Yesterday, few places felt more vulnerable than the Central Line, as I sat with my son, deep under London’s streets. The train stopped suddenly around Queensway and we both looked at each other, indeed everyone looked at each other. No one needed to say anything; everyone understood what everyone else was thinking. This is what terrorism does, it terrorises; and, if not quite terrorise, it puts doubts in your head where there weren’t any before. That’s enough.
London is full of mosques, the vast majority of them frequented by people who have no truck with those who murdered so callously in Brussels, but some people who go to some mosques obviously do. This is the only conclusion that you can draw.
Young men and young women become radicalised because someone else teaches them. It doesn’t happen on its own. People who once were happy to be barmen don’t turn into soldiers of Allah overnight. It is a process.
If you talk to Muslims, particularly older ones, they will tell you that this process of radicalisation is relatively new. It is the product of the past 30 or 40 years. If this is the case, what has happened? What has happened is that after the revolution in Iran in 1979, the West decided that Iran was the enemy and that our new best friend, Saudi Arabia could do no wrong. Saudi Arabia was the strong counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East and, therefore, anything it did was sanctioned.
We looked the other way, so much that we didn’t even bother to understand the extreme form of Islam that Saudi Arabia practised and, worse still, fomented abroad.
Saudi Arabia practises Wahhabism. If you want to understand the region, it’s critical to understand this strain of Islam that is preferred by – and exported by – Saudi Arabia.
You can’t understand Isil and those people that carried out yesterday’s attacks without understanding Saudi Arabia’s role in all of this. What drives Isil to blow up ancient Roman, Persian and Buddhist monuments is rooted in Wahhabism. Nor can you understand what perverted logic drives them to kill innocents without learning about this type of strict Islam.
It all begins a long time ago.
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was born not far from Riyadh in 1703. He trained as a holy man and was, like many religious people, constantly torn between a purist adherence to the original scriptures and a more tolerant accommodation of the word of God leavened with the reality of day-to-day living. This schism is not unusual. The fight between puritanism and pragmatism is, after all, at the heart of the great split in the western Christian Church too – what we called the Reformation.
Al Wahhab called for the purification of Islam and a return to pristine Islam. When the young Imam called for the beheading of women in his local town for adultery, the people knew this guy meant business. However, it is likely that this form of extremism wouldn’t have caught on in what was, by the standards of the time, a reasonably tolerant place had it not been for local insurrection against the unpopular Ottoman Empire which ran the Arabian Peninsula and taxed the locals mercilessly.
Possibly, in an effort to get God on his side in his fight against Istanbul, the local leader of a small oasis, Mohammad ibn Saud, threw his lot in with the renegade preacher, Al Wahhab, in 1745. The link between the House of Saud and Wahhabi was forged there and then; and they have been allies ever since.
At the time, Islam, like lots of religions, was a concoction of bits of other religions, beliefs and practices. These had been borrowed and customised along the way. Remember, this part of the world was the crucible of civilisation, the epicentre of the world’s great trading routes and a place where the three main monotheist religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – had been founded; Judaism and Christianity literally a few yards from each other, Islam a few hundred miles down the road.
Al Wahhab objected to this evolutionary, almost ‘hand-me-down’ approach to Islam. As a purist, he wanted to go back to basics, to make pristine the religion. Possibly the most important tenet of Wahhabis is that they believe in what they call “the oneness of God”. As a result, association with lesser gods, other gods, mysticism, shrines, temples, saints or holy men amounts to idolatry and must be stamped out.
This put Wahhabis on a collision course with the other strains of Islam, such as Shi’as or, even worse in the eyes of the Wahhabis, Sufism. Shi’as and Sufis were the enemy within and, of course, Judaism and Christianity were the enemies at the door. Wahhabis called for jihad against all these infidels.
For a century, the march, and reach, of the Wahhabis was limited to the Arabian Peninsula. Then the game changed, Saudi Arabia struck oil and the politics of the region altered forever, so too did geo-politics and Western economic expedience. Once the Saudis discovered oil, the West snuggled up to Riyadh, no questions asked.
Now the most extreme form of Islam was wedded to the richest country on earth and the Saudis have set about exporting not just oil, but a radical, intolerant form of Islam which drives Isil and various other jihadi groups. Saudi Arabia has spent some of its vast oil wealth on financing madrassas from Malaysia to Manchester – some of which are projecting Wahhabi ideas far from the Gulf.
Isil, with its murder of innocents, its desecration of ancient monuments and its subjugation of women, is the latest incarnation of extreme Wahhabism, and Saudi Arabia – the West’s biggest ally in the region – is Isil’s biggest external financier. It costs money to wage war and Isil gets money from oil, local racketeering, hostage-taking and external private donations. The private donations come from donors, many of whom are Saudi.
When you follow the money, all radical roads lead back to Saudi Arabia, not states that are supposedly the West’s enemies such as Libya, Iraq or even Assad’s Syria.
The majority of the 9/11 hijackers, Bin Laden, his al-Qa’ida chief lieutenants and all five regional Isil commanders in Syria and Iraq are Saudis. Each of these extremist organisations are the 21st century offspring of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, the cleric who came out of the desert in the 1730s and the institution he allied with in 1745: the House of Saud.
The sooner the West admits this, the better.