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Wahhabi Extremism and MBS Reform

Comment written by Farhang Jahanpour in Juancole.com

Saudi Arabia certainly needs reforms and it is good to hear the Saudi leader speak about religious tolerance. However, in many of his interviews and speeches in the West he has stated that Saudi Arabia turned to religious fanaticism as a reaction to the Iranian revolution, and that he wants to take the country back to tolerant Saudi practices. This statement is clearly false and is not very reassuring.

It is true that the Islamic revolution in Iran introduced an intolerant form of Islam. It did not introduce greater political freedom, but even reversed some of the social and religious freedoms that the Iranian people had enjoyed under the Pahlavi government, but to blame the rise of fanaticism among the Sunnis on the Islamic revolution in Iran is clearly not supported by facts.

The Wahhabi teachings contained a strong element of anti-Shi’a, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiment. The destruction of sites associated with early Islam, particularly the shrines of Shi’a Imams, has been a continuous feature of Saudi Wahhabism. In 1801-02, the Saudis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, destroyed the tomb of Imam Hussein and massacred a part of the Shi’a population. In 1803 and 1804, the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed many historical monuments, including the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, Ali’s wife and Imam Husayn’s mother, who is especially revered by the Shi’is.

Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928 and spread to many other Sunni-majority countries. The radical teachings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) spread strong anti-Western and anti-modern ideas and distorted the meaning of jihad, turning it into a war of aggression against the non-believers. Qutb’s writings have helped frame the extreme ideas of the jihadists and radicals and have fostered anti-Western views.

What is needed is for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to turn towards a more tolerant form of Islam and allow freedom of expression and of worship to the believers in all faiths and none.

I don’t know of the kind of pressure that MBS has put on Pakistan and Taliban to abandon jihadis. It would be good to know of the kind of action that he has taken. The sad fact is that Pakistani Islam was initially much more tolerant than it has become recently, mainly as the result of many Saudi-funded madrasas teaching strict Wahhabi ideology, instead of a rather mystical variety of Islam that was practiced by the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal.