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What's a Wahhabi?


Living in America, Europe, or the Middle East in this decade should give us all a better sense of what Europe must have been like in the 1930s. It's particularly disconcerting to observe allegedly thinking people display a penchant for the construction and dissemination of convoluted ideologies involving imaginary enemies.

To be more precise, intellectuals have begun to develop pseudo-scholarly systems of classification for the identification of a Satanic foe, which corresponds to a greater or lesser degree to real people. Today's discussion starts with "Wahhabi."

According to Stephen Schwartz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a sufi Muslim whose conception of Wahhabism is unquestionably the most fully fledged,

Wahhabism is official in Saudi Arabia. It is influential in Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. It has a substantial following in Yemen, which also has many Shia Muslims. It is unpopular in Bahrain and irrelevant in Oman.

Outside the Peninsula, Wahhabism is generally unpopular. But where trouble is found, Wahhabism may thrive. Hamas in Israel represents pure Wahhabism. Forms of neo-Wahhabi or Wahhabized ideology have been powerful in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood) and in Pakistan - in both countries neo-Wahhabis lead attacks on other Muslims and other faiths. But in both countries mainstream Muslim scholars continue to struggle against Wahhabism. Wahhabi aggression was defeated in Algeria and Tajikistan.

Wahhabi infiltration continues in Chechnya, to the detriment of the just struggle of the Chechens against Russian imperialism, and in Kashmir, where it is an obstacle to resolution of the conflict. Wahhabi extremism and terrorism continue to plague Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, although its real supporters in these countries are few in number.

But Wahhabi infiltration failed in Bosnia-Hercegovina and suffered a smashing repudiation in Kosovo. Albanian Muslims in Macedonia and Albania dislike Wahhabism, more intensely in the former than in the latter. Wahhabism and its surrogate, the Deobandi ideology of the Taliban, has been defeated in Afghanistan. Wahhabism has no real following in among the Muslim masses in Francophone West Africa, Morocco, Libya, the rest of Central Asia, India, or Malaysia.

As to other Middle Eastern regions and states: Saddam Hussein has used Wahhabism to give his regime an Islamic cover, but Wahhabism is deeply unpopular in Iraq.

Kurdistan is mainly Sufi in its Islam and aside from a handful of mercenary extremists, Kurds reject Wahhabism.

Syria, although a radical Arab state, is Islamically pluralist and rejects Wahhabism completely.

Jordan is ruled by Hashemites, who are traditional enemies of Wahhabism.

Turkish Muslims loathe Wahhabism because of its role in subverting the Ottoman caliphate.

Iran loathes Wahhabism as much or more, because of its massacres of Shias and wholesale destruction of Islamic holy sites, among other issues.

And other trouble spots: Sudan is a case unto itself, although Wahhabi influence has been present in the Khartoum regime.

Wahhabi infiltration is a serious problem in East Africa.

In the Western European immigrant Muslim communities, Wahhabism has a presence in France but has been weakened by the atrocities in Algeria. Britain has a loud Wahhabi, neo-Wahhabi, and Wahhabi-wannabe element but little real support for it among local Muslims. Wahhabism and Islamic extremism in general are weak in Germany, where most Muslims are Turkish and Kurdish.

(From an interview at National Review Online, at http://www.nationalreview.com/interrogatory/interrogatory111802.asp)

Schwartz seems to have blended the puritanical Islam of the Arabian peninsula with every other disagreeable form of Sunni religion or political ideology that his fevered brain can detect. The unlimited ambitions of this fantastic and indefinable octopus should bring to mind older and more familiar demons. Consider, for instance, Yasir Arafat's obsession with the supposed aims of Zionism, as described in 1994 by Daniel Pipes:

On May 25, 1990, the United Nations Security Council left its permanent quarters in New York City and moved its representatives and staff all the way to Geneva, Switzerland, just so Yasir Arafat, who had been prohibited from entering the United States, could address the Council. And what did Arafat have to say on this momentous occasion? One of the subjects he chose to highlight for this august body was his proof that the Israeli government sought to expand far beyond its present borders. "Please allow me to show this document," he told the assembled diplomats. "This document is a 'map of Greater Israel' which is inscribed on this Israeli coin, the 10-agora piece." Producing a map, Arafat elucidated in detail the boundaries of Israel purportedly represented on the coin: "all of Palestine, all of Lebanon, all of Jordan, half of Syria, two-thirds of Iraq, one-third of Saudi Arabia as far as holy Medina, and half of Sinai."

