Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Global Spread of Wahhabi Islam: How Great a Threat?

12:00-2:00pm Pew Research Center Washington, D.C.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Council on Foreign Relations co-hosted a luncheon roundtable on “The Global Spread of Wahhabi Islam: How Great a Threat?” on May 3, 2005 at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

The global spread of radical Islam, the threat it poses to American national security and the appropriate U.S. foreign policy responses are some of the most important questions facing the United States today. In July 2004, the 9-11 Commission stated pointedly in its report that the current threat that the United States faces is not simply “terrorism, some generic evil,” but rather “Islamist terrorism” inspired by “a long tradition of extreme intolerance within one stream of Islam” that flows through the founders of Wahhabism, the Muslim brotherhood and prominent thinkers schooled in the Salafi tradition. Moreover, a recent Freedom House report contends that the “spread of Islamic extremism, such as Wahhabism, is the most serious ideological challenge of our times.” But some argue that the case against Wahhabism has been overstated, and that the use of “Wahhabi” as a catchall term to describe all forms of Islamic militancy exaggerates its impact. Is Wahhabism indeed the major source of global extremism? If so, how can the U.S. most effectively counter both the ideology and its Saudi sponsors? Conversely, if the threat is being overblown, how does an undue emphasis on it undermine U.S. foreign policy interests?

Distinguished experts Paul Marshall, James Woolsey and John Voll convened to discuss to the complexity of these issues and implications for U.S. Foreign Policy.

Speakers: Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House R. James Woolsey, Former Director of Central Intelligence; Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton John Voll, Professor of Islamic History and Director, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

Presider: Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The discussion was part of a joint project on religion and U.S. foreign policy undertaken by the Pew Forum and the Council that is designed to help policymakers and analysts better understand religion’s role in world affairs and the possible policy implications. Although the roundtable was off-the-record, the speakers agreed to make their remarks available online:

Remarks by Paul Marshall

Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Luis, and thank you for having us here.

Just one slight correction to the introduction if I may. I am not the principle author of the report on Saudi literature. I would like to claim that honor but it belongs to my colleague, Nina Shea, who is sitting over on my left.

Just some background. The work I’m engaged in at Freedom House is monitoring, reporting and doing advocacy work on religious freedom around the world. One of the things I’ve noted over the last several years, particularly working in Muslim-majority countries or countries with large Muslim populations, is an increase, of which we are all aware, in more radical forms of Islam, an increase in more extreme versions of Islamic law, and also an increase in Saudi influence.

Just a couple of illustrations. In 1999, the first Nigerian state to introduce a radical form of shariah, at least in the modern period, was the state of Zamfara. When its governor, Ahmed Sani, announced the introduction of this law, he had a Saudi official standing next to him. When I interviewed the governor a couple of years later, he had hundreds of motorbikes out in the courtyard of the governor’s residence. They were going to sexually segregate the taxis, so they would need more motorbikes to transport men. I could find out from no official source where the money came from. All the journalists in town assured me it was Saudi money.

Again, in Nigeria in the year 2004, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the Saudi religious and cultural attaché in Nigeria, said he and his government had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria and greeted their results “with delight.” I might add that this is a situation in which perhaps over 50,000 people have died in the conflicts around such laws. One finds similar situations in Indonesia and in other countries.

As a consequence of this, and at the urging of a number of American Muslims, we decided to look at what the Saudis might be funding or promoting in the United States and then also to look at the effects – not necessarily Saudi inspired, but very often Saudi inspired – of extreme versions of Islamic law around the world.

First, on the Freedom House report on Saudi literature in the United States. Beginning in December 2003, we collected over 200 different titles of literature either on bookshelves or in libraries in American mosques across the country. We looked at more titles than that. The 200 we selected had to have at least two of the following characteristics: they were either official publications of a Saudi government ministry; they were distributed by the Saudi embassy; they were comprised of religious pronouncements by those in Saudi State positions; they were representative of the Wahhabi ideology in Saudi Arabia; and/or disseminated through a mosque or center supported by the Saudis. Only if two of those things were true did we look further at the title. We translated portions of 54 of these works.

