We can’t blame ‘Wahhabis’ for everything

A collection of modern skyscraper buildings, the biggest of them a huge office and clock tower with a cupola at the top and the name of Allah in Arabic above the clock face. The sacred mosque and two of its minarets are at the bottom of the image, dwarfed by the modern buildings behind it.
Abraj al-Bait Towers in Mecca, with the clock tower towering over the minarets of the great mosque.

In response to Boris Johnson’s article from 2007 on what he regarded as being ‘wrong’ with the Muslim world, and how Islam itself was to blame for it, the Guardian printed an article yesterday by Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, which answered a few of Johnson’s claims about the ‘backwardness’ of Ottoman Istanbul versus the record of Byzantine Constantinople of “keeping the flame of learning alight for a thousand years”, as well as the claim that printing presses were absent from the Ottoman empire for centuries, when in fact they appeared in the 1720s and had been resisted because the word was regarded as art. Towards the end, however, Brotton claims that today’s “fatal religious conservatism” is primarily down to Wahhabism, “the puritanical doctrine founded in the 18th century that is now the official state religion of Saudi Arabia, which condemns millions of Muslims – including Shias – as apostates and has inspired terrorist organisations such as Isis”; Johnson will not acknowledge this, he says, for fear of offending the Gulf oil sheikhs. This is a common line of reasoning when defending mainstream Islam and the Islamic cultural legacy, but it is misplaced.

To begin with, when he was editor of the Spectator, Boris Johnson did print an article which puts the blame for destructive political fundamentalism firmly on Wahhabism; it was by Stephen Schwartz and can be found on their archive site here. He claimed that what were then called “rogue states” such as Iraq, Libya and Syria were less important in radicalising the al-Qa’ida terrorists than Saudi Arabia itself and that, apart from the revolution in Iran, all the violent movements around the Muslim world were Wahhabi or, like the Taliban, practised a “variant of Wahhabism” (which in fact they did not). He claimed that they could be described as Islamofascists, a line he repeated in a number of other essays, most of them on American conservative opinion websites; in another of them he claimed that “the Wahhabi death cult represents naked Islamofascism”. The line that Saudi Arabia had an unaccounted-for responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks was a popular one on right and left: Michael Moore made accusations like this a number of times, including claiming that the skills necessary to steer the two aeroplanes into the twin towers must have been learned in the air force, not a small flying school.

I am not a Wahhabi and have been critical of Wahhabism all the time I have been Muslim, including many times on this blog. There are, within Wahhabism, pro-establishment and extremist tendencies and so you will find Wahhabis condemning terrorism as well as those practising it. But its fundamental departure from the Islamic mainstream is in its theology, not in anything to do with politics (the very early Wahhabis displayed Kharijite behaviour, rebelling against the Ottoman sultan who at the time held the position of caliph, and killing Muslims who rejected their doctrines, but their descendants do not do this). It rejects the idea of allegorical interpretations of certain passages in the Qur’an that refer to the hands and eyes of Allah, for example; to them, these words mean exactly what they say, although they do not believe that His hands and eyes are like ours. Mainstream Islam suggests metaphorical interpretations, within the bounds of the classical Arabic language, while some scholars refrain from interpreting them entirely. They also reject a lot of the ‘cultural’ side of Sufism, such as the practices that resemble dancing during gatherings, and nowadays they reject the idea of Sufi ‘orders’ or ‘paths’ which have been the norm in the Muslim world for most of its history, although their popularity has declined. They were noted in the 1990s for being aggressive and argumentative in their dealings with other Muslims. But they are not solely to blame for everything that is wrong with the Muslims now.

Western conservatives tend to blame Islam itself for the politics of the various Muslim countries, and politics for ‘backwardness’ and lack of intellectual rigour (in particular, the poor state of the Muslim world’s universities which largely function as training schools for doctors, engineers and so on). The fact is that many of these regimes are secular and backed by either western powers or by Russia, and are opposed to there being any ‘religious’ influence on politics and in some cases to the practice of Islam itself. In many Muslim countries, particularly Arab countries outside the Gulf region, Muslim men are afraid to grow their beards, cannot wear traditional clothing and are afraid to attend mosques, especially for morning prayers, for fear of attracting the secret police’s attention. The teaching of religious knowledge has been suppressed and the traditional schools closed or converted into western-style universities, but even in such places, a police state is not a good environment for any intellectual flourish. It is the repressiveness of some of these regimes, accompanied by their suppression of mainstream religion (and the same policies under the colonial powers that preceded many of them), that drives some young people into the hands of the fanatics; the group that formed ISIS were men tortured in American prisons in occupied Iraq.

Some of Johnson’s claims are just plain ignorant; in the 2007 article he claimed that “virtually every global flashpoint you can think of – from Bosnia to Palestine to Iraq to Kashmir – involves some sense of Muslim grievance”. Bosnia had nothing to do with “Muslim grievance”; it was a genocide perpetrated by Serbian Christians against Muslims who, like the Croats and Slovenians before them, had tried to free themselves from the increasingly Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation. It was the Serbs who had tried to resurrect old hatreds, not the Muslims. Even without the printing press, the Muslim world had always been highly literate (including at times when the western world reserved literacy for celibate churchpeople) and there were professional copyists who manually copied out books; there have been numerous examples of slowness to automate or resistance to automation, often for the preservation of jobs, in western society much more recently. Johnson is an ignorant man with a deep-set hostility to Islam and Muslims and an over-developed sense of his intellectual prowess; no doubt a facet of the confidence that an English public school education gets you. But Wahhabism is not the only source of fanaticism in the Muslim world and it is not the only source of backwardness or conflict, and not all Wahhabis are fanatics or terrorists. “Blame Wahhabism” is an easy way to avoid western responsibility for the state of countries they colonised for much of the last century and the one before; it is not a great leap from “blame some Muslims” to “blame Muslims”.

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