April 9, 2003 | Op-ed

Let America Be America the Liberator Again!

By Stephen Schwartz

Iraq is free. The dictatorship has fallen. The process that began with the end of Marcos, the fall of the Berlin wall, and other democratic victories has reached the last redoubt of tyrant and terror. The time has now come to address the overall nature of the American mission in liberating the Arab and Muslim countries. I would begin such a discussion with the issue of Wahhabism, which was the topic of my book The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud From Tradition to Terror (Doubleday).

Let me be clear: I do not think victory in Iraq means we must wage war on Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rather, I believe democratization in Iraq will provide a powerful incentive to the consolidation of democracy in Iran and the commencement of a transition to a new social order in Arabia.

The ideology known as Khomeinism is in full decline. The people of Iran, overwhelmingly young and forward-looking, supported by important Shi’a Muslim clerics, wish to end the period of religious rule that Khomeini initiated. The reformist clerics put it well: the experiment failed, and it is now time to craft a new political system in Iran that will separate religion from the state, and which will be based on popular sovereignty.

But the menace of Saudi-backed Wahhabism remains. Al-Qaida represents Wahhabism in its purest form. Wahhabism, the official sect in Saudi Arabia, is a fundamentalist, violent movement that rejects all existing Islam as unbelief – especially Islamic spirituality – as well as seeking the ultimate destruction of Shi’a Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism.

Wahhabism is not an old Islamic tradition, and the House of Sa’ud, contrary to Western beliefs, does not enjoy a major historic claim to rulership over Arabia.

Wahhabism emerged in the 18th century in central Arabia – only 250 years ago. The founder of the Wahhabi dispensation, an obscure figure named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, formed an alliance with a clan of desert bandits, the al-Sa’ud. The area where these events transpired is located on the main route for pilgrims going to Mecca, on the Muslim hajj, from Kuwait – especially Indian pilgrims, who in the 18th century were a rich source of plunder for the al-Sa’ud.

Wahhabism was observed and commented upon by Western journalists and authors in its own time. For example, the 19th century English aesthete Thomas Hope wrote a novel, titled Anastasius, that made a tremendous impression in the 1830s. Therein, Hope, who had traveled widely in the Islamic world, painted the Wahhabi sect in colors strikingly familiar to a modern reader: as extremist Puritans bent on total control over the world’s Muslims, beginning with the destruction of the Ottoman empire; as Arab ultranationalists, to use a contemporary term, and as terrorists. In one of his most extraordinary passages, for a modern reader, Hope described Wahhabi agents scoping out targeted buildings in Baghdad in the 1790s, an activity chillingly reminiscent of what we know about how al-Qaida works.

The house of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the house of Sa’ud created a theological and political alliance, in which the Wahhabis directed religious affairs and the Saudis exercised political control. This alliance seized control of the main holy sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, twice, murdering thousands of people in the process. In 1924, with the complicity of the British, the Wahhabis seized Mecca for the second and last time. After that came the oil, and the oil money, and with what seemed to be limitless resources, the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance began, in the late 1970s, a serious attempt to take over world Islam. The result was a series of conflicts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that culminated in the emergence of al-Qaida, and, finally, the horrific events of September 11th.

Today, as it did before September 11th, the Wahhabi religious bureaucracy and the Saudi state foster Islamic extremist ideology, and the terrorism enabled by it. When bombs go off in Israel, in Indonesia, in Kenya, and elsewhere, and when terrorists strike at the democratic coalition forces in Iraq, the main source of money is, without exception, found in Saudi Arabia.

Those who argue that Islamist extremism is a product of U.S.-hegemonic support for corrupt regimes have a point. But they ignore that the main source of ideology, incitement, and funds for Islamist terror has always been none other than official Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the Saudi kingdom now try to confuse Western opinion by proclaiming that they, too, are targets of Osama bin Laden, while their real intent is to mask their own complicity in his financing and organization. In reality, Islamist terrorism is only partially a protest movement by Saudi subjects aggrieved at the monarchy’s alliance with the West. It is, in much greater part, a phenomenon directly supported by Saudi authorities. Al-Qaida would not exist without Saudi money.

We must stop telling ourselves and others that Saudi Arabia represents some ineffably mysterious, ancient, and traditional society that we must approach reluctantly, with extreme caution, and at arm’s length – especially when discussing the need for political change there. In particular, we must stop telling ourselves and others that the main danger of political change in the kingdom would involve a shift to a more extreme Islamist regime.

There is no mystery to Saudi Arabia. It represents the worst example in modern times of a corrupt and reactionary absolute monarchy, whose rulers have great difficulty perceiving the depth of the crisis that faces them, as well as the way out of the crisis. The Saudi royal family can no longer rule in the old way, and their subjects, with a growing youthful majority, increasingly refuse to live in the old way. There is nothing novel about this. The same problem characterized the regime of the Iranian shah.

Nor does it represent anything ancient or traditional. To emphasize, Wahhabi Islam is not traditional Islam. It is an extremely destructive, nihilistic and radical form of Islam.

Wahhabism preaches an ultra-Puritanical way of life while the Saudi elite swims in whisky and dizzies itself with pornography. Wahhabism claims to be the purest form of Islam while the Saudi monarchy depends on Christian bayonets for its protection. These mixed signals, or, more bluntly, these forms of hypocrisy, have a deranging effect on Saudi society. But they are also the essential source of Islamist extremism and terrorism. To close the gap between Wahhabi blandishments and Saudi reality, and in a desperate attempt to recover their credibility, particularly in the 20 years since the emergence of Khomeini in Iran, the reactionary faction of the Saudi monarchy has financed terrorism and infiltration throughout the Islamic world: in Central Asia, Pakistan, Kashmir, the Balkans, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kurdistan and in the Iraqi war zones.

Wahhabi extremism has nothing to do with humiliation of the Islamic world by the West. Saudi Arabia has never been subjugated by the West. Rather, its rulers have been pampered, coddled, and bribed by the West. Its need for military support from the West, the pretext for al-Qaida terrorism against Americans, is hardly new. To emphasize, over its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, Wahhabism has always depended on its alliances with the Christian powers – Britain, the U.S., and France – to protect its rule in the Arabian peninsula. At the same time, to its own population, it preaches a toxic mix of ferocious separatism, exclusionism, and murderous violence directed against non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims. The former aspect has led gullible policy experts in the West to view the Wahhabi faction around King Fahd and princes Sultan and Nayef as friends of the U.S., and to stigmatize all opponents of the regime as extremists.

In contrast both with Wahhabi separatism and Western stereotypes about dissent in the kingdom, traditionalists under Saudi rule call for general religious liberty, to accommodate Arab Christians now underground, the many thousands of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist guest workers in the kingdom, and foreign Christian and Jewish visitors. While issues involving activist Christian proselytism would doubtless remain sensitive, traditionalists see no justification for preventing Christians from worshipping. Saudis claim falsely that exclusion of non-Muslim religious rituals in the Arabian Peninsula reflects Islamic tradition, but Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state, has authorized the erection of new Christian churches, of which there are many in Bahrein, where Jews and Hindus also flourish, and there is a Hindu temple in Oman.

Make no mistake – even non-extremist Saudi subjects experience hopelessness and frustration. But their resentment does not flow from abject poverty. Saudi Arabia faces great discontent in its populace. But this discontent does not reflect a desire, except among the clerical bureaucracy and the Wahhabi faction of the royal family, for Wahhabism to be maintained or reinforced. The vast majority of Saudi subjects are restive because of three factors:

q Shi’a Muslims in the Eastern Province and southern region are tired of the violent discrimination they have suffered at the hands of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance. These Shi’as are not prone to Islamist extremism.

q Two generations of Saudi subjects are educated and entrepreneurial. They know how the real world works. They have access to satellite television and the internet. They are tired of their educated and entrepreneurial ambitions being blocked by the corrupt and sclerotic system. They want to live in a modern society, such as would most resemble Malaysia – a constitutional and parliamentary Islamic monarchy.

q Finally, and most significantly, non-Wahhabi Islamic scholars, especially in Hejaz, the region of Mecca and Medina, seek the restoration of theological pluralism. In recent discussions with dissident Saudi subjects, I have learned that thousands of young people are turning to the peaceful and spiritual form of Islam known as Sufism as an expression of opposition to the Wahhabi dictatorship in their country.

