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Wahhabism, bin Ladenism, and the Saudi Arabia Dilemma

Wahhabism, bin Ladenism, and the Saudi Arabia Dilemma

Gregory Gause, speaking on "Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia and 9/11," says Saudi Arabia maintains a delicate balance.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

Gregory Gause, an associate professor of Political Science and director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Vermont, spoke on the UCLA campus May 25 about Saudi Arabian state ideology, Osama bin Laden, and how the state manages them both after 9/11. In a guest lecture sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies as part of a UCLA graduate seminar, Gause said that the Wahhabist movement in Islam and bin Laden ideology diverge in important ways and that Saudi Arabia has been successful in navigating those, along with U.S. pressure, since September 11, 2001.

Wahhabism Develops as a State Ideology

Wahhabism is a movement within Islam based on the 18th century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. "The term Wahhabi or Wahhabism is an insult," said Gause. Followers, he said, just call themselves good Muslims who adhere to the ways of early Muslim values. Circumambulating grave sites, for example, is considered takfir, or anti-Islamic, in the Wahhabi movement. In the early 1700s, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teachings began to spread because of his alliance with Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the First Saudi State. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "saw the absolute need to have his movement linked to state power," said Gause.

Gause said the alliance between Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and bin Saud was not about just about personalities. "There was nothing exclusionary about Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's relationship with the al Saud" dynasty. Instead, the ulemas, bodies of Muslim clerics, were interested in being agents of a state. These religious leaders collected taxes and dispensed justice in the name of the king. The ulema exhibited the importance of state ties by deferring to Saudi leaders' decisions even when they ran contrary to Wahhabi religious beliefs. Their deferrals often were not based on religious principles, but rather on the idea of "Wilayat ul-A'hed," or inherited authority; according to this idea, the leader has the right to decide certain things, such as when jihad will begin and end.

As Wahhabism consolidated as a state ideology, the clerical and ruler relationship expanded, particularly with the help of money from oil. The clerical estate took in more departments, such as the Hajj Ministry and the religious police, or the mutaween. This expansion however, Gause said, came at a price: The ulema gained a privileged position in the Saudi state, but began to lose centrality and exclusive control. Still, they continue to provide the state with "justification and legitimization for every policy that the al Saud leadership has decided." There has never been a case "where the senior ulema in Saudi Arabia have publicly objected to a major element of state policy," Gause said.

The ulema thus approved women's education and technological innovations such as television through the 1950s and 1960s. The ulema ratified the 1964 deposing of Saud bin Abdul Aziz and issued a fatwa, or a religious ruling, legitimating the 1991 Gulf War attack on Iraq. While the ulema were very influential in cultural life, the religious ideals of Wahhabism were translated politically into a state ideology in which the primary duty of Saudis was to obey their rulers.

Osama bin Laden Diverges from the State

"Post 9/11, the official Saudi ulema were extremely supportive of the state," said Gause, by condemning Osama bin Laden and supporting Saudi Arabia's responses to external pressure.

Gause said that "bin Ladenism" came from and diverged from Wahhabism in many ways. Bin Laden, he said, adopted the idea of labeling others as takfir and affected social conservatism, especially in the dress and role of women among his followers. Bin Laden, however, diverged from Wahhabism in one important way: He went against the Wahhabi state and established his own political order in al-Qaeda, thus dismissing the prescribed obeisance to Saudi rulers.

"Bin Laden has an international perspective on the challenges to the Muslim world," Gregory Gause said, "whereas the Wahhabi in the Saudi Arabian ulema have pretty much constrained themselves to what is going on around them." Part of this divergence comes from din Laden's experiences in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

"The experience of the Afghan jihad," said Gause, "was central in the development of the bin Ladenist ideological platform and political movement." In Afghanistan, bin Laden's ideology was affected by the international nature of the jihad -- people from Uzbekistan and Chechnya, Kashmir and Indonesia, came together. The organization of the jihad, Maktab al-Khadamat, later turned into al-Qaeda, according to the U.S. government.

"Afghanistan was a win," said Gause, "and nothing succeeds like success." The win propelled the political movement. Not only did Muslim forces drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, but they also helped in the demise of the Soviet Union. This type of rhetoric, said Gause, was an excellent recruiting tool.