We use the term “hate” in the title of the report, and that is quite an appropriate term. Just some quotations – I won’t go into detail, you will be able to read it later – but the following is advice to the traveler in the United States who is told that they live in the abode of the infidel: “Be dissociated from the infidels; hate them for their religion; leave them; never rely on them for support; do not admire them; and always oppose them in every way according to Islamic law. Whoever helps unbelievers against Muslims, regardless of what type of support he lends to them, he is an unbeliever himself.”

One could add many more things, for example, the use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a source on matters Jewish. But what is going on here is much more than a variety of hateful sentiments. The consistent pattern is this: the document I just quoted from has on the cover “Greetings from the Cultural Attaché of the Saudi Embassy” here in Washington, D.C. That is who distributed this material, or at least that is who has their stamp on it. The number of Muslims who may be affected by these views would be comparably small because that particular document was in Arabic, which of course most American Muslims don’t speak.

But it is an ideology that divides the world into the realm of Islam and the realm of the infidel, or the realm of war. So it trains the readers that they live behind enemy lines – they must be passing through, they cannot take abode here. You only have two reasons for being in the land of the infidel. One is to convert people to Islam. The second is to acquire either money or skill which you can bring back with you to help you and others engage in jihad, and in this context, it is quite clear that they mean that in a military sense, because they go on to talk about tanks and bullets, and things of this kind. One of the things you certainly cannot do is become an American citizen, because no Muslim can be ruled an infidel.

That is the particular ideology which is being taught. You must not have any good contacts, warm relations with anybody – not only with unbelievers, but with any Muslim who is not of the Wahhabi type; they are also often denounced as apostates. That is the major theme of concern in that report.

The other book just recently out is called “Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari’a Law.” We use the term “extreme shariah.” I’m not happy with the term, but I have not found a better one. Shariah itself is a generic term; it is not even well translated “law.” It has overtones of the “path” and the “way.” And so if you ask most Muslims if they support shariah, they would say yes. That would be like asking most Christians, “Do you think this country should be run the way God wants it to be?” Well, obviously.

If you ask more detailed questions, shariah means something different. They have surveys like this in Indonesia where they ask, “Do you want Indonesia to be governed by shariah?” And 67 percent say yes. They say, “Do you think it should be unlawful for a woman to be head of state in Indonesia?” And seven percent say yes. I could give other examples. But it is clear that what the word “shariah” in the abstract conjures up is quite different from some of the more detailed things we describe about these particular laws that are spreading.

In the book, we look at Saudi Arabia and Iran as two places where these types of laws are entrenched and where people are also seeking to export them elsewhere. We look at Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan, places where such laws have been introduced to a greater or lesser extent and are still being contested and lead to major conflict. Then we also look at Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries where the introduction of such laws has largely been successfully resisted. A not-unrelated fact is, of course, that these countries, despite their defects, are both democracies. And we also discuss the role of the relation of Islam and the state in the Afghan Constitution.

As far as the effect of these laws goes, again, we find every country obviously is different, but we also find a systematic pattern. The effects of such laws are far more serious than the punishments of amputation or stoning to death of women accused of adultery. Those are certainly important, but often international attention focuses on those alone. In practice, it is an attempt to push the status of women, the criminal code, religious freedom, the judicial system, educational systems, and, so far to a lesser degree, the economy – to push them into what is claimed to be a seventh-century model.

Let me expand on this. The particular problems brought up are the following: a lack of due process stemming from vague and haphazard law and extra-judicial enforcement; cruel and unusual punishments (such as amputation, removal of eyes, stoning and crucifixion); the denial of equal rights under law to women, especially so in questions of marriage, divorce, inheritance, education and employment, but also because commonly the testimony of a woman is given less weight in court, either half that of a man, or occasionally a quarter (in cases of rape, there is a major problem in punishing the perpetrator because you would need several female witnesses to counter the word of one man); and the denial of equal rights under law to non-Muslims, making them second-class citizens, or worse. For example, the penalty for killing a Baha’i in Iran is nothing – there is no penalty at all because they have no legal status.