Furthermore, a necessary and inevitable transformation of Saudi Arabia need not turn into a bloody collapse. There is sufficient possibility for a managed transition to a Malaysian model. I have called this the “Juan Carlos/Windsor/Malaysia” solution. Like King Juan Carlos in Spain, a member of the royal family such as Crown Prince Abdullah can sever the links between the monarchy and Wahhabi ideology. Like the Windsors in Britain, the Saudi royal family may retain their wealth and even their status as heads of state, but without ruling the country; and the Malaysian model may therefore emerge as the best alternative for Arabia.

In addition, it is absurd to believe that a successor political regime would reflect a more extreme Islamist position. None of the elements that led to the establishment of the Khomeini regime in Iran are present in Saudi Arabia. Unlike the Iranian scholars of 1978, the Wahhabis do not have a record of real opposition to the state, nor do they have a tradition of collective action or of political sophistication in the management of crises or even the exploitation of political opportunities that appear in times of crisis. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has produced no unifying, charismatic figure comparable to Khomeini; and above all, Iran represented an experiment, and Iranians had not experienced strict Islamic rule. By contrast, Saudi subjects are, simply, sick of Wahhabism.

But while Saudi Arabia need not go the way of Iran internally, the U.S. faces the serious threat of repetition of its error in Iran in Saudi Arabia, by remaining faithful to an alleged ally and questionable friend, and propping up a corrupt regime even as it collapses. This danger will be especially pernicious in the aftermath of victory in Iraq. The beginning of democracy in Iraq can lead to consolidation of reform in Iran and the commencement of a transition to a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy in Saudi Arabia. We cannot liberate Iraq while helping to maintain tyranny in the Saudi kingdom.

Such an outcome would be devastating for American credibility, and would tragically reinforce the Islamist claim that our power exists only to support oppressive rulers. Although it is impossible to imagine a worse regime than that of Saudi Arabia in its relations with its subjects, U.S. intransigence in defending the most reactionary elements of the royal family could produce a less-repressive but more anti-American successor government.

I do not come to this discussion from an academic or government background. I am somewhat like Thomas Hope myself: I came to examine Islam as a poet and political intellectual. I have flattered myself in saying that I learned about Wahhabism the way George Orwell learned about Stalinism. To understand global Stalinist ideological aggression, Orwell did not go to Moscow; he went to Republican Spain during that country’s civil war, where he witnessed the nefarious activities of the Soviet secret police. I did not go to Saudi Arabia to study Wahhabism; I witnessed the attempt of Wahhabi-Saudi agents to take over Balkan Islam, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania. I first heard the term Wahhabi in a Yugoslav context more than 10 years ago.

I consider journalistic objectivity to mean accuracy, not neutrality. After much study, interviewing, and publishing on these topics, I went to the Balkans to live in 1999. Among Albanians, from 1999 to 2001 – only weeks before September 11, 2001 –I witnessed, and had the honor of participating in, the resistance of the local Muslims to Saudi-Wahhabi efforts at control and indoctrination.

As I have come back to the United States, Balkan Muslim intellectuals with whom I am close have called on me to expose Wahhabi-Saudi religious colonialism to the Western public. This profound charge became even more serious after September 11th.

Hostility to Wahhabi extremism is prevalent throughout the Muslim world. In researching my book, I drew on informants, most of them confidential, that included Saudi subjects, West Africans, Moroccans, Algerians, Egyptians, Somalis, Chechens, Ingushes, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Indian Muslims, Malaysians, and Iraqis as well as Balkan and American Muslims.

What is the main goal of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance? To destroy the traditional Islam present from Bosnia-Hercegovina to South Africa, and from Morocco to the Philippines, and to replace it with their extremist, ultra-rigid, and Puritanical version of Islam.

I personally observed the failure of Wahhabi-Saudi infiltrators to take control of Balkan Islam. This profoundly cynical effort was motivated by the belief that the terrible martyrdom undergone by the Bosnian Muslims in particular, would induce these victims of an attempted genocide to turn away from their European roots and open, tolerant, Ottoman Islamic traditions, and to embrace Wahhabi extremism. I do not think any Islamic community in the world can be said to have suffered, in the last half century, a comparable agony to that of the Bosnians: tens of thousands of women and girls raped, a quarter of a million dead, 40 percent of mosques leveled, more than half a million people dispossessed of their homes. Yet the Bosnian believers, their eyes focused clearly and unwaveringly on their own Sunni legacy as well as their distinctive traditions, refused to submit to Saudi control.

