August 9, 2003 | Los Angeles Times

In Bed, but Not in Good Faith

By Stephen Schwartz

Saudi Arabia and its ultraextreme Wahhabi sect of Islam have come to the forefront of the American consciousness, especially after last month's release of a congressional report on the atrocities of Sept. 11 from which some 28 pages of material, which everybody assumes have to do with the Saudi kingdom, were “redacted,” or blacked out. Nobody can predict how disclosure of Saudi involvement in the horrors at the World Trade Center will finally affect the U.S.-Saudi partnership, but it is likely that the long period of “sleeping with the devil,” in Robert Baer's phrase, has come to an end.

The warnings of Islamic scholars and European travelers about the dangers of Wahhabism were ignored for generations, especially after oil made the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance a valuable partner of the Western powers. That is the story Baer tells in “Sleeping With the Devil.” The broadening of interest in the problem has led, inevitably, to a coarsening of commentary upon it that one must expect from an audience that wants a faster and easier way into the controversy and not a textbook treatment.

It was said of Prussia 200 years ago that, rather than a country that possessed an army, it was an army that possessed a country. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is less a state with an official religion, Wahhabism, than a sect with a state structure that protects and advances its interests. And, curiously, the ascent of Prussia coincided with the rise of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who founded his doctrine in the cultureless wasteland of Nejd in central Arabia. But though the Prussian state is only a historical memory today, the descendants of the rude preacher from Nejd still control the religious affairs of a state named for the clan that governs its political affairs, the house of Al Saud.

Until Sept. 11, analysis of this peculiar phenomenon in Islamic history was limited to a handful of specialists in the West and a mass of anti-Wahhabi polemicists in the Muslim world. Neither read much of the other's work. Thus, a recent history of Saudi Arabia by Russian historian Alexei Vassiliev, which has become a standard volume in English, includes the manifestly false claim that it is “difficult nowadays to find anti-Wahhabi writings.” In reality, everything was always there for someone who knew where to look. But Wahhabism has been treated as a novel and even invented topic, while the debate over Wahhabism is anything but new among Muslims.

We have known for some time of the Wahhabi menace. In the early 19th century, a now-forgotten English writer, Thomas Hope, composed an extraordinary novel, “Anastasius, or, Memoirs of a Modern Greek” that was immensely successful in its time and was falsely ascribed to the pen of Lord Byron. Hope was a typical specimen of the wealthy traveler and aesthete of his age and had journeyed extensively in the Islamic world. The first 19th century seizure of Mecca by the Wahhabis and their clearance from Arabia by an Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, sounded across the globe. “Anastasius” includes an exceptionally detailed account of Wahhabism, chilling in its parallels with the phenomenon of Al Qaeda. Like its present-day acolytes, the Wahhabi movement of two centuries ago practiced assassination and other forms of terror, and it was commonly said that, “in the very midst of Baghdad, in the broad face of day, Wahhabis had been seen — scarcely disguised — taking note of the individuals and marking the houses, which their vengeance or their avarice had devoted to destruction.” Similarly, William Brown Hodgson, a writer from Savannah, Ga., wrote of the Wahhabis in 1835 as “formidable enemies of the Muslim faith an heretical sect which for so many years had defied [the sultan's] authority, desecrated the holy places of the Prophet, and interrupted the annual pilgrimages.”

A former CIA Middle East case officer and the author of a memoir, “See No Evil,” Baer provides a hasty book that mixes memoir and superficial analysis, some of which is wrongheaded. His book, in fact, has more in common with Hope's 19th century novel than with a serious examination of the Saudi issue; the dunes rise high and the shadows grow long in the desert, where they are surrounded by clichés and macho posturing. The wham-bam idiom is typical of ex-CIA personnel, but in this case the effect is more slapdash than slam-dunk.

The essence of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is known to many people: The U.S. makes lavish use of Saudi petroleum, and the kingdom has gained lavish quantities of American cash and assets, much of the latter on American soil. U.S. officials have turned a blind eye to the reactionary utopia of Wahhabism, in which, on the pretext that it encourages prostitution, women are forbidden to drive automobiles. (The same reason was cited for years to ban any education of girls whatsoever.) But since Sept. 11, it has also been woefully clear that American administrations were suicidally irresponsible in ignoring the murderous nature of Wahhabism and its “jihad against the world” — of which non-Wahhabi Muslims have always been the first and most numerous victims.

Baer's treatment of this history is handicapped by his obsession with corruption in the Washington political elite, which so dominates him that he has largely neglected the much more significant tale of Big Oil and its romance with Satan, even as his book's subtitle refers to “Saudi crude.” “Washington made us lie down with the devil,” he writes. But this is only partly true. Washington did the bidding of Big Oil, not of the Saudis; had oil not been at issue, the U.S. would never have gotten involved with the kingdom. Unlike Britain, which once had millions of Muslim subjects in its empire, the U.S. had no fundamental interest in “secure control” of Mecca and Medina, the holy sites of Islam, as promised by the Wahhabis.

Indeed, Big Oil, and especially the successors to the Standard Oil trust, have so dominated the history of U.S.-Saudi relations that a lawyer formerly with the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, Richard J. Torre, has come to view Sept. 11 as, in effect, a failure of antitrust doctrine — the consequence of federal pusillanimity in enforcement of restrictions on the Standard successors.

Such a perspective is absent from Baer's book. To Baer, democratization in the Middle East is a “fairy tale” that survives only because “it allows those who matter in Washington to sleep soundly in their Georgetown town houses and suburban mini-mansions and faux chateaus [sic] This fantasy of a democracy is a corrupting foolishness,” which this cowboy from the company insists is only a pretext for continued Saudi bribes. He accompanies this argument with the spurious claim, common all over the West, that the only alternative to Saudi-Wahhabi misrule is something inconceivably worse, and that democracy would unquestionably bring a regime even more reactionary and repressive. Thus, his solutions include a weird proposal for emulation of the Syrian military dictatorship and that good old company standby: an invasion.

Baer's argument overlooks the plight of those discontented Saudi subjects who risk their lives, property and the security of their families to travel secretly to Washington to inform us of the real situation in the kingdom. Soviet communism could not change human nature, nor can Wahhabism. Rather than loving Osama bin Laden and hoping for even worse circumstances than that with which they presently contend, millions of Saudi subjects, many of them in possession of satellite dishes and the Internet as well as a Western education, are normal people who look forward to real change. Such change would involve the end of the Wahhabi dictatorship in matters of faith; a constitution like the one that Hejaz, the region of Mecca and Medina, had prior to the Wahhabi takeover in the 1920s; an elected parliament; independent media and freedom of worship for non-Muslims. After all, Oman allows open Hindu and Christian religious activities; there is a synagogue in Bahrain, along with Hindu and Christian places of worship; Kuwait and Qatar have begun electoral experiments.

Every American has an interest in the progress of events in Saudi Arabia. To note one item, Saudi preachers continually incite their hearers to go north of their border to Iraq, where Wahhabis are killing coalition troops. Rather than buying “Sleeping With the Devil,” one should keep an eye on the front pages of the dailies. There one will find no lack of more authoritative reporting and better analysis.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of “The Two Faces of Islam” and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.