When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the jihadi leader whose blackshirts over-ran swaths of northern and central Iraq in June, gave his Ramadan rant last month after proclaiming himself caliph, he had it translated into English, French, German, Turkish, Russian – and Albanian. Why did his Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), which now styles itself narcissistically as the Islamic State, take the trouble?
Since the end of the cold war and after the wars of the Yugoslav succession, the western Balkans – in particular Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and even bits of Bulgaria – have been carpeted with Saudi-financed Wahhabi mosques and madrassas. This is moving local Muslim culture away from Turkic-oriented, Sufi Islam towards the radical bigotry of Wahhabi absolutism, which groups such as Isis have taken to its logical conclusion. This is fertilised ground for jihadi ambition.
Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers, even as it struggles to insulate itself from the blowback; and King Abdullah, in his end of Ramadan address, warns against the “devilish” extremism of “these deviant forces”. Jihadi extremism does present a threat to the kingdom. But in doctrinal terms it is hard to see in what way it “deviates” from Wahhabi orthodoxy, with its literalist and exclusivist rendering of Sunni Islam. Its extreme interpretation of monotheism anathematises other beliefs, in particular the “idolatrous” practices of Christians and Shia Muslims, as infidel or apostate. That can be read as limitless sanction for jihad. The modern jihadi is a Wahhabi on steroids. His main grievance with the House of Saud is that it deviates: its profligate deeds do not match its Wahhabi words.
The late King Fahd, Abdullah’s predecessor, for example, acquired a reputation as a playboy and gambler in his youth. Yet during his reign he built 1,359 mosques abroad, together with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools, according to official Saudi data. There seem to be no figures for Wahhabi “outreach” under Abdullah, a more austere and ecumenical figure. Anecdotal evidence says Saudi mosque-building is powering ahead wherever believers are found, especially in south, central and southeast Asia, home to about 1bn of the world’s 1.6bn Muslims.
The House of Saud, facing a potentially wrenching succession to the ailing Abdullah at a time of upheaval across the Arab world, is in a delicate position. As custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, it is the closest modern equivalent to the old Islamic caliphate. It thus abominates the violent presumption of Isis as much as it abhors the rival brand of pan-Islamic fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the kingdom still spews out the corrosive poison that helps fuel religion-based fanaticism. The Isis rampage of destruction of shrines and mosques, for instance, continues the two centuries-old record of Wahhabi iconoclasm. Nor should it be forgotten that the House of Saud used Wahhabi zealots as its shock troops in the last century to unite by force most of the religiously diverse Arabian peninsula – won by the sword in 52 battles over 30 years. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and permits to build Shia mosques are rarer than desert rain.
Saudi Arabia is not solely responsible for the result; resurgent jihadism amid the virulent battle within Islam between the majority Sunni and minority Shia is playing out across the Levant, down into the Gulf and across to the Indian subcontinent. But it is a primary source of doctrinal bigotry, as Saudi schoolbooks enjoining believers to shun all but their own well attest.
The modern jihadi is a Wahhabi on steroids. His main grievance with the House of Saud is that it deviates
The worldwide surge in Wahhabi mosques began in response to Iran’s attempts to export the Shia radicalism of its 1979 revolution. The Anglo-American overthrow of Iraq’s minority Sunni regime in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which installed a Shia majority and ignited sectarian carnage – and the west’s failure to support the rebellion of the Sunni majority in Syria, have fed Sunni grievances, sharpened by the Iran-backed Shia axis across the region. It is uncertain whether the Saudi state and its Gulf allies finance groups such as Isis, but their citizens do, encouraged by the Sunni supremacist discourse and tactical promiscuity of their rulers, fearful of being outflanked from the religious right.
Saudi Arabia’s position as the world’s leading oil exporter, a leading purchaser of western arms and a counterweight to Iran in the Gulf has shielded it from criticism. In the current turmoil in the Middle East – characterised by an absence of state and institutions, a loss of shared national narrative in mosaic countries such as Syria and Iraq, and the feebleness of previously influential big powers – there is a lack of mainstream Sunni leadership.
The petrodollar theocracy of Saudi Arabia, in its contest with the petrodollar theocracy of Iran, has smothered Sunni space – except for the vacuum in which Isis is building its (also oil-rich) cross-border caliphate, now striking east into Kurdistan and west into Lebanon.
Previous generations of mainstream Sunni Arabs gave their allegiance to pan-Arab nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, tarnished paladins of a dead-end ideology. The potential disaster now facing the Arabs demands a new generation of Sunni leaders, able to defeat extremism within their own camp. That is something Saudi Arabia, whose Wahhabi absolutism is part of the genetic code of groups such as Isis, cannot do.