Still, the repudiation of Saudi-Wahhabi pretensions by the Kosovar Muslims has been even more dramatic. Put simply, the entire Albanian nation is acutely conscious that it owes the survival of 2.5 million Kosovars to action by the democratic West, by the Christian leaders of the U.S., and to the noble activities of the Jewish religious and civic leaders in the West, who demanded action to stop the Serbian terror. In Kosovo, the Wahhabi-Saudi fake jihad has failed completely.

But the extensions of the Wahhabi conspiracy – centered in such organizations as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, both headquartered in Saudi Arabia – are visible throughout the world, wherever Muslims are found, including on U.S. soil.

The failure of Western political and intellectual leaders to adequately understand the internal crisis in Islam, and the conflict between tradition and extremism, led not only to obliviousness in the face of the terror revealed on September 11th, but also to heedlessness in dealing with Islam on American soil. At this point, certain measures have become imperative.

One of them is for the U.S. to demand a full, transparent accounting of Saudi involvement in September 11th from the Saudi authorities. Another is to demand that the Saudi government, like the Soviet government and various right-wing dictatorships before it, entirely cut off its subsidies to the extremist Wahhabi ideological establishment.

Third and most important, is to protect, support, and otherwise encourage American and other Muslims opposed to Wahhabism to develop and preserve their own community institutions and to produce a new, articulate network of authoritative advocates who can bring the truth about traditional Islam to the Western public. More importantly, the moment has come to shift from the struggle to warn the West about jihadism to the campaign to organize mainstream, traditional Muslims, throughout the world, for the liberation of their communities and their faith from the grip of corrupt rulers – whether in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. The last is the mission of the Islam and Democracy program created by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. I believe this concept crystallizes the liberation strategy pursued in Iraq by our commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush.

I should like to conclude these remarks with some observations relevant to the present conflict, in which our great and noble cause is led by a Republican president.

I will confess to a peculiar and counter-intuitive understanding of history, which led me to my observance and investigation of how our Saudi ally fosters international Islamist terrorism.

Today, I see our armies and those of our coalition partners arrayed against the forces of terrorism. And I see in this conflict a repetition of a conflict of the past. Some have asked if the horror of September 11th should not be considered parallel to the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, which began the first world war. In 1991 I stood in the footprints of Princip, the Serbian terrorist who fired the fatal shots at Sarajevo 89 years ago, and in the decade after I stood there, in the atrocious war that shook the Balkans anew, I observed Serbian terrorism reborn. The city of Sarajevo and the city of New York have something in common, in that both experienced the evil of terrorism inflicted on an innocent, civilian population.

But there is a higher parallel to September 11th and to the present war, and it is greatly counter-intuitive, and may be rejected out of hand by many people. It is with Fort Sumter and our own Civil War, in which the Republican Party of President Lincoln, and of secretary of state William Henry Seward, who had been governor of the great state of New York, secured the end of human slavery in this country, and preserved our union as a mighty power in the world.

We have long been told our Civil War involved only us, and was irrelevant to the rest of the world. This is wrong, for our Civil War involved more than a conflict between our own people. It also defined who we are as a nation: America the liberator, a representative of the transforming idea of freedom, throughout the world.

I see today the mighty battles of our Civil War transferred to the planetary scale, and the emergence of a global Civil War, to determine whether freedom or tyranny will dominate the future of humanity.

I see today an evil, terrorism, that like the evil of slavery, reflects the power of vast, entrenched interests.

I see today a commodity, oil, that like cotton then, is treated as a value above all others, determining the fates of whole nations.

I see today a captive people, the Muslims of the world, who like the African Americans of a century and a half ago, labor under the tyranny of terror and the terror of tyranny.

I see today a Europe that, like Europe in the 1860s, disrespects the moral values that inspire the leaders of our cause.