But the greatest danger of these laws is to democratic principles and systems themselves. This is tied to a complex of things. One is the state enforcement of blasphemy or apostasy laws that can carry the death penalty, either against Muslims who are not part of the dominant group or who dissent from the state-imposed version of Islam, or who criticize the government’s policies. Such laws, of course, can be applied and are applied to non-Muslims.

But the particular focus here is that when you intertwine religion and the state in such a close fashion, all criticisms of the state become religious criticisms, and therefore, someone who criticizes a state policy or state laws can be hit with a charge that they are in fact opposing Islam. If accused of apostasy, they may face the death penalty or they may get lesser punishments. This has happened in Nigeria, it has happened in Sudan, it has happened in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, and in Afghanistan – that critics of government policies are hit with apostasy or blasphemy charges for challenging Islam.

This is the major danger, because the possibility of religious openness and the parallel possibility of political openness are severely undercut when debate and challenge and questions themselves become an offense, possibly even a capital offense. So in terms of the spread of democracy, this, I think, is the major problem.

Documenting it in detail, I have seen no analysis, country by country, of Saudi funding and material; principally the reports are largely anecdotal. But we can say the activities I have described are spreading and the Saudis are involved in many of them. It is having a radicalizing effect in countries from Nigeria to Indonesia. These effects are very destructive both in the law itself and in the conflict it produces. And, of course, this is antithetical to stated U.S. goals of the promotion of democracy around the world, in that they are almost by definition the antithesis of democracy.


Remarks by James Woolsey

Let me start with a word about ideology. I have said a number of times that probably the reason that Ronald Reagan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw at the end of the ’70s the death of the Soviet Union within a decade or so was that the Irish sometimes just hear voices the rest of us don’t hear. But that is a wisecrack. The real reason is that both of them were involved in politics on the left in the late ’40s – Reagan in the Screen Actors Guild and Moynihan in rough New York – and they saw what had happened to the vibrant communist movements of the ’30s once their ideology effectively died, as it did with Stalin’s for the crimes of the ’30s becoming widely known.

And when it was on its last legs in the 1970s, they saw in spite of the expansion of Soviet power that the ideology was dying, and that is why they were more prescient than any American or any other intelligence service – much, much more prescient than academic experts, except for two or three people at RAND. And I think that the lesson of the Cold War is in part that ideology matters.

Now, the Faustian bargain that Luis was referring to is what George Shultz – co-chairman with me of the Committee on the Present Danger and a not a man easily given to overstatement – calls a grotesque protection racket. And what I meant by the Faustian bargain is that in the 1970s, particularly by 1979, two things happened on the Arabian Peninsula.

The House of Saud became very, very wealthy and very, very frightened – wealthy because of the huge spike in oil prices by the end of the decade, taking them from a couple of billion dollars a year in foreign earnings to 20 billion dollars, and frightened because of two events: the fall of the Shah and the coming to power of Islamists to govern in Tehran among the hated Shiites, and the takeover attempt in Saudi Arabia, which was really a coup attempt that resulted in the takeover of the great mosque in Mecca by Islamist terrorists for a time.

The deal that I believe was struck, whether implicitly or explicitly who can say, was for the Wahhabis to be given all of the money in the world they could ever remotely dream of needing or wanting to spread their sect’s beliefs and for them to leave the House of Saud alone. The effect over the last 30 years, at least according to Alexei Alexiev, is that some 85 to 90 billion dollars – that is “billion” with a B – have been spent fostering and spreading Wahhabism in the world – totals that would have been a dream to the Comintern a generation before. You see it in the “madrassas,” or schools, of Pakistan and in the literature that Paul and Nina described in the Freedom House publication. It is there and really rather obvious.

It is, of course, intensely full of hatred for Shiites, for Sufis, for Jews, for Christians, for women, for music, for modernity, for pretty much everything. And my personal belief is that an important part that helps drive the other totalitarian spirit in different aspects of this doctrine, is their treatment of women, which has got to be the worst in the world, as was the Taliban’s, who were, for all practical purposes, their disciples.

The overall ideology has to do ultimately with the reestablishment of the Caliphate and of the jihad to accomplish this. This Wahhabi sect’s beliefs are being spread very broadly in the Middle East and to here. They bear somewhat the same relationship, as far as I’m concerned, to Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda that the angry German nationalism of the 1920s and early 1930s bore to Nazism. Not all German nationalists became Nazis, much less concentration camp guards, and not all young men who go to Wahhabi schools and madrasses in Pakistan become disciples of Osama bin Laden or terrorists. But that is the soil in which Nazism grew and this is the soil now in which Islamist terrorism is growing.

If I had to draw an analogy – a rough one, but I think an instructive one – I would say it is as if Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain, with her confessor Torquemada at the head of the Spanish Inquisition of late 16th century, were moved up into the early 21st century and then 25 percent of the world’s oil was discovered underneath Spain. Torquemada would be a very busy gentleman indeed establishing inquisitions in lots of parts of Europe and the rest of the world, just as the Wahhabis are very busy establishing their sect’s doctrines as much as possible in the suburbs of France, in Islamist movements in Malaysia, in wherever.

Over the long run, I think we have more to worry about from the Sunni Islamists than from the Shiite Islamists, such as the “wilayat al-faqih” where ultimate power of the state is vested within the clergy in Iran, and even from Iran’s instrumentalities such as Hezbollah, because the notion of the Caliphate, of the union of mosque and state, has been rejected – not entirely, but has generally been rejected – in Shiite Islam. In the Fatimid Dynasty in the 10th century, yes, but Khomeini was the major innovator. And one of the reasons his successor Khamenei is so unpopular among not only the young people – those 19 and younger are half of Iran – and among the women and the reformers and even among large numbers of Shiite clerics in Iran and Iraq, is precisely because this notion of theocracy, of the union of mosque and state, is so at odds with the mainline Shiite tradition of quietism as spoken for, for example, by Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq.

So although the Shiite Islamists are far from being a non-problem – given the wilayat al-faqih’s development of nuclear weapons, its control of the instruments of power of the Iranian state, its control of Hezbollah, and so on – I don’t believe it has the long-term staying power that the Sunni Islamists do. If the members of the wilayat al-faqih look out on the horizon, I think they ought to be able to see the storm clouds gathering just as Reagan and Moynihan saw them gathering for the Soviet Union. And they ought to have the same attitude toward them that a reasonably perceptive inhabitant of the Kremlin in the mid-1980s or a perceptive inhabitant of Versailles in the mid-1780s would have had – namely, that the storm is not overhead yet, but they ought to be able to see it coming.

But due to the combination of the oil wealth of the Gulf, the compatibility of the Sunni Islamists’ support for the Caliphate and the history of the Caliphate in Sunni Islam, the long-term objectives of the Wahhabis – I believe the Sunni Islamists present an extraordinarily serious ideological threat. And the reason I always say “Islamist” is that I mean to connote precisely a totalitarian movement masquerading as a religion. We do not in retrospect need to accept Torquemada’s claim that his life, which repudiated everything that the Sermon on the Mount preached, was emblematic of Christianity or that he represented Christianity, and we do not need to accept the Wahhabis’ claim that their hatred is emblematic of or represents the great religion of Islam. Thank you.


Remarks by John Voll

I am reminded of a taping for a television show that everybody thought was going to be really a hot ticket. It had John Esposito and John Voll sitting on one side of the room and Stephen Schwartz and a couple of people on the other side of the room. And after an hour-and-a-half of discussion, the Fox network people thought it was so damn dull that they never put it forward because there were so many areas that Stephen Schwartz and I and John Esposito and the other people agreed upon that it sounded more like a friendly analysis than a hardball commentary.

And as sort of truth in advertising, let me just start by saying that I am one of those people who has buried in my memory the fact that someone for whom I had a great deal of affection was executed for heresy by an extreme shariah law application. Ustaz Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, whom you referred to indirectly, was someone who was a big help to me when I was a graduate student, and I have that as an important part of my memory bank, if you will. His execution by the Numeiri regime in 1985, is an important part of my vision of what some applications of some kinds of shariah represent.

However, there are some distinctions that I want to make. The difficulty that we all have is that it is possible to create big conceptual baskets into which we dump everything that we are interested in that happens to be related. And violent militant Islamic activism and Islamic ideological radicalism, and, quote, “all of those sorts of things” can very easily get dumped into one big basket.

And I think that it is important not to argue if the threat is overblown or not. Is there a threat that there is a major terrorist act just sitting there waiting at some place every single day? Yes. That is not an overblown statement; that is a statement of reality. But is that particular threat to some particular place that we don’t know about at the moment – is that threat caused by the same thing that caused the threat two weeks ago, half-way around the world? And I think it becomes important then to make a series of distinctions of developments and trends that may be interacting and that may be mutually reinforcing, but at the same time are different, so that if we want to do something about factor X, we have to deal with factor X rather than factor Y.

As we look at the statistics on terrorism, the recent reports on the significantly increased number of terrorist acts – suicide bombers and so on in the past year – if we simply look at the statistics and the numbers, we can say that there are Muslims doing this. But the big increase does not come from people who have been in the radical Wahhabi madrassas of Peshawar. The big increase comes from people who went to the Ba’ath, secular, modernizing schools of the very modern anti-Islamic dictator Saddam Hussein. And so if we lump everything, every suicide bomber, into the war on terror, and then we say we are going to get rid of it by getting rid of Saudi hate literature in New Jersey, they may be related, but real problems need to be identified in particular terms.

I think that what we have is a very valuable set of findings in these two Freedom House reports that highlight important particular dimensions. I think that it is important, as well, however, to do what I tell my students, the undergraduate students who want to be analytical experts in all of the jobs that all of you have around the table. I tell them that the little handbook for becoming an instant expert, the first thing in being an instant expert that you say is, “Well, we have to put this into a broader context.”

Well, I will be that kind of an instant expert for a moment. We have got to put the problems that have been identified in these two studies within the broader framework. We can talk about the Sunni hate literature, but we need as well to recognize the importance of the Sunni-anti-hate people who are our natural allies. And I know the RAND study has gotten sort of miscellaneous knocks from some people and the recent U.S. News & World Report article put up that inflammatory title of, you know, “The United States government wants to reshape Islam and tell Muslims what to think,” and they should be moderate in all of that. But whatever may be the politics of those kinds of things, it is important to recognize that just as there are Sunni authors of hate literature, there are people who are Sunnis who are writing the refutations of that as well.

And so we have what I would say are three important related but distinctive ideological packages, if you will. There is the violent jihadist militant package, but if you ask, what is the real content? What is the ideological content of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda? It’s not what appears in the classic or even the current Wahhabi activist literature.

If you look at the studies of al Qaeda, if you look at who is the ideologue for Osama bin Laden, it’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, who comes not out of the Saudi Wahhabi conservative theological tradition but the radical jihadist ideological tradition of advocacy of violent jihad that has its roots with Sayyid Qutb in the Egypt of the 1960s. And Sayyid Qutb got his radicalism coming to the United States by being part of a radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and having remarkably little contact with the Saudis, who he, in fact, thought of as being part of the unbelieving infidel “jahiliyya” against whom militant jihad should be waged.

