Why the West Is Losing the Battle Against Radical Islam

The West can no longer hold its tongue on fundamentalist religious sects that emphasize piety to the point of counting a few followers worthy while dismissing everyone else in the world. Such is the case with Wahhabism, or Salafism, the state religion in Saudi Arabia that’s exported to other Muslim nations with the help of oil dollars. Azeem Ibrahim, PhD, international security lecturer at the University of Chicago and adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, outlines the sect’s history, describing it isolationist, misogynist, anti-Semitic and increasingly dangerous. The ongoing war against extremism is not a battle between Islam and secularism, he argues, but rather between the most bigoted sects of Islam and the rest of the world. The world has more than a billion Muslims, of which maybe 5 million are Wahhabi. Ibrahim concludes, “This fight will be won or lost in the Muslim nations.” The West must help by initiating serious dialogue with Saudi leaders on their support of a fundamentalist sect utterly lacking in morality for an interconnected world. – YaleGlobal

Why the West Is Losing the Battle Against Radical Islam

The US and Europe fail to summon the courage to criticize Saudi Arabia or toxic Wahhabism
Azeem Ibrahim
Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ideology of blood and gore: Islamic State terrorists in Libya prepare to behead Coptic Christian civilians by the Mediterranean (top); the founder of the extremist sect, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab

CHICAGO: The West declared a war on terror more than a decade ago. Yet in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the subsequent wave of police interventions in Europe, many feel less secure. Even generally peaceful, cohesive nations of Canada and Australia have seen gruesome attacks in recent months.

Despite spending years developing security arrangements, investing billions in the process, the West is less secure. From lone gunmen with histories of mental illness killing civilians at random to the Belgian terrorist cell discovered in February with replica police uniforms and elaborate plans for attack, many security experts suggest this brand of global jihad is on the rise. The security experts do not offer a remedy. The chief of the UK Security Service MI5 has warned that the next attack in Britain is a matter of when, not if. The United States, whose Muslim communities have been less susceptible to jihadist ideology, braces for attacks.

Military action abroad and police action at home have attended to the symptoms of terrorism, not the cause. The cause is easy to diagnose – the extremist ideology of Wahhabism, the puritanical, reactionary, xenophobic sect of Sunni Islam that is the ideological bedrock of the state of Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy, social economic factors, alienation, identity are often invoked in explaining the rise in radicalization. Sure enough they have a role, but all are secondary exacerbating factors. The primary cause is ideology. And this ideology is on the march.

Wahhabism began in the 18th century in what is today Saudi Arabia with Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. In a manner similar to the religious reformers of Christianity in Europe during the16th and 17th centuries, al-Wahhab suggested that fellow Muslims had strayed from the authentic teachings of Islam. He called for a return to fundamentals. Wahhabis call themselves “Salafi,” referring to the “pious predecessors,” or the first three generations of Muslims from the Hadith period. Also in parallel to some currents of the Christian Reformation, this return to fundamentals involved strict iconoclasm and strident opposition to any doctrinal “deviation.” The movement condemned visiting shrines and tombs of saints as polytheism, one of the worst offences in Islam. Muslims who deviated from al-Wahhab’s teachings were designated “apostates” – an offense that according to al-Wahhab carried the death penalty. So al-Wahhab excommunicated in one fell swoop the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims, calling for all those to be converted to his ideology or be killed in an effort to purge Islam from what he called “unsanctioned innovations.”

Wahhabi converts, few but motivated, carried out military campaigns against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering entire villages who did not subscribe to the fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith, in much the same way that villages through Central Europe were laid to waste in previous centuries over doctrinal disagreements among local priests.

Such violence could well have remained a small footnote in history. Local conflict among poorly defined and delimited groups is a feature of human history. What followed put this extreme ideology on the map for good.

