More than a decade ago, this writer pointed to Kuwait and its ruling house of Al Sabah as being the ideological challenger to Saudi Arabia and the Al Sauds, who from the start of their rule have embraced the principles and practices of Abdel Wahab, the founder of the Wahabbi ideology.
Even the merest glance at the Holy Quran shows it to be suffused with moderation, compassion and benevolence. As with other religious texts, there are certainly elements of warfare within the prose, but the constantly repeated injunction is to identify the three qualities listed above as being at the core of Islam, the faith born out of the revelation of the Holy Quran fifteen centuries ago.
However, a significant boost was given to Wahabbi teachings by the Al Saud’s panic reaction to the happenings of 1979 (the coming to power in Iran of Ayatollah Khomenei and the attempted takeover of the mosque at Mecca by followers of a deluded youth believing himself to be the Mahdi).
Since the dawn of the 20th century, Wahabbi ideology has been given support by countries such as the U.S the UK—as a means of weaning away Arab communities from the Turkish caliphate in the early years of the last century, which backed a much less restrictive interpretation of Islam than was popular among Wahabbi preachers.
During the 1950s and beyond, Wahabbism came in handy for the former colonial powers of Europe and their newfound champion in the underdeveloped world – the U.S. – in rolling back the Gamal Abdel Nasser tide of Arab nationalism. At its core, the Nasser nationalism sought a cutback in the dominant position that the former colonial powers and their North American partner still had within the Arab world.
In the 1980s, this toxic creed once again proved its value to U.S. geopolitical interests, when it was fanned to unprecedented levels in order to motivate hundreds of thousands of young Wahabbi Muslims into taking up weapons in order to confront the USSR in Afghanistan. There was an alternative to such a mobilisation of this extremist creed, and that would have been to train, fund and arm Pashtun nationalists rather than radicalise a hitherto moderate people through Wahabbi preachers and accompanying audio, video and printed material.
Universities in the U.S. were given contracts by their government to design and publish textbooks and other material for West Asia, which would steer young Arab minds towards the Wahabbi ideology, setting aside the qualities of mercy, compassion and benevolence that are imprinted in every sura of the Holy Quran.
The reason why the Pashtun fanatics won over the moderates was the fact that the nationalists within that ethnic group were hostile to Pakistan, a state in occupation of vast tracts of Pashtun land leased for 99 years to the British but due back to Afghanistan since the period of the lease expired in 1992. As has been a habit with policymakers in Washington, the interests of the Pakistan military were given precedence over those of U.S. citizens, who would have been much better off were the radicalisation and empowerment (into violence) of Wahabbi youth not so sharply accelerated during the Brzezinski-Casey period and beyond.
Even after 9/11,the Saudi establishment and its ideological followers across the globe, have been funding and expanding what may be termed as Wahabbi International, a network of institutions and individuals with the aim of convincing the followers of Islam that the teachings of Abdel Wahab are in fact the “purest” version of the world’s fastest-growing faith rather than its antithesis
In the Arab world, what has kept Wahabbism ascendant is the support given to it by the Al Sauds of Saudi Arabia, and since the 1990s, by the Al Thanis of Qatar. The latter saw in Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a possible precursor to the invasion of their own country by the Al Sauds. Judging by what happened next,it would appear that the Al Thanis decided that the best way to neutralise the Saudi “threat” would be to be acknowledged as even more determined followers of Abdel Wahab than the Al Sauds.
From that time onwards, the Royal House of Qatar began to compete with their counterparts in Riyadh, by funding and supporting Wahabbi missionaries worldwide. From the start of the present century, the rulers of Qatar added a fresh layer of protection by becoming a military auxiliary of the U.S. as well as becoming at least as big a demonstrator of soft power as the Saudi royals – the latter chiefly through a quantum jump in support given to Al Jazeera, which is today the predominant Wahabbi news channel worldwide, edging out its Saudi competitors with ease.
The rivalry between the Al Sauds and the Al Thanis have benefitted Wahabbi International. Doha has emerged as a haven for Wahabbi missionaries, and Qatar has become a financial backer of Wahabbi International objectives, such as the removal of the Assad family from power in Damascus and its replacement with a dispensation that owes fealty to Wahabbism. Indeed while Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah sought to move away from Wahabbism, Qatar filled the resulting vacuum in support – although since then King Salman appears to have returned Riyadh to the traditional Sudairi clan policy of a westernised personal lifestyle coexisting with a strictly Wahabbi dispensation within the theological institutions of a country which has within its borders the two most holy sites of Islam.
Judging by his initial months in office, King Salman seems determined to ensure that only members of the Sudairi clan will become his successors. In effect, this confines the Saudi monarchy to a single clan within it that has wielded power for much of the period since the 1939-45 war, even going to the extent of seeking to marginalise family members of his predecessor, King Abdullah, who was born of a non-Sudairi mother with roots among the common people
The Al Sabahs of Kuwait have been the outliers within the ruling families of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, introducing a written constitution more than five decades ago. More recently, the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al Sabah, not only continued the system of free elections but extended the franchise to women, in spite of opposition from elements seeking to bring into Kuwait more elements of the Wahabbi (and Salafi) ideology – the same practiced in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Qatar and in parts of Yemen, and which for the past decade has been steadily advancing in Turkey.