And the heir to Sayyid Qutb is Shukri Mustafa, or Abd al-Salam Faraj, who wrote The Forgotten Duty, which is the standard Islamic monograph on jihad, and again, you look at that – you look at The Forgotten Duty of Faraj – and that has virtually no modern Wahhabi content. It has essentially an Egyptian violent jihad ideological content. And you look at Ayman al-Zawahiri whose ideology was not formulated in some conservative Wahhabi madrassa, it was formulated in modern schools of science that he got as he was educated as a doctor in Egypt.

One of the questions is, yes, what is the influence of Saudi-influenced madrassas, and why do you get militants produced from there? But a question that is at least as important is why do modern schools of engineering and medicine and modern science produce even more of these violent jihadists? Mohammad Atta and the people who flew into the World Trade Center were not students at El-Azhar, they were not students from the University of Mecca and Medina.

And so I think it becomes important to distinguish between the violent jihadist ideology, which is a major threat, and the extremist Wahhabi Saudi literature, which I think is also a threat but perhaps a different kind of threat. And I think the Freedom House study is very, very important as a wakeup call to some somnambulant Muslims in America who thought that they had left these issues when they decided to live in West Virginia or New Jersey.

And, finally, again, I think the studies in Freedom House’s book on shariah law are very interesting and very important – their analysis of how extreme rigid shariah law has gotten implemented. It’s nice to have motorbikes sitting in the lobby and to have a Saudi Shaykh standing next to you, but it doesn’t hurt for Zamfara Province also to be the heartland of a two-centuries-old tradition of jihad, to recognize that Governor Sani is not just someone who gets motorbikes from the Saudis but who is in a political position in a province that has two centuries of jihad literature going back to the Fulani jihad of Usman dan Fodio.

In each of the cases, I think we would have had advocates of extreme shariah law implementation in virtually all of these countries with the possible exception of Iran. I think we would have had advocates in each of these countries without Saudi money and without Wahhabi teachings, because each of them has their own indigenous traditions of advocacy of militant jihad that, as the studies point out and as we all know, represent a minority within these countries.

PAS, the Islamic law implementation party of Malaysia that has for many years controlled elections, won elections in Kelantan and often in Terengganu. PAS won control of Kelantan Province long before the sudden influence of the Saudis coming in. In Indonesia, the tradition of violent holy war in Acheh goes back even farther to what used to be called the Padri Wars of the late-18th century up in Northern Sumatra.

There is a marvelous study that I would like to call your attention to. Aharon Layish and Gabriel Warburg published a book on the reinstatement of Islamic law in Sudan under Numeiri, the regime that killed my friend. And in this study, they don’t start with Wahhabi da’is. They don’t start with Saudi missionaries. Layish and Warburg start with the late-19th century “Mahdi.”

And so that leads us finally to the end. I think “extreme shariah” is probably a good term. The term that I end up usually talking about is based on my experience at looking at the Numeiri laws, and I call it “off-the-shelf shariah,” that is what you had for the September laws that in September of 1983 were formulated by a couple of young men who were just out of the University of Khartoum Law School. President Numeiri said, “Okay, we need a proclamation on criminal law.” And Nayil Abu Garun looked at me and he said, “You know, what did I do? Well, I went down the hall and I pulled Ibn Taymiyyah off of the shelf – what does he say about witnesses? What does he say about this, that and the other thing?”

The extreme shariah implementation is the implementation of a concept of shariah that says everything that needs to be defined was defined at least six centuries ago; it’s now in a book and all you have to do is go to the shelf and pull it off the shelf and there it is.

One of the biggest battlefields ideologically in the Islamic world today is something that is in terminology and discourse that makes it difficult for most of us to get to. That is the battle over what really is shariah – to use the technical term, distinguishing between shariah and fiqh, that is, distinguishing between shariah, an Islamic way of life, the great principles from the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet on the one hand, and the jurisprudential musings of 14 centuries’ worth of scholarship on the other. It’s a very diverse field – let’s not put it all in one big basket. Thank you.

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information