On the heels of this victory, bin Laden criticized the monarchy's decision to allow U.S. forces to base themselves in Saudi Arabia in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1994, Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship. He relocated to Sudan and London and created the Committee on Advice and Reform; in 1995 he pronounced takfir on the Saudi state for being a tool of the U.S. and Israel.

Since then, bin Laden has switched his critical focus from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. He is believed to be a co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings that killed six and injured over 1,000 people. In 1998, he co-signed a fatwa against the States. "He takes our democracy seriously," said Gause. "If you are a democracy then you are responsible for your government." Thus, bin Laden called upon Muslims to kill Americans because of the actions of the U.S. government.

Crisis in the Saudi Arabian State

In the 1990s, "Bin Laden was gone from Saudi Arabia, but bin Ladenism wasn't," said Gause. Jihad promotion continued after the end of the Afghan jihad and recruiting networks were still operating. "After ten years of jihad promotion," said Gause, "jihad is just way cool in Saudi Arabia."

In the post-Gulf War period, an internal critique developed by those who believed the regime had gone off the right path. Petitions and memorandums were circulated -- "There was actually a little political activism in Saudi Arabia," said Gause. In 1994, the regime began arresting activists and shaikhs who spoke out against the regime. However, they "were happy to turn a blind eye" to the jihadist ideology, said Gause.

The in-state critics were Salafi, believers in a purist form of Islam. They criticized Saudi Arabia's ties to the U.S. much like bin Ladenists; however, "they are not willing to violently challenge the state," said Gause. This difference became clear after 9/11 and the 2003 bombing in Riyadh; Salafi critics condemned bin Laden and disagreed with his condemnation of Saudi Arabia.

Gause said that Saudi Arabia was very successful politically with the Salafi critics. They exhibited "the ability of a state pressured by the outside and challenged by bin Laden to take these Salafi critiques and bring them into the tent."
These critics are not in favor of democratic reform or for elections. Yet in April, 2005, the unofficial "Golden List" of these Islamic activist candidates swept the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia by organizing via text messaging and chat rooms. Still, Salafi critics of the regime are more tied to the monarchy than liberal critics, said Gause. The U.S. thus supports democratic reform, but not the fundamentalist reformists who won in these elections.

The Saudi Arabian dilemma, then, is how to "navigate between these pressures." Salafi critics can, "with some street credibility," condemn violence against the regime and bring jihadists "back into the fold," said Gause and still accommodate what he calls the "U.S. muddle-through."

Saudi control of oil helps this navigation -- relations with the U.S. remain at status-quo despite the fact that religious establishments are still strong. This kind of balance can last, said Gause. If the U.S. were to discover alternative energy sources or if a serious challenge were to arise from religious critics, perhaps Saudi Arabia would have a more difficult time maintaining the balance they have now, he said. The only other breaking point could come when, a long time from now, the sons of al Saud die out; at that point a power struggle could change the status-quo.

When asked about U.S. foreign policy on Saudi Arabia, Gause replied, "The Bush administration was extremely cautious." The U.S. pressured Saudis by "feeding the journalistic beast" but actually gave them a pass on democratic reforms. The administration also played the recent municipal elections as a great success and lauds Saudi Arabia's public discouragement of jihad.

Gause said that the U.S., though, is perhaps misled because it assumes that democratic reform will help in the war against terror. "This connection between terrorism and lack of democracy is widely held across the political spectrum."

What politicians do not understand, he said, is that popular will in Saudi Arabia is anti-American and that there is no link between authoritarian rule and terrorism. "Al-Qaeda does not like democracy," he said, "and bin Laden couldn't come to power democratically." According to the State Department, India -- popularly labeled the world's largest democracy -- has the most international terrorists. "I don't see democracy as a way out of terrorism," said Gause.

The Bush administration, thus, concentrates its democracy campaign on Syria and Iran, those nations they consider "enemy nations," said Gause, while "giving Egypt and Saudi Arabia a pass."

Gause was previously on the faculty of Columbia University (1987-1995) and was Fellow for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (1993-1994). His research interests focus on the international politics of the Middle East, with a particular interest in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. He is the author of Oil Monarchies:  Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994), Saudi-Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence (Columbia University Press, 1990), and numerous articles in journals and edited volumes.


Update (1/23/06): This event was part of a lecture series and graduate course called "Islam and the Political Regime" funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The series and course will be offered again in Spring, 2006.

UCLA International Institute