four mainstream schools of Sunni fiqh [jurisprudence], the other three being the Shafi, the Hanafi, and the Maliki. Yet since the eleventh of September, I read tens of articles in the American and British media saying all kinds of nonsense about Wahhabism. Some state that it is a dangerous heresy, non-Islamic in its teaching. Some see a definite connection between Wahhabism and suicide bombing. Others see a Wahhabi center in every corner of the globe. Others believe that Wahhabism is responsible for Islamic militancy wherever it is found.
All these claims are ridiculous. The Saudi religious scholars condemned suicide bombing, basing their opinion on the belief that nothing justifies suicide, a mortal sin. The adherents of the Hanbali school happen to be fewer than the adherents of any of the other three schools, and the majority live in the Arabian Peninsula. To speak of Wahhabism when the people concerned are not Hanbalis is a sign of sheer ignorance. If Saudi Arabia limited its help to so-called Wahhabis it would not have spent a single riyal outside the Peninsula. As it happens, mosques and centers receiving Saudi aid belong to all four schools of fiqh. There is a common misconception that all strict and puritanical Muslims are Wahhabis. While many people in Saudi Arabia will be very flattered by this notion, it happens to be total nonsense. Within every school of fiqh you have all kinds of attitudes and patterns of behavior.
The relationship between Wahhabism and violence is another hard-to-die myth. The founder of the school, Ibn Hanbal, believed that obedience to the ruler is vital, as it is a guarantee against chaos. He suffered torture at the hands of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Moatisim, without saying a word advocating rebellion. The popularity of Ibn Hanbal was so great that had he chosen to rebel, the masses would have followed him. The same thing can be said about the great Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, who died in the prison of the Sultan of his day, without uttering a word of criticism against him. The phenomenon of Islamic militancy is very complex, and there are many learned works on the subject. To explain this phenomenon by the simplistic reference to Wahhabism is, at best, a sign of ignorance, or, at worst, a result of intended defamation – or both. If a single ideological strain must be blamed, we should look to the writings of Sayyid Qutub, the famous Muslim Brotherhood scholar hanged by President Nasser for alleged conspiracy against his regime. It was Sayyid Qutub and not Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab who considered all contemporary Muslim societies un-Islamic, and advocated war against all of them.
The second myth, peddled directly and indirectly in the media, is that Al-Qaeda is a Saudi creation.
In fact, Al-Qaeda is the creation of a deranged terrorist named Osama bin Laden, in cooperation with similar terrorists from all over the Muslim world. As more and more is known about Al-Qaeda, it becomes clearer and clearer that Osama is the only Saudi at the top of the terrorist organization. None of his main aides is a Saudi.
The myth of Al-Qaeda as a Saudi organization was the result of the participation of fifteen Saudis in the terrible crimes of the eleventh of September. I think here both Americans and Saudis were at fault. The Saudis were guilty of delayed reaction in acknowledging this participation while the Americans were guilty of indecent haste in announcing names. Both countries were acting under the influence of shock. Yet, things are starting to calm down, at least I hope so, and I think the participation of this number of young Saudis in this terrible crime warrants an explanation. Allow me to offer my theory. First, until September 11, Saudis found it extremely easy to obtain an American visa, more so than any other Arab or Muslim national. Saudi students easily obtained visas without any questions asked. So a person planning the attack would find this fact almost too good to be true, making logistics much easier than if other nationals were used. Second, there is method in Osama’s madness, and to create a breach between Saudi Arabia and America would be the greatest of achievements. I hope neither the Saudis nor the Americans will play into his hands. Third, it is my belief that most of the Saudis were foot soldiers, given orders but unaware of the real purpose of the operation. Osama himself publicly boasted that less than a handful of the participants knew the real aim of the operation. At any rate, I think as more facts become known about these horrid events, we will be in a better position to understand how, when, where, and by whom, those Saudi youths were recruited. In the meantime, I can only express deep regret that Saudis were involved in such a heinous deed, a sentiment which echoes that of my government.
I would like now to turn to a topic that is of relevance to both the myth I just discussed, and the myth I am about to deal with, a topic that did not receive the amount of analytical discussion it deserves. I am referring to the culture of violence bred by 25 years of continuous war in Afghanistan. It goes without saying that such prolonged bloodshed creates a brutalizing effect on all those involved. Most Afghanis came to accept civil war as a natural order of things. The Americans saw great political advantage in utilizing religious sentiments for political ends, without giving a thought to the possible aftermath. The Saudi youth got a taste for violence that remained with a few of them. Rather than indulging in the convenient blame-game, I think it is about time for all the parties involved to revisit the Afghan saga from beginning to end, and try to understand, in hindsight, what was not obvious at the time. I think the rewards of such a revisionist endeavor will be more than worth the while.
Without waiting for the results of such a study, I can categorically state that Osama bin Laden was a creature of the war in Afghanistan. By all accounts, he was a shy, polite, withdrawn young man when he first went to Pakistan to help raise funds for Al-Muhajideen in the early eighties. By the early nineties, a metamorphosis took place – and the young, shy man turned into the world’s most dangerous terrorist. His role in the actual fighting is still disputed, but what is certain is that he emerged from the mountains convinced that he, helped by a small group of fighters, brought the Soviet Union to its knees, and to its final collapse. Listening to him, in some of his rambling interviews, I had the impression of a mad man who thought he defeated one superpower and was about to defeat the remaining superpower. I am not a psychologist, but both his words and actions reveal a man with dangerous illusions of grandeur. He is not interested in redressing Palestinian injustices, or in getting the Americans out of the Gulf, although he finds it convenient to mention these two issues. What he wants is the destruction of America itself, and failing that, the murder of as many Americans as possible. I refuse to dignify his actions with any justification: he kills because he enjoys killing. To compare him with Yasser Arafat is an act of folly only Ariel Sharon can muster.