For reasons of political expedience, Ibn Saud, after whom modern-day Saudi Arabia is named, at the time a minor local warlord of the Nejdi Desert, courted Ibn Wahhab and his sizable band of militants, co-opting him into plans to assume political control over the Arabian Peninsula. They formed an alliance: al-Wahhab provided religious legitimacy to the aspiring royal who in turn ensured that Wahhabism became the official doctrine of the new Saudi state.

The pillaging of the villages of so-called apostates and destruction of religious sites continues to this day. Members of the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia seriously propose destroying Mohammed’s tomb in Mecca or destroying relics of the Prophet in the Grand Mosque.

This unholy alliance is the region’s single most powerful, dark, driving historical force.

A cultural aberration in the middle of a desert could have remained a local Arabian phenomenon, but instead spread more or less unchecked over the last half century – a consequence of the discovery of oil in the region. The Saudi Kingdom, founded in 1932, became one of the most politically influential players in the world economic system. The United States and United Kingdom back the Saudis in regional politics and resist commenting on the regime’s excesses, including investments that spread the extreme ideology abroad.

Western governments have a convenient shield. Strictly speaking, this form of Islam is separate from the jihadist ideology motivating much of the current wave of terrorism. Strictly speaking, Wahhabism is isolationist and pacifist.

But in truth, the shift towards a jihadist ideology requires but a simple modification of Wahhabism: Take the Wahhabi world view in which only puritanical fundamentalist practitioners of Islam count as people worthy of equal moral consideration, thus ex-communicating other Muslims and ostracizing everyone else. The result is an extremist cult with profound commitment to a them-versus-us world view. The descent into violence was inevitable.

Wahhabi history in Arabia reveals the threat. The preachers refrain from advocating violence to avoid falling foul of the law. But they do emphasize anti-Semitism, misogyny, interacting with non-Muslims only in cases of necessity and ex-communicating Muslims who do not subscribe to the conservative, isolationist ideology. The sect lays the intellectual foundations for jihadism. As aptly noted by Sara Khan of the UK anti-extremism organization Inspire, these non-violent extremists lead converts to the door of violent extremism and that door is opened by the likes of Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or the Islamic State.

The ongoing fight is not between Islam and secularism. It is a fight between the most bigoted sects of Islam and everyone else, be they Muslim or Western. Most of that fight unfolds in the Islamic World with atrocities exceeding the scale of the Paris attacks nearly every day in some Muslim country.

This fight will be won or lost in the Muslim nations.

There should be no doubt, what we fight against is visceral bigotry. And most of that bigotry is bankrolled directly or indirectly by the Wahhabi establishment in the Gulf with petrodollars. Until the West puts a stop to the propagation of Wahhabi ideas through charities, preachers and embassies, the bigotry and terror will continue. No amount of resources spent on policing the internet or surveillance at home will prevent the onslaught of martyrs threatening the lives of ordinary citizens in the West.

The West may not be taking this fight as seriously as it should. King Abdulaziz al-Saud died in January. Western leaders extended sympathy and friendship to the kingdom. President Obama cut short a visit to India to attend the funeral after refusing to visit Paris for Charlie Hebdo memorials. All express hopes that Saudi Arabia would move to a more progressive future, but none challenge the feeble progress or offers suggestions on Wahhabi extremism.

Now could be the ideal time for stern dialogue with the Saudis, reminding that they are a prime target of the extremists. A decade before the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Osama bin Laden declared war on the House of Saud for allying with the United States in the first Gulf War.

The royal family has been digging their own graves for generations, and the alliance with Wahhabi bigotry is no longer a political asset. The Saudis must change Arabia and stop feeding the blood-thirsty beast of Wahhabism – for their own survival, the good of Islam and the sake of world peace. Westerns and Muslims alike must prepare to do whatever it takes to convince Saudis to change.


Azeem Ibrahim, PhD, is an international security lecturer at the University of Chicago and an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. In 2009 Ibrahim was a Yale World Fellow.

Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale