“Islam is a religion of love. My brother was killed by terrorists, by false Muslims.”
These were the words of Malek Merabet, the brother of the policeman who was shot in the Charlie Hebdo attack. He is right. But his point raises another question that doesn’t get the attention it deserves: How did Islam come to the point where charismatic firebrands like Djamel Beghal — who radicalized two of the Paris terrorists — are seen as authoritative by the vulnerable?
What happened to Islam?
All religions have their extremists. Self-described pastor Terry Jones caused an international furor when he threatened to burn the Quran. The Ku Klux Klan has been parading nominally Christian symbols like Bibles and crosses for centuries. But these movements are seen for what they are: cults that appropriate the symbolism and style of a religion for their own amoral ends. Yet when a voice like Beghal, or Anwar al-Awlaki before him, or Osama bin Laden before that, preach the message that Islam requires murder — a straight reversal of the truth — their message finds fertile ground.
It is time for the debate on recent events to move from the relatively familiar ground of questions about freedom of speech and the importance of satire to thornier and less comfortable questions:
How did Islam come to this point? Can we do anything about it?
When non-Muslims write about these topics, they tend to stop at the border of these kinds of questions. And for good reason: They stand on the threshold of the internal theological debate of a great world religion. To advance further means going into a territory about which even commentators don’t feel they can bluff their way through. It means engaging with 12 centuries worth of theological debate and risking offending millions with a slip of the pen, safer to avoid the question altogether.
Just as you don’t have to be a Christian to have a working knowledge of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, you shouldn’t have to be a Muslim to understand the difference between some of the radically different strands within Islam.
Doing so is key to understanding how we got here.
Most branches of Islam are quietist, pietistic, apolitical. These are the millions of Muslims for whom, like people of faith around the world, being religious means prayer, study and self-reflection.
Divergence in Islam
The divergence within Islam began in the 18th century with the advent of Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who believed that Muslims had strayed from the authentic teachings of Islam.
Don’t sugarcoat the Islamic threat.
The movement condemned visiting shrines and tombs of saints. Muslims who did not agree with his teachings were excommunicated or killed in an effort to purge Islam from what al-Wahhab believed to be unsanctioned innovations.
Wahhabi military campaigns waged war against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering entire villages of Muslims who did not subscribe to extremism. This same extreme ideology is behind the present-day destruction of shrines and mosques and the continuing violence against minority and mainstream Muslims all over the world such as the Shiites in Pakistan.
Wahhabism would have remained a footnote in history as a puritanical cult movement even after it was adopted as the official state religion, were it not for a single factor — the discovery of oil. The flood of petrodollars meant the Saudis could then invest in institutions that create extreme and conservative religious leaders who in turn helped maintain the Saudi royal family’s position of power.
Although Wahhabism itself does not advocate violence, it does emphasize anti-Semitism, misogyny, interacting with non-Muslims only in cases of necessity, and ex-communicating any Muslims who do not subscribe to its deeply conservative and culturally isolationist ideology. It thus lays the intellectual foundations for jihadism, a rogue offshoot of Wahhabism which encourages the terrorism we see on our TV screens.
Radicalization of Muslims youths can thus no longer be seen as an isolated domestic problem when it is funded by wealthy Wahhabis who are continuously supporting groups to further their ideology. It is clear that Wahhabism isn’t Islam — it is a cult movement that uses Islamic terminology and has hijacked the religion using petrodollars. In the process, its adherents are killing and maiming more Muslims than people of other faiths, and are creating deep societal rifts and lasting enmities within their own communities.
Emboldened by anarchy in failed and failing states, funded by petrodollars and justified by fundamentalist ideology, extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State are seizing the moment and endeavoring to impose Wahhabi ideas wherever possible.
Saudi government’s role
The Saudi government still promotes Wahabbism at home and abroad. Scholar Sadek Hamid of Liverpool University in England has estimated that the Saudi government spends $2 billion to $3 billion a year on spreading Wahhabism. That includes scholarships for non-Saudis to travel to Saudi Arabia and subsidized books and other educational materials. Some Western Muslim institutions have accepted Saudi funding.
Although many poor Muslim communities around the world appreciate what they see as investment in education, it lays the foundations for extremism. Once young people have been taught to see mainstream Muslims as irredeemably “other,” once the seeds of misogyny and anti-Semitism have been planted, they are hard to uproot. The global propagation of a doctrine that has been a parent to jihadism impedes counterterrorism efforts.
Islam is at a point in history where a key American ally is spending money laying the foundations of an extreme interpretation of Islam. The result is more fertile ground for jihadist narratives. It is time we turned our attention to this issue. We are entitled to ask some tough questions of not just Saudi Arabia but our own government.
Azeem Ibrahim is a lecturer in international security at the University of Chicago and research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.