Those seeking a return of West Asian society to the Sufi ethos of the Turkish caliphate would have preferred “Sabahism” to prevail over Wahabbism. In this, the other GCC states would copy the policies followed by the Al Sabahs and introduce democratic practices into their own dispensations, besides ensuring a level playing field between Shia and Sunni, the way it is in Kuwait, Oman and to a considerable extent in the UAE, although not in Qatar, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia. In the latter pair, Shia are subject to severe discrimination and are routinely abused as being “puppets of Iran”, an allegation that is as untrue as is the other fiction of the Shia in Iraq being under the control of the mullahs of Teheran, or the Al Assad family in Damascus being as hostile to the Sunnis (including the Wahabbi element) as the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are towards the Shia.
In fact, several of the Assad clan have Sunni spouses, including Bashar Assad himself, while the government in Damascus has nearly seven of every ten ministers hailing from within the Sunnis, although none of this would be obvious to those tuning in to Wahabbi-boosting commentators such as Christiane Amanpour of CNN, who adopts the orthodox Wahabbi position on disputes within the region.
Rather than “Sabahism” prevailing over Wahabbism within the GCC, it is the former that is being threatened by a rising number of supporters of the latter in Kuwait. Unlike in the past, when the population of Kuwait remained a haven of theological moderation within the Arab world, an increasing number of citizens are adopting the Wahabbi mindsets common among those resident in Saudi Arabia.
Fewer and fewer Kuwaiti women, for example, are daring to go out in public without at least a headscarf, if not the full-length abaya. Those wearing western-style clothes are subjected to disapproving stares from the increasing number of Kuwaitis who back Wahabbi (and Salafi) ideology.
Indeed, not only are citizens of the State of Kuwait appearing with regularity together with other ISIS volunteers on the fields of war in Syria, Libya and Iraq, but Kuwait-based donors are playing a role in the funding of ISIS affiliates and proxies, although not yet to the extent to which backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia do.
What has weakened the opposition to Wahabbism within the GCC has been the shock defection of Turkey from what may be termed the Sufi stream. President Recip Teyyip Erdogan used his “European” credentials to ensure the neutering of the Turkish military (the strongest Kemalist force within the country) but shed the same affiliations as he went about changing the chemistry of governance in Turkey into a direction that is openly Wahabbi— although as yet co-existing with Sufi elements rather than overwhelming them.
Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, the present Emir of Kuwait, has fought with success to retain at least some of his country’s moderate traditions. However, he has had to keep a watch on the sensibilities of Wahabbi elements, refusing for instance, to follow the example of the UAE and Bahrain and permit the sale and consumption of alcohol within the country. Kuwait Airlines is alcohol-free, thereby giving a competitive advantage to UAE carriers such as Emirates and Eithad, which have refused to be cowed by Wahabbi diktats in the matter.
Were Kuwait to have followed the more liberal policies of the UAE, the country could have emerged as a global business hub like Singapore. But the influence of conservative theology has thus far prevented such a transformation, despite freedom of choice being the essence of democracy.
These days, in newspapers in Kuwait there are more and more reports about how the Emir is patronising events such as the handing over of the (sixth) “Holy Quran International Recitation and Memorization Award” – given to this year’s winner on March 30 by Prime Minister Jaber Al-Sabah. Funding to the “Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Matters” is being substantially increased, even though as yet Kuwaiti authorities have refused to adopt the Saudi practice of banning, even in cities such as Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah, any house of worship other than those approved by Wahabbi clerics.
The moderate traditions of the Al Sabahs have ensured that Kuwait is a country where official hostility to faiths other than that followed by the majority is absent, and where there is an atmosphere free of intimidation and disapproval for those practising faiths such as Christianity or even Hinduism. It had been expected that King Salman would follow the moderating policies of his predecessor, King Abdullah the Wise. Instead, he appears to be returning to the hard-line practices of his Sudairi predecessors, and has even gone ahead with a military intervention in Yemen certain to inflame sectarian passions throughout the region, including within his own country.
Still – not all the portents are dispiriting. “Sabahis” are still in a majority within the people of Kuwait, with women and the young especially being firm in defending their freedoms and their rights. In Kuwait, women, a group which faces discrimination in several other parts of the region, have been at the forefront of the struggle against restrictive ideologies, making Kuwait the only country within the GCC where citizens belonging to the fair sex can reject codes designed for them by Wahabbi preachers without the displeasure of their families and indeed their husbands.
The expansion of democratic choice in Kuwait has ensured a strengthening of the defences against the creeping expansion of the boundaries of Wahabbism seen in Erdogan’s Turkey, which till his consolidation of power six years ago was the societal role model for moderates throughout the region.
During a taxi ride to the Embassy of India in Kuwait city, this writer was surprised that the Bedouin driver (Ali) spoke English with effortless ease, despite a lack of formal education. Across Kuwait, the desire to connect to the 21st century is resisting the influx of Wahabbi thought and keeping alive the prospect that rather than become a clone of Saudi Arabia, it is that latter country which will learn from Kuwait and bestow the freedoms of democracy to its populace.
At present, it would appear that the Wahabbis have the upper hand over the “Sabahis”, even in some elements of local society in Kuwait. But the war for the hearts and minds of a people as gifted as the Arabs, is far from over.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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