by N Janardhan
(IPS) DUBAI --
Saudi royal family is weathering the biggest challenge to its rule since it founded the kingdom about 70 years ago. But the task is harder without a definite roadmap to guide it through the post-Sept. 11 pressure aimed at diluting the influence of the puritan Wahabism brand of Islam in daily life.
Today, the country where Islam emerged 14 centuries ago and houses the holy sites of Mecca and Medina is struggling to curb militancy without confronting the religious powerhouses or inviting the wrath of the public, especially after it transpired that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudi nationals.
"It is a crisis that has touched every aspect of the kingdom -- religion, economy, polity, authority and legitimacy, Ghassan Al Jashi, a political analyst with Al Ithihad newspaper, said in an interview.
"It is a crisis that has had to be handled on three fronts -- the United States, Arab world and the local population. A crisis of this dimension is certainly as bad as it could get," he added.
Attention has been increasing on the Saudi brand of Islam, Wahabism, especially now that even some U.S. neo-conservatives are branding the Saudis an American enemy. Its adherents comprise just 10 percent of the world's more than one billion Muslims, but its conservatism includes restrictions on women's rights and participation in public life.
Wahabism, which Osama bin Laden adheres to, is named after its founder Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab (1703-92), a reformist Sunni thinker who preached an austere doctrine of strict observance of religious duties, believing that the faith had strayed from the pure path.
His doctrine was taken up in 1745 by Mohammed Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saud dynasty that still controls the kingdom politically. Wahab's descendants, known as the Al Sheikh family, control the religious institutions in a consensual relationship with the royals.
The kingdom has championed the tradition in the socio-politico-economic spheres since King Fahd's father, the late King Abdul Aziz, unified the vast country in 1932 and named it after his family following a long territorial war helped by Wahabi warriors.
Now, either due to U.S. pressure or because of the realization by the royals that their stability is being tested, the Saudi government is attempting reforms that were unthinkable only a year ago.
These have included arresting hundreds of al Qaeda activists and approving anti-money-laundering legislation.
Likewise, Crown Prince Abdullah has publicly pleaded with clerics to tone down anti-Western sermons and denounce the Sept. 11 attacks. The Islamic Affairs Ministry has banned clerics from declaring 'jihad' (holy war), saying that it is the exclusive right of the rulers.
Such has been the commitment of the reform drive that even Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, the kingdom's top cleric, asked educators to steer young Saudis away from militancy, saying Islam preaches moderation and peace.
Emerging from years of repression and silence, political dissidents have issued calls for civil rights. They have been allowed to voice their opinions on the royal family and Islam through the media, and even through meetings with Cabinet members. They are arguing that without free speech and human rights, extremism will grow.
But they also want U.S. troops to leave Saudi Arabia, believing it is humiliating for the land of Islam's most sacred shrines to be protected by the West.
While many in the region, including Saudis, are convinced that no true Muslim could have carried out the airliner assaults in the United States last year because so many innocents were killed, some still believe that the United States invited trouble by giving too much support to Israel.
Asked who he thinks was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks, Shaadaab Bakth, a UAE columnist for the Indian portal tehelka.com, replies: "America."
Was the attack good or bad? "When I see what America has done in Afghanistan and not done in Palestine since the attack, I think it is good," he said.
Ansar Saleem, a designer in a publishing firm, explains: "While I find it hard to practice the Wahabi tradition because it is too strict for this age, full marks to them for bringing the Americans to their knees."
It is this kind of dichotomy that has put the royal family on a collision course with a new generation that says it is eager to restore the purity of Wahabi Islam.
Alarmed by reports that up to 95 percent of young educated Saudis sympathise with the bin Laden cause, the kingdom does not want to appear to be succumbing to Western pressure. In the process, the emergent reforms suffered.
Some Saudis now say that certain U.S. demands infringe on Islam. The imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca equates attempts at change with "high treason and extreme madness." Other clerics issue "fatwas" (edicts) denouncing the United States and Britain for attacking Muslims in Afghanistan and warn against attacking Iraq.
There is also a wide belief that Islamists are preparing to strike again.
A few weeks ago, Saudi police arrested a dozen al Qaeda members who fired a surface-to-air missile at an American plane near Riyadh. Filtered reports suggest that there have been pro-bin Laden demonstrations in Sakaka in the north and in Mecca, which have been dispersed with the use of force.
All this indicates that the kingdom is being pulled in two directions. There is an uneasy calm in the relationship between hardliners, Defence Minister Sultan and Interior Minister Nayef, and the moderate de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah -- that could explode when the question of succession arises after the ailing King Fahd.
"The Saudi leadership draws its legitimacy from the Wahabi call and is not willing to please anyone at the expense of its principles," analyst Jashi said.
"While it has enough flexibility to reach an understanding with its citizens and the religious establishment, it has to watch out for the new breed of militancy which combines the Wahabi doctrine with anti-U.S. activist models that took hold after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran," he added.
Ahmed Khafafi, a researcher with the Dar Al Khaleej group of publications, says he does not see the Wahabi influence declining. "The present crisis indicates that they have failed to realize their full potential in mixing religion with politics. But it is a wake-up call that will condition them to unleash their full potential in the future."
Bakth thinks that in many ways, Wahabism will be seen by supporters as the only brand of Islam that withstood the onslaught of Western domination and challenged the United States for blindly supporting Israel against the Palestinians.
September 19 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.