The 24,000-strong Saudi royal family has finally conceded that the root cause of Islamist terrorism has been its own Wahhabi ideology. It was Wahhabism that spawned Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda. The 1979 “concordat” between the House of Saud and the kingdom’s clergy has now been breached.
Following the al Qaeda suicide bombings of apartment buildings in Riyadh on May 12 that killed 35, including eight Americans, Saudi security and intelligence organizations reported what the royal family was loath to hear: Almost 1,000 Saudi clerics are either linked to, or in sympathy with, al Qaeda. They have been fired or banned from addressing worshippers after Friday prayers. Acting in the name of King Fahd, who is too ill to rule, Crown Prince Abdullah has issued new regulations prohibiting any reference to jihad, or holy war, in radio and television broadcasts.
The royals are also drafting new regulations that the Wahhabi clergy will most probably consider sacrilegious. The new rules would actually remove elements of Wahhabi doctrine — Islam’s strictest interpretation of the Koran — as it is presently taught in mosques and schools around the kingdom.
Security chiefs of the 22 Arab League nations, meeting in Tunis last week, quickly agreed on the existence of a direct link between al Qaeda terrorist attacks and a clergy that promotes holy war in holy places.
Mohammed bin Al Kuman, chairman of the Arab League’s council of interior (internal security) ministers, said the most urgent need was for moderate clerics who can see that Islam has been hijacked by extremists who preach hatred of the United States and Israel in particular, Western values in general.
President Bush has repeated frequently since September 11 that the United States is not at war with Islam. But radical Islam is very much at war with the United States. And Arab governments have now decided to face the challenge.
The Saudi clergy has sent Wahhabi clerics as missionaries all over the world to build mosques and set up madrassas (Koranic schools that teach only religion, to the exclusion of all other disciplines). There are about 2,000 mosques in the United States, most of them started by Wahhabi clerics.
In 1979, scores of Muslim terrorists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and kept Saudi security forces at bay for two weeks. Non-Muslims are not allowed anywhere near Mecca or Medina, so Saudi authorities deny to this day that French specialists were called in with sophisticated methods to subdue the Wahhabi rebellion. The Wahhabi revolutionaries had sought refuge in the catacombs. The French specialists advised them to flood them and then stick high voltage cables in the water.
The clergy pledged in the “concordat” that followed the near disaster to refrain from criticizing the extravagant excesses of the royal family. In return, the House of Saud gave free rein to the Wahhabis — outside the kingdom. In Pakistan, they took advantage of the Saudi-U.S.-Pakistani entente to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan to set up a string of madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The idea, first proposed by Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the late dictator of Pakistan, was to build an ideological barrier against what was then perceived to be the threat of Soviet expansionism through Baluchistan to the Arabian Sea.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in February 1989, the Saudi Wahhabis lavished some $300 million a year on building a network of several thousand madrassas, from Peshawar to Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi and hundreds of towns and villages along the way. From Pakistani madrassas, young Muslim men from some 30 countries, went on to Afghanistan for training in al Qaeda’s camps. Those who showed more promise for intellectual pursuits stayed on an additional two years to qualify as imams and mullahs.
The University for the Education of Truth, a leading madrassa in Khattak near Peshawar, graduated nine out of Taliban’s top 10 leaders. With a student body of 2,500, the institution is fully funded by the Saudi clergy and wealthy Saudis. Its president, Sami ul-Haq, is now a prominent member of the MMA — a coalition of six political-religious parties that governs the Northwest Frontier Province, shares power in Baluschistan and holds 20 percent of the seats in the National Assembly in Islamabad. Mr. Sami is a close friend of Osama Bin Laden.
U.S. aid to Pakistan includes some $100 million over five years to reform the madrassas and revise the curriculum to include other disciplines besides religion. A small number of these schools have gone along with reform; the overwhelming majority of religious teachers have told the authorities to butt out. Saudi Wahhabi money is still outspending U.S. aid to education reform by 10 to 1.
Most madrassas provide free room and board, smaller ones free food. For Pakistanis, with a per capita income of $450, these schools for hatred of the United States, Israel and India are a boon.
Since September 11, Saudi authorities have long dismissed stories about Wahhabi-al Qaeda connections as anti-Saudi propaganda. Yet leading Saudi businessmen conceded to this writer in the past year, albeit not for attribution, that in a free election in the kingdom, with Osama bin Laden a candidate for the top political post and the royals sitting it out on the sidelines, the world’s most wanted terrorist would win hands down. The House of Saud has finally shed its blinkers. Not a moment too soon.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.