This was hardly the first time Arafat had displayed such a map. Indeed, throughout 1990 he made a practice of carrying 10-agora coins in the shirt pocket of his uniform. On occasion he would hand them out. "Look, look," he would exclaim, taking out a coin, this is a 10-agora piece. It is a new Israeli coin, And what does it show? The Jewish seven-branched candelabrum against the background of an incredible map: an outline shows the region goes from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, from the Red Sea to the Euphrates. It is a glaring demonstration of Zionist aspirations.

Sometimes, Arafat claimed that these boundaries show the map of Israel after the immigration of a further 3.5 million Jews. Except to someone predisposed to find clues of Zionist expansionism the 10-agora piece has only the vaguest resemblance to a map of the area Arafat describes. It was closely patterned after a coin issued in 37 B.C.E., during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, by Mattathias Antigonus II, the last Hasmonaean king. According to Professor Ya'acov Meshorer, head of the antiquities section of the Israel museum, the artist Nathan Karp used only the general outline of the ancient coin in his design of the 10-agora piece. "Karp was astounded," said Meshorer, "that anyone could see the coast of the Land of Israel there."

(From an article published in Middle East Quarterly at http://www.meforum.org/article/215)

Israeli 10 Agora piece - Arafat sees the map of greater Israel in it

Already discussed here, and only somewhat less kooky, is the tendency of critics of the Bush Administration to discern various ideological shadings and hidden alliances within the halls of power. Central to this ideology is the classification of certain administration hawks as "neoconservatives" or "neocons." It is never clear who this means, or how one can tell who is a neocon and who isn't except by reference to a canonical list somewhere. (Where can I get a copy?)

But the overtones are clear enough. It is apparently not entirely comfortable for right-thinking people to carry on openly about right-wing Jews or Israel loyalists. Just one recent example should suffice. This one is from Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, an expert on Shi'ism and an Iraq blogger of note:

I was on an Iraq panel at MIT on Friday with Ivo Daalder,, co-author of the just-published America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. I found his views of how the policy in Iraq has developed very interesting, and they provoked me to some thoughts of my own.

He distinguishes between the "Democratic Imperialists" (Wolfowitz and many of the Neocons) and the assertive American nationalists (Cheney and Rumsfeld), and sees them as opposing one another.

So we have three phases of American policy in Iraq and different analogies to other US imperial ventures, based on who was on top:

1. Jay Garner: Was planning to put Iraq on an even keel within 6 months and go home. This plan would have entailed putting Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress in charge of the Iraqi Army and bureaucracy (both would have been retained). It resembled the policy toward France after the US victory in 1945, where the government was handed over to the Free French. This policy was favored by Cheney and Rumsfeld.

2. Paul Bremer, First Phase: Bremer displaces Garner by mid-May. Intends to rule Iraq himself by fiat for two or three years. He disbands the Iraqi army altogether and puts off re-instituting the ministries. This is a Japan sort of plan, with Bremer playing MacArthur. He initially does not plan to have an Interim Governing Council or early elections. This plan was probably favored by Wolfowitz and some other neocons.

(Bremer first phase was modified July 13 when Bremer is forced to appoint an Interim Governing Council, because he simply did not have the legitimacy to rule Iraq by himself).

3. Paul Bremer, Second Phase: The Nov. 15 agreement is hastily hammered out calling for quick elections on a caucus basis, so that Bremer can hand over power to it by July 1, 2004. So, he would depart a year or two before scheduled. This is an Afghanistan model, complete with a US-invented Iraqi analogue to the manipulated Loya Jirga. Again, this model would be supported by Rumsfeld and Cheney and would raise anxieties among the neocons, who are dedicated to a Japan model of completely reshaping Iraq via direct US rule.

