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8 August 2013, Gateway House

Time to back the anti-Wahabbi tide

Today, the role Wahabbism plays in geopolitics poses a severe security risk not just to the West but also to the Muslim world. The West needs to rethink its strategy of promoting Wahabbi International, and realise that Wahabbism cannot be a moderated geopolitical asset

Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University

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In 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg was advised by Franz von Papen and others that the best way to deal with the unrest in Germany caused by economic catastrophe was to bring the NSDAP (commonly known as the Nazi Party) into the government, with Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. That the ideology of the NSDAP was unalterably opposed to democracy, and that the Nazis were only using the perquisites of elected office to strengthen themselves sufficiently was hardly a secret. The strategy had been revealed not only in the speeches of Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Hitler himself but repeated several times in commentaries in the party media. None of this was allowed to stand in the way of inducting Hitler and his party into the portals of power. The consequences of that decision need no retelling.

If U.S. President Barack Obama were to follow the advice given by his administration to Hamid Karzai, General Al-Sissi and other presumed allies of the U.S., Obama himself would work towards ensuring that his own team – upto the level of the Vice-President – would include members of the Tea Party, and even a sprinkling of those whose ideological home is the Ku Klux Klan. In the years immediately preceding independence from the British in 1947, India’s Congress Party was advised by Lord Wavell, then Viceroy, to include Muslim League notables in the cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Once these individuals entered the government, they began to work zealously in sabotaging its coherence and its efficacy.

In like fashion, to involve the Taliban in the formal process of running the government of Afghanistan would be to doom the Afghan government and state into chaos and incoherence. The ideology of the Taliban is explicit on the aims of that formation, and those subscribing to such a viewpoint would be unwilling – and indeed unfit – to work alongside representatives from the overwhelming majority of moderate Afghans who, especially after the events of 1996-2003, detest and fear the Taliban. However, this has not prevented the Obama administration from seeking to do a Hindenburg in that country by asking for the entry, into governance, of a group explicitly committed to the overthrow of the very system that Washington believes will be strengthened by its induction. In the case of Egypt as well, the Obama administration has joined forces with the EU, those other supporters of the doctrine of ‘taming’ extremes by giving them access to power.

In particular, across the Middle East, the Wahabbi ideology which is at the core of the various offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, has ensured that such groups begin to alarm the rest of society by their pursuit of a sectarian and exclusivist agenda. The only difference between Egypt and Turkey is that Mohamed Morsi sought to speed up what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan implemented in slow motion. The direction in both has been the same: a consistent push towards a societal order in conformity with the theology that is the bedrock of the movement, where its practitioners have special access to the Almighty, and which is suffused with dogma and with methods incompatible with democratic functioning. The trajectories followed in Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia show the consequences of empowering groups that have a vision which can only lead to the slow – or rapid – stifling of genuine democracy. With Egypt, the attempted transition was rapid, as the Brotherhood saw itself as immune from the military because of the support it received not only from regional financial powerhouses such as Qatar but from the U.S. and the EU as well.

Since 1992, I have argued that the alliance between the West and Wahabbism posed a severe security risk to not just the West but to the Muslim world – in that it enabled Wahabbism to replace more tolerant strains of the Sunni branch of Islam. Across the globe, the awesome money power of what may be called ‘Wahabbi International’ has resulted in the capture or building of innumerable houses of worship across the secular world. More ominously, it has resulted in a hardening of sermons in such places of worship and other institutions, and to Wahabbism replacing the tolerant strains of the faith as the primary motif in religious literature and teaching.

The Shia branch of the faith has suffered its own Wahabbization, thanks to the doctrine propounded by Iran’s Imam Khomeini, who sought to replace orthodox Shia schools of theology with his own rigid interpretation of the texts the way Abdul Wahab did three centuries ago in the case of the Sunni version of the faith. This twin radicalisation of what is essentially a syncretic and tolerant faith has had devastating social and geopolitical consequences, which is why it is incomprehensible why the West continues to believe that Wahabbism can be moderated and rendered a geopolitical asset.

The reality is that the core teachings of the faith make it almost impossible for convinced Wahabbis to carry out the adjustments needed to find common ground with others. Their compromises reflect a tactical measure designed to gain time in order to secure the undiluted Wahabbi version at a later date. Such a mindset is why the entry of Wahabbis into the structures of governance is fraught with risk. To those who argue that the Qatari and Saudi royal families prove that Wahabbis can be trusted with the management of a state, it needs to be pointed out that neither the Qatari nor the Saudi royals – or at least the ruling groups within them – subscribe to Wahabbi ideology in practice. Their lifestyles and practices are incompatible with Wahabbism. However, fearful of the recurrence of a 1979 situation, both the Qatari as well as the Saudi royals have empowered Wahabbi groups in a manner that threatens their existence.

That the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is incompatible with the preservation of royal rule within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is obvious. Should Brotherhood elements within the GCC ever gain the traction needed to do an (2011) Egypt or Tunisia in the GCC, they would do so with despatch. This is why the Qatari royals backing for the Brotherhood has within it the seeds of the self-destruction of their dynasty.

A GCC leader who has understood the danger that the Muslim Brotherhood represents is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has sought to change the ethos of his country in a way not attempted since 1979. Very silently, he has diluted the Wahabbist orientation of administrative structures and relaxed restrictions previously enforced by religious police. Hopefully, the post-1979 Al-Saud policy of buying off Wahabbi groups is being rolled back by the present monarch.

However, whatever fall in funding to Wahabbi International taking place as a consequence of King Abdullah, is being more than compensated by the rulers of Qatar – which believes that it can win over Wahabbis through chequebook diplomacy. Across the Middle East and recently in other locations as well, Muslim Brotherhood offshoots are being diplomatically and financially backed by Qatar, thereby strengthening such groups. The overwhelming majority of Muslims across the globe are no different in their wants and worldview from Christians, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus, and thus an attempted Wahabbization of society – camouflaged or overt – is being resisted. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, there have been mass protests against the Wahabbis and their political and NGO offshoots. Such a movement against the extremism which Wahabbism represents is a return to the true spirit of Islam.

The backing away by the ordinary Muslim from the tide of Wahabbism is very much in the global interest. It is unfortunate that the West is peddling nonsensical nostrums to its friends in Muslim-majority countries, advising them to empower extremists in the name of inclusive governance. Groups that misuse religion for political motives and favour restrictive codes of human behaviour so as to promote a monochrome ideal, are the enemies of democracy and ought never to be encouraged.

If Afghanistan is to be stable, the Taliban must have no place in it, and this is a future that is possible, given the fact that the Pashtuns are at the core as moderate as Tajiks or Uzbeks. Rather than repeat in locations such as Syria the Brezezinski-Casey strategy of arming and training extremists, the West needs to adopt a hands-off approach to what is going to be a decade of societal churning, first within the Middle East and later in Muslim societies across the globe.

Asking the Egyptian authorities to bring back the Muslim Brotherhood into the structures of governance is to take away any chance of stability or the winning back of the traditions of a great faith from first the Wahabbis and later the Khomeinists. The mistake made by Hindenburg in 1933 should not be repeated.

M. D. Nalapat is vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.

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