Originally presented to then Home Secretary Charles Clarke on his visit to the Ihsan Mosque in Norwich.
To see things clearly, with focus and in perspective one needs two eyes. Then things appear in three dimensions. We have been looking at the matter of terrorism with one eye. That is why our actions are ineffective. The first eye must look on the history of Islam, and in this case the history of wahhabism. The second eye must look on something in Europe, because we have been here before. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth we had an almost identical phenomenon. That was clearly identified by European intellectuals, Dostoyevsky and others, as nihilism. First, before we approach the story of wahhabism, we must locate it within Islam itself. As it has reached us, Islam comprises three distinct dimensions: first, outward practice such as the acts of worship and ordinary transactions. It is a law covering all aspects including commercial, civil, religious and criminal, etc. This is the Shari’ah which has been transmitted by the four accepted legal schools. Second, an intellectual science which establishes what may be said rationally about the Divine and the Messengers. This is transmitted by two acceptable schools. Third, the spiritual path which is generally known by the term Sufism, and which is transmitted by a number of different tariqas. All three of these dimensions with their different schools were universally agreed upon. All of this exists under the umbrella of governance by a known contract. That contract has clauses for muslim subjects and non-muslim subjects. All of this is sustained by a very necessary scholarship involving deep knowledge of Arabic, Qur’anic commentary and exposition of legal cases.
Wahhabism is an eighteenth century movement among desert Arabs who rose in insurrection against the Ottomans. Their teaching was characterised as being simplistic and literalist: it rejected all the above three dimensions and their schools in favour of directly deriving theology and law from a literalist understanding of the Qur’an and books of traditions, and it was insurrectionary: they overthrew legitimate governance and began an insurgency movement against the Ottomans who were forced to stamp them out, and it was fanatical; I use this word advisedly, but intend by it their declaration that Muslims who disagreed with them were beyond the pale of Islam. In our time, this is evidenced by the fact that the greatest number of victims of suicide bombers are Muslims.
That first phase ended with their containment as a movement to the eastern area of the Najd.
We pick up the thread again, when in the early twentieth century, an inheritor of the ruling wahhabi clan, ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa’ud, a remarkably talented and adventurous man, embarked on the exploit of restoring his family’s fortunes. Along the way to that he met the remnants of the wahhabi sect, and saw the advantage their steely ruthless fanaticism gave him in his fight. He set in process the conversion of the desert tribes to their creed. None of that might have made any enduring impact on history if it had not happened when it did, when the eyes of European foreign policy makers were glued on the fortunes of the Ottomans. I pass no judgement on this, but simply want to tell it as factually as possible. Thus, Ibn Sa’ud, who was a wily and worldly-aware man, understood what none of his rather simple followers did, that on the international stage he would have to be under the patronage of one of the great world powers. It was initially the British. We fostered him. Although undecided for some period between him and Sharif Hussain of Mecca, in the end his undoubted intrepidness won the day and he became the undisputed ruler of the Arabian peninsula. Saudi oil came to prominence. British influence wained. The patronage of the now Saudi Arabia passed to the USA at the time of Roosevelt who, shortly before his death, personally met Ibn Sa’ud. Built into the new state, however, was Ibn Sa’ud’s courtship of the wahhabis and the manner in which he transformed the desert Arabs into wahhabis and then used them as the force to underpin his kingdom, as he and his family and their doctrine were not widely liked in Arabia.
Given the centrality to Muslims of Mecca and Medina, and the astonishing oil wealth that flowed into Saudi coffers after the price hikes of the seventies, Muslims from all over the world went to Saudi Arabia to find donations for all the worthy projects they had, most importantly the building of mosques. The donations they received had an implicit price: sing the wahhabi tune in your countries and in your mosques, which many did. The great majority of British mosques, however, are from small Pakistani communities often hostile to wahhabism and funding their mosques from their own hard-earned cash. The second matter that affected us here in Britain were the graduates of Medina university and some other Saudi institutions who returned as propagandists for wahhabism.
The result was that both a strong and a dilute form of wahhabism spread, based on a primitive fundamentalist idea, in a christian sense, that anyone could take the divinely revealed Book and make judgements from it and from traditions by reading them literally, although now with non-Arabs this interpretation was dependent on translations, which were often atrociously bad.
Within this new form, the dissatisfactions of some youth were vented by their fighting in Afghanistan, and later Chechnya and Bosnia, or by their going to Medina to get a programming in a more erudite kind of wahhabism.
The Afghanistan fighting entered into the arena of modern geopolitics. The Mujahidun leaders went to Washington and then the CIA reciprocated and trained fighters, like Bin Laden, who would later turn out to be the core of the new threat. It did not stop in Afghanistan. There was Chechnya, another land on the frontier between different geo-political interests. When the Bosnian crisis erupted, brigades of these disgruntled young fighters were recruited by the Americans, thus cementing their sense of identity as an international movement.
When the geopolitical winds changed, they of course, found themselves on the outside. In many cases they either went on as lone volunteers to new conflicts or returned disgruntled to their own countries or to other lands.
An international culture had been created, whose fruits we see today. However, that movement ought better to be seen as an expression of the natural idealism of young people and their frustration with the political processes of the age. Every society and every generation is confronted with that, and it is a measure of the maturity of a society how it deals with it.
To return to our other theme.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries young Europeans tied dynamite to themselves and blew themselves up in crowded public places. Our greatest intellectuals looked closely at this phenomenon, and diagnosed it clearly as nihilism. They saw nihilism as the result of a high idealism, so high as to be unattainable. The idealist despises other people for not having ideals and not striving for them, and in the end comes to despise himself for not attaining his own. Thus, the suicide bomber can blow up men, women and children, and inevitably blows himself up. Wahhabi idealism is marked theologically by the elevation of God literally high above the seven heavens, a creed which, if believed literally and physically, is contradictory to revealed texts and anathema to the thinking mind. However, it is important for us to recognise that this phenomenon is as much and perhaps more a product of our late capitalist society as it is of a particular sect. Understood within the context of societal breakdown in terms of our mounting criminal statistics – wife-beatings, rapes, murders, child abuse and more – then it is a part of a complete symptom picture. As a sect it has to be seen that a rather weak signal from an extremely peripheral movement was greatly amplified first by oil wealth, and then later by its usefulness to geo-political considerations of other powers. Otherwise, we might have seen it die away of its own accord long ago. This strange seed found some soil in which to sprout in our society.
Thus seen, it is for the Muslims to deal with by restoring that picture of Islam which I outlined at the beginning. That deprives this sect of its oxygen. The process is both a restoration of Islamic learning and of Islamic social mores and key aspects of shari’ah such as zakat, the charitable tax.
Undoubtedly police activities to find and prevent terrorist activities must proceed. These people are merely criminals and Muslims must help the authorities to detain them and prevent them. In that the terrorist is no different from the murderer, rapist or robber.
But possibly the gravest danger of the terrorist threat is that it distract us from the genuinely deep crisis of the chronic nihilism of modern society, which extends a great deal further than the activities of a few madmen. It is the nihilism of our age at all levels of our society that is the matter facing us, and it has disturbing consequences. In that, we rely on Dostoyevsky’s key insight that the destructiveness of the anarchists of his time was their expression of the nihilism of the previous generation whose passive adherence to their antecedents’ Christian values was void of conviction and meaning. In that, the suicide bomber is also a symptom of a deeper malaise of British society. In these circumstances, perhaps the Muslim community might render a deeper service to Britain, and certainly stand ready to do so.