The third myth asserts that the Taliban is another Saudi creation.
As people know more and more about Afghanistan, the stupidity of such a claim becomes more and more apparent. Contrary to the common view, there is no religious ideological affinity between the Taliban and Wahhabism. Here, allow me to quote from the author who, rightly or wrongly, became widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest authority on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid:
“The Taliban represented nobody but themselves and they recognized no Islam except their own. But they did have an ideological base – an extreme form of Deobandaism, which was being preached in Pakistan by Islamic parties in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Deobandis, a branch of Sunni Hanafi Islam, has had a history in Afghanistan, but the Taliban interpretation of the creed has no parallel anywhere in the Muslim world.”
Ahmed Rashid goes on to say:
“The Deobandis took a restrictive view of the role of women, opposed all forms of hierarchy in the Muslim community, and rejected the Shi’a – but the Taliban were to take the beliefs to an extreme which the original Deobandis would never have recognized.”
Ahmed Rashid further says:
“By 1967, when Deoband celebrated its first centenary, there were 9,000 Deobandi madrassas across south Asia.”
Those famous Wahhabi schools turn out on examination to be Deobandi. How can Western journalists know the differences! I am reminded of a popular saying in the Arab world: “You can’t expect the Bedouin to tell one brand of soap from another.”
Those who are familiar with the Afghan scene realize that the Taliban movement achieved power because it identified with powerful trends in Afghanistan. It identified with the trend to make Afghanistan truly Islamic. It satisfied the crying need for law and order. It allied itself totally with the dominant tribal faction, the Pashtuns. Pakistan helped the movement for its own political ends, and Saudi Arabia did not try to stop it. Saudi Arabia despaired of finding a solution to the civil war in Afghanistan. Many attempts to reconcile the warring factions, including two in the Holy Mosque in Makkah, failed. When the Taliban appeared on the horizon, Saudi Arabia did not rush to support it. The Saudi position could best be described by the old Arabic saying: “I didn’t order it but it didn’t displease me.”
The factors that were responsible for the rise of the Taliban were responsible for its downfall. The Taliban, with very limited knowledge of religion, took things to preposterous extremes. Law and order became increasingly a public display of cruelty. The Islamic Taliban State came up with a view nobody in the Muslim world could accept – first and foremost depriving women of their right to education. The Taliban’s identification with the Pushtuns became so complete that it drove all the non-Pushtun elements into an anti-Taliban alliance. When the massive American intervention took place, it was not difficult to predict the outcome. I talked about their vulnerability as early as the 24th of September, 2001, on the BBC program ‘Hard Talk’.
I think now the realities of the Afghan scene are clear to everyone. Things have changed 180 degrees – and this creates a new set of problems. It is the Pushtun now who feel they are not given enough say in the new government. Signs of breaking law and order are appearing in parts of Afghanistan. Protests against what is perceived as secularization of the State are loud and clear. I hope and pray that the new government will learn from the mistakes of the Taliban – and will succeed in promoting development and national unity. This is much easier said than done. What happened in Afghanistan was not the triumph of democracy and liberal values over backwardness. What happened was the defeat of the Taliban, by the Northern Alliance, helped by massive American intervention. We should hope for the best, but should not indulge in too much wishful thinking.
The fourth myth, the total sum of all the others, is that Saudi Arabia is turning from a staunch ally of America and the West, into an enemy.
I personally do not see any sign of this happening. Our relationship with the West is deep-rooted, long-established, and based on the strategic interests of both sides. We need the West for technology, for investment, for training, and for trade. The West needs our oil, reasonably priced and supplied at all times, as well as our moderating influence. As it happens, we never had more than a single problem with the West: its bias towards Israel. But I think both sides have learned to live with this fact. We will continue to press for even-handed policy in the Middle East, but we will continue our friendship with the West.
Now let us examine the various arguments presented as proof of Saudi hostility towards the West. First, it is alleged that Saudi Arabia did not participate fully in the war against terror. Let us remember that this war consists of two parts: the military and the non-military. As far as the military part is concerned, it was clear that the United States needed help from no one. NATO members declared that the attack on America constituted an aggression on all members, and offered every possible assistance. As things turned out, the participation of non-American forces in the Afghanistan campaign was merely symbolic. Those who criticize Saudi Arabia for failing to participate in the campaign neglect to ask if Saudi participation was really needed. If the whole NATO military machine could provide no more than nominal help, could Saudi Arabia be expected to actually fight? As for the non-military aspects of the war, Saudi Arabia fulfilled its obligations without fail. It supported the Security Council resolutions to combat terrorism and followed then to the letter. It shared intelligence about terrorism with all friendly nations. It did all it could to make sure that no money reached any terrorist organization. When a cell with links to AL-Qaeda was discovered, those involved were immediately arrested and they await trial. It is difficult for any reasonable observer to see what else Saudi Arabia could do.
We live in troubled and troubling times. The self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilizations is unfolding. The gap between the West and the rest is not narrowing. Globalization is marching into the third world with more threats than promises. The situation in the Middle East is spinning out of control. In these dangerous times we can’t afford the luxury of basing our decisions on myths. The facts are grim enough and we will be well-advised to stick to them.