Thirteen years after US President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, the Middle East is no closer to victory. Instead, terrorism appears to have morphed into an even more dangerous beast in the form of the Islamic State (IS). Westerners, as expressed through the media, seem to be under the same impression as they were after Sept. 11, 2001 — namely, that the Sunni jihadist movement is linked to the Wahhabi brand of Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia. This has prompted renewed debate among Saudis about this supposed Wahhabist-jihadist connection.
After bombings in Riyadh by al-Qaeda in 2003, the relationship between terrorism and religious extremism was widely discussed in the kingdom, with the government establishing the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue that same year. During the dialogue’s second meeting, Extremism and Moderation … A Comprehensive Methodological Vision, it was agreed that religious programs in Saudi Arabia were the primary force behind the spread of extremism in society. As a result of the dialogue, school curricula, the religious curriculum in particular, were modified by the Ministry of Education. Doubts remained, however, that religious education had been sufficiently modified given that radical Islamists were believed to dominate the education sector in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is today taking seriously the allegations in the international media that it is the ideological root of the current jihadist groups. Some have sought to defend the country’s religious vision by trying to disassociate Sunni jihadist groups from their brand of Islam, instead castigating other groups, such as the Kharijites — an Islamic sect separate from Sunnis and Shiites that emerged from the first Islamic civil war in the seventh century between Ali Ibn Ali Talib and Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan following the killing of the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan.
Nawaf Obaid and Saud al-Sarhan presented this view in a Sept. 8 article in The New York Times. They argued that IS’ discourse is different from that of Salafism and Wahhabism. They contended that IS ideologues are Kharijites who believe that those different from them are infidels and can therefore rightfully be killed, including en masse.
The main problem in suggesting an IS link to Kharijites is that the group has been distributing Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s books across the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria, suggesting that the group is explicitly declaring its affiliation with Wahhabism. Another issue is that the religious basis of Sunni jihadist movements is completely different from Kharijism, which eventually developed different schools of jurisprudence. One of the most prominent schools is Ibadism, the official confession in Oman, which is not linked to IS in any way.
In debates about terrorism and extremism in Saudi Arabia, extremism is repeatedly attributed to the era of Juhayman Ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Otaybi, who in 1979 led extremists to take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The government at the time met the radicals’ demands and allowed them to implement their brand of conservatism through the media, education and other forms of public life. This era in Saudi history is called the Awakening, and Wahhabism at the time was not described as a source of extremism. Today, however, because of IS, there are discussions on the connection between Sunni jihadist extremism and Wahhabism inside and outside Saudi Arabia. This might eventually change the way Saudis see themselves.
These discussions have always stirred political and religious sensitivities, as the kingdom has openly declared that it adopted the movement of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This is reflected in the religious activities funded by Saudi Arabia around the world and in the discourse of most of its religious scholars. The political sensitivities arise given that the first signs of the Saudi state emerged when Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with Imam Muhammad Bin Saud in the 18th century. This alliance holds symbolic importance to the religious and political union in Saudi history, as legitimacy was accorded by the religious movement to establish the modern-day state of Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom’s participation in the first airstrikes against IS in Syria on Sept. 23 demonstrates its seriousness in combating the radicals. This followed a recent shift in Saudi policy to focus on the threat posed by Sunni jihadist groups. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz expressed disappointment toward the international community on Aug. 1 for not showing enthusiasm for the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), begun in 2011 with Saudi backing. He also donated $100 million to the center, while the grand mufti, Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, proclaimed IS the No. 1 threat to Islam.
Some see the kingdom’s efforts to fight terrorism simply as a way to deflect criticism from Western governments. On Aug. 28 in the Washington Post, David Ignatius wrote that Saudi support for the UNCCT and the identification of IS as the main enemy of Islam were done to avoid criticism being leveled against Saudi Arabia for backing Sunni extremism. This view, however, ignores that terrorism poses a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.
Despite attempts by some prominent Saudis to do so, it is difficult to link IS to Kharijites and separate the group from Wahhabism, as the group has explicitly adopted the ideas of Abd al-Wahab and is spreading and imposing them on the regions it controls. The current challenge is to prove that the ideas of Wahhabism are the primary reason for the creation and mobilization of jihadist organizations and is not a distraction from the political collapse of the region as the facilitator of the growth in extremism.