At the time of our Civil War, the European statesmen declared they would support the Union if it truly sought freedom for the slaves, but they scoffed and argued that our intentions were low and mercenary, and that we were fighting merely to maintain our colossal presence in the world, and not for any higher principle. They called our Civil War a war over cotton, impossible to win against the hardy and committed southern forces. So today they scoff and argue that our intentions are imperialistic, and that this is a war over oil, impossible to win against millions of Arabs.

At the time of our Civil War, the European statesmen revealed that although they hated slavery they feared American power more, just as today they show that while they fear terrorism they fear our power more.

At the time of our Civil War, many among those in Britain who supported the cause of our Union, nonetheless believed peace and order were superior to liberty, and shrank from the recognition that blood might have to be spilled to pay the cost of freedom, just as today many who support our struggle to rid the world of terrorism draw back when they see the sacrifices that will be demanded by it.

At the time of our Civil War, the European press portrayed our secretary of state, William Henry Seward, as a fanatic willing to turn the Civil War into a world war should the European powers obstruct our path, just as the neoconservatives within the present administration have been painted as ideological extremists. And the European press described secretary Seward’s defiance of European meddling as a gambit to divert attention from the failures of the Lincoln administration by starting a foreign war, just as the European media, and a section of our American media, describe the liberation of Iraq as an attempt to distract our people from the alleged domestic failures of the Bush administration.

At the time of our Civil War, the rotten powers of Europe proposed to halt the conflict between north and south and to impose peace upon us, without removing the cancer of slavery and liberating the oppressed millions in our southern states, just as the United Nations has sought peace in Iraq without removing the terrorist dictatorship of Saddam.

At the time of our Civil War, our president was slow to embrace direct action to free the slaves, as the present administration was slow to commit itself to the strategy of liberation in the Arab and Muslim lands, but, once having taken the decision, followed through with it. And the European powers, which had demanded that the war be fought over slavery, then described the Emancipation Proclamation, the 140th anniversary of which we mark this year, as a dangerous act that might provoke a slave uprising and a race war, just as today they predict that the liberation of the Iraqi people will produce a wholesale war of all against all in that martyred land.

Secretary of state Seward commented then, “at first, the [Union] government was considered unfaithful to humanity in not proclaiming emancipation, and when it appeared that slavery, by being thus forced into this contest, must suffer, and perhaps perish in the conflict, then the war had become an tolerable propagandism of emancipation by the sword.”

So are we told today that our president has committed our nation to an intolerable program of democratization by the sword.

But our cause is that of all humanity, as it was 140 years ago. Our cause, as it was then, is that of Moses, for when God commanded him to free the House of Israel from bondage, God did not tell him to inform Pharaoh that inspectors would be sent into Egypt and the United Nations entrusted with the work of liberation. And I will tell you that traditional Muslims love the Prophet Moses, and will not oppose our cause if we act in loyalty to the great inspiration of freedom that moved him.

But today the United Nations has come to resemble our congress as it existed in the decades before the Civil War: a place wherein the evil influence of tyranny and terror hold sway, serving only to prevent the actions of brave and moral leaders from carrying out the worthy mission of defeating the oppressors.

And I recall to you, in reflecting upon the degeneracy of the United Nations, the great words of secretary of state Seward, who declared that such deliberative bodies have “no power to inhibit any duty commanded by God on Mount Sinai,” or by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount of Olives.

Seward also spoke with clarity in 1858, as the Civil War drew near, of the Democratic party of that time, a party that had made itself the protector of the slave power. He said, in words I believe apply fully to the Muslim and Arab peoples, “I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward. [S]enators and… representatives proclaim boldly in Congress today sentiments and opinions and principles of freedom which hardly so many men, even in this free State [of New York], dared to utter in their own homes twenty years ago. While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, [have] surrender[ed] one plain and castle after another to slavery” – and if we substitute the word “terrorism” for that of “slavery” his words become truly exact in their parallel – “the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the constitution and freedom forever.”

Today I see the Republican party reborn in its original, magnificent incarnation, as the party of liberation, the party of American power in the service of freedom, the party of Lincoln. And I will say that I am grateful to God for having allowed me to live to see this mighty outcome.

We have turned a page in our history. As our president has said, our cause is just. Freedom has come for the Iraqi people. Liberation will come to the Muslim and Arab peoples. Let America be America the liberator again!
Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.