While there was a strong and overt congruence of interests between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists during the 1979-94 Afghan war, 9/11 reversed the situation, leading to a pullback from the earlier policy of coordination between the two, and NATO support to armed Wahhabi groups. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and the UK had the unexpected effect of creating the grounds for a fresh partnership between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists. Both loathed Saddam Hussein, although post-Saddam, several extremists groups turned on NATO, angered by that alliance’s call for democratic processes that would place the Shia in Iraq in a dominant role that till then had been the monopoly of the Sunnis.
By the close of the last decade, Iraq joined Iran as the other large Shia-dominated state, eclipsing Lebanon. The case of Bahrain has been different thus far, in that the country’s estimated 70% Shia majority is ruled by the Sunnis. In Saudi Arabia, however, the 20% Shia population suffers from serious discrimination at the hands of the Wahhabi-oriented administration. Only in Kuwait do the Shia (who form a quarter of the citizenry) enjoy the same civic rights as Sunnis. Outside the Arab states, Sunnis in Shia-dominated Iran suffer from several forms of discrimination, although not to the extent seen by the other sect in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, the influence of the US has helped to ensure that Sunnis are given rights greater than their proportion; this situation may slowly change, once the effects of the US military withdrawal become more obvious. The US has been deeply solicitous of Sunni/Wahhabi interests in Iraq in a way that it has never been about the plight of the Shia in Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain.
Still, the fact remains that it was mainly US firepower that toppled the secular Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and after an interval of six years, ensured the takeover of the centre of gravity of governance by the Shia. But this was never followed by other Shia-specific policies. The result is the goodwill created within the Iraqi Shia by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, has been almost entirely dissipated. The constant demonization of Iran (as distinct from the mullahcracy, which is not at all representative of the people of that country) and now the moves against Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, have helped feed a perception that NATO has joined with the Wahhabis in the latter’s war on the Shia.
A perusal of either Shia or Wahhabi literature would reveal the distaste each feels for the other, although the ideology of Khomeinism (which at its root is a repudiation of the basic tenets of Shia Islam) shares many common characteristics with Wahhabism. Both fuse the state and religion into a single entity. Both use the bitterest terms to describe rivals. And both are authoritarian, with no pretence at democracy or matters such as gender justice.
The 1980s Afghanistan-oriented alliance between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists was as beneficial for the former as backing from the UK was for followers of the creed in the early part of the last century. But for such support, it is doubtful that the Al Saud would ever have succeeded in driving away the Turks from the Hejaz, and in taking over what has since been named as Saudi Arabia.
This fusion of interests took place despite an existing (Wahhabi) world-view that was in absolute contradiction with that of the West. Its restrictive, regressive vision makes it impossible for Wahhabis to ever be genuine partners of the West, in a way that India (and its 300 million English-speaking population) has the potential to. Any partnership between them can only be opportunistic, discarded once the need for it is extinguished.
Once the Wahhabi extremists saw the blowback from 9/11, they understood that the West had the capability to comprehensively humiliate them. From 2001, the year the Taliban fled from NATO and its newfound Afghan allies, the course of action propagated by Al Qaeda (of using violence against the West in an effort to get them to retreat) has become discredited. Today, Ayman Al Zawahiri has become a joke, even an embarrassment, when he joins with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for the immediate overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Even as Al Qaeda has become a ghost organisation, visible mostly in the virtual world, the philosophy of Wahhabism – especially its extreme variants – remains a long-term security risk to the civilised world. In particular, through the spread of Wahhabi education in tens of thousands of religious schools across the globe, the practitioners of this creed are breeding tens of millions of youth who are certain to remain outside the productive economy, and as a consequence, seethe with resentment and anger against the rest of society.
Consequently, the need of the hour is to engineer a broad-based rollback of Wahhabism, a position put in train soon after 9/11 but abandoned after the 2003 Iraq war. The young within the Sunni/Wahhabi population of the world need to be intellectually equipped to deal with the challenges of globalisation, something possible only if they are exposed to modern education. Unfortunately, in large parts of the world, the reverse is taking place. Wahhabi curricula are displacing modern teaching systems, with disastrous effects on the ability of students to compete in the global marketplace. Their inevitable failure is explained away as prejudice, thereby deepening their hatred against modern segments of society, most notably populations living in the West or more progressive developing societies in Asia.
Their philosophy and world-view make them the antithesis of the major thought systems in the West; yet sections of the Wahhabi fringe have shown dexterity in convincing key segments of Western opinion about the need to support them. This has usually been done by camouflaging their actual aims in a fog of talk about human rights, high ethical principles and self-determination. Press coverage of the Taliban was almost uniformly favourable in the Western world, until the militia showed the world exactly what kind of order they sought to impose on the people of Afghanistan. Even then, it took 9/11 before there was a comprehensive turning away from the Taliban.
After the 1980s Afghan jihad, the 1990s Kashmir jihad too generated a considerable amount of favourable media coverage in the NATO countries, because of the way in which Wahhabi goals were concealed beneath a flow of idealistic words. Even the forced exodus of the Hindu Pandit community from the Kashmir Valley during the initial years of the 1990s, and the destruction of dozens of Hindu and Sikh shrines by the Wahhabis in Kashmir, failed to slow down the volume of laudatory coverage of what were portrayed as “freedom fighters” battling a cruel state. The small print – such as ethnic cleansing and the imposition of Wahhabi variants of Sharia law – were not noticed by the Western media, and to a considerable extent, are still not.
The “Kashmir Model” (of using the language of democracy and human rights to win Western support, even while adhering to a contrary policy in practice) was next widely used by the Libyan opposition to Muammar Gaddafi. The Arab dictator was loathed by the monarchies of the Middle East, because of his often-expressed contempt for such rulers. Wahhabis hated him for the fact that he ran a secular – albeit harshly authoritarian – administration, with no quarter given to such demands as the imposition of Sharia law or the banning of women’s dress other than the abaya. Once he was defeated and killed, those who took over (as a result of generous help from Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron) have lost no time in imposing a Wahhabi version of Sharia law across the parts of Libya controlled by them, and in executing or jailing those who disagree with their extremist world-view. Fortunately for them, Western media channels that were once filled with news about Libya under Gaddafi are now silent about the immense hu
man rights violations taking place in that country after its “liberation” in 2011.
Seeing the success of such a pitch in Libya, groups in Syria which have a theological opposition (as distinct from political) to Bashar Al-Assad, have begun cultivating the Western media and public opinion, the way the jihadists in Kashmir or the elements loosely known as the Taliban, used to do in the 1990s.
So extreme has the identification with such elements become, that even the largest media outlets accept without question such “facts” as that Bashar Al-Assad bombed his own troops and facilities in order “to blame it on the Opposition.” Such fantasies are in the same league as tracts which claim that 9/11 was a joint operation of the CIA and Mossad.
What is happening in Libya post-Gaddafi ought to be a wake-up call for those from the NATO countries analysing the Middle East. It is not. They remain easy targets for those who prey on western idealism by couching their own sectarian and extremist views in the language of democracy and human rights. Yes, there are indeed secular, sane elements in the Middle East. But these are not the ones getting favourable media attention in the West. Instead, those who in reality look upon the countries of Europe and North America as civilisational enemies are seeking to entice NATO into backing their theological wars of conquest – first against non-Wahhabi Sunnis, and thereafter against the Shia.
Backing them now will invite the same blowback that backing the fanatics did in Afghanistan.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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