So, we've had three different models in less than 8 months, with the Washington infighting reinforced by the problem the US has had in getting control of the security situation.

I think the above analysis, which synthesizes some things that Daalder said with some things I said, leaves out the State Department too much. I think State has tended to support the Japan model and therefore to be allied with the neocons, if only as a matter of practical outcomes. It seems that the security problems are playing into the hands of the assertive American nationalists, who want to turn Iraqi civil administration over to someone local and then just leave. A US military division would be left behind for Gulf security.

The above is also probably too schematic. Daalder says that Wolfowitz is not that enamored of Chalabi, and implies that he supported Bremer against Garner (who is then coded as Rumsfeld's man). But the neocons, and not just Perle, seem to have had some sort of deal with Chalabi that made the "French" model acceptable to them. Did they really over-rule Rumsfeld to replace Garner with Bremer? How could Rumsfeld's deputies have that power to over-rule their own boss? I am pretty sure the Neocons were on board with the Pentagon flying Chalabi into Iraq in April with his militia. Moreover, there is the anecdote that Cheney poked his finger in Colin Powell's chest recently and said, 'If you had just let us turn Iraq over to Chalabi, we wouldn't be in this quagmire." This story implies that Bremer and the Japan model were State Department innovations, not neocon ones. Maybe Wolfowitz could live with it better than Cheney, but it seems to have come from Foggy Bottom. There is another wrinkle, which is that Bremer excluded most State Department Arabists in his Phase I. Why, if his Japan model was a State Department victory?

So, these whipsaw movements in Iraq no doubt do reflect Washington power struggles to some extent, but I'm not sure we have a really clear idea of who played what role. That developments on the ground in Iraq were more influential could be argued. Maybe Daalder explains all this in his book, which I have not yet read.

Josh Marshall has already written an important review of it for Foreign Affairs that is available online. He thinks Daalder and Lindsay understate the influence of the neoconservatives, who have advantages of cohesiveness that outweigh their relegation to 2nd-tier appointments.

(From Juan Cole's weblog at http://juancole.com/2003_12_01_juancole_archive.html#107078027016541354)

"Too schematic," indeed. Where to start? Most people who actually use either "Wahhabi" or "neocon" in conversation probably don't have all this in mind when they casually deploy it. Yet their all-suffusing aura of unreality makes them good candidates for Forbidden Words, terms we'd all be better off without. (See http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Den/6460/2002jan26.htm for an illustration of the concept.)

Not that anyone is likely to heed such a suggestion. I fully expect the Wahhabi- and neocon-watchers to continue to elaborate on their irreproducible observations, like the astronomers of yore who mapped with exquisite precision the canals of Mars.


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Replies: 1 Comment

OK, so what's a Wahabi?

"Wahabi" is the Western name for 'muwahhidun' (unitarians), a puritanical Saudi Islamic sect founded by Muhammad ibn-Abd-al-Wahab (1703-1792). This sect regards all other sects as heretical and is called Wahabbi by others. Wahabbism d spread throughout the Arabian peninsula when ibn Saud conquered the Hashemite dynasty of Hussein after WW I, and it remains the official Saudi ideology. Wahhabism is strict, and is known for its conservative regulations which have impact on all aspects of life. For example, it forbids use of tobacco, and believes that a ritual slaughterer must have impeccable private morals as well as following the din (law) regarding slaughter.

The muwahhidun established agricultural colonies before WW I, in which people from different tribes lived together. The inhabitants of these colonies were known as 'brothers' (Arabic: ikhwân). These Ikhwan formed the basis of Ibn Saud's armies.

The doctrines of Osama Bin Laden and other Islamists have been attributed to Wahabism, but this is disputed.

Not all Wahabi's are Islamists apparently, and not all Islamists are Wahabi.

Posted by Moderator @ 12/12/2003 11:57 PM CST

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