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Wahhabism Goes Global

What parallels are there around the world to the extreme Muslim Wahhabist sect?

February 24, 2003

What parallels are there around the world to the extreme Muslim Wahhabist sect?

Wahhabism is a global condition — and not some Islamic initiative unleashed upon the rest of the world. From the world's oldest democracy to the world's largest democracy, one can see the festering of Wahhabi-like movements.

They have this in common: They exist to sow seeds of hatred and intolerance against "others" — and seek to capture the state to make it an instrument of hate.

The Wahhabi sect or stream of Islam has been getting a lot of press lately. Wahhabis are, first, extremely intolerant of "others" who do not share their specific religious beliefs.

Second they are opposed to difference and pluralism. Third, they are anti-civil rights.

And fourth, Wahhabis are also extremely anti-secular — and they believe that the sole purpose of politics and the state is to serve their exclusivist and bigoted values.

With the aid of Saudi oil revenues and the socialization of foreign workers returning to their homes from Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi distortion of Islam has spread widely in the last 30 years.

In the Arab world, in South Asia and in Far East Asia, Islamic workers and Islamic institutions have received aid from Saudi sources (usually private individuals and foundations) that have slowly embedded Wahhabism in many Muslim societies.

The objective of Wahhabism is to revive the ritual and conceptual purity of Islam. But its obsession with what is permissible — and what is not — has made its practitioners extremely intolerant of difference and otherness.

This growing intolerance of the other has moved the practitioners of Wahhabism far from the central peaceful and pluralistic principles of Islam.

Wahhabism has become an ugly and ruthless caricature of the faith which — according to its foundational text (the Holy Quran) — was sent as mercy to humanity.

When Prophet Muhammad had established the first Islamic State in Medina, people of other faiths were free to practice their faith — and had the same rights as Muslims in religious as well as political matters.

But today in Saudi Arabia, the only Wahhabi state in the world, Christians and Hindus are prohibited from practicing their faith. They are not even allowed to celebrate their religious festivals openly.

While Wahhabis today continue to fund the construction of mosques in India and in the West, they remain staunchly opposed to the construction of any temple or any church in Saudi Arabia. That marks them as not just intolerant — but also hypocritical.

But look beyond Saudi Arabia — and you will see other strains of similar thinking — even in the world's oldest democracy.

There is a similar group of bigoted religious fundamentalists in the United States who are undermining the country's secular character, subverting the peaceful message of Christianity and polluting the socio-cultural environment of America.

They are American Wahhabis because they — like their Muslim counterparts — are intolerant of otherness and oppose the idea of secular civil rights.

They do not believe in the separation of church and state — and hate people of other faiths.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell, the Reverend Pat Robertson and the Reverend Franklin Graham are three of the most prominent, powerful and vocal representatives of American Wahhabism.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Reverend Jerry Falwell blamed abortionists, homosexuals and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for angering God — thereby allowing the attacks to take place.

Fortunately, an uproar ensued — and the president of the United States called the Reverend Falwell's comments "inappropriate." Falwell then apologized for his statement.

But his comments were only part of a pattern of shameless and insensitive opportunism that sought not only to politicize the tragedy of September 11 — but also to incite hatred towards the groups that Reverend Falwell and his associates habitually target.

The American Wahhabis have recently unleashed a verbal assault on Islam and its religious symbols. They are quite willing to incite hate against Muslims in America — and are quite unmoved by the anti-American sentiments their campaign is generating in the Muslim World.

The Reverend Falwell and the Reverend Pat Robertson have called Muhammad — the Prophet of Islam — a terrorist. They have claimed that Islam and its teachings itself are the sources of violence. The Reverend Franklin Graham preached that Islam and its teaching are evil and wicked.

The impact of these statements was felt far beyond the United States. In India, they led to religious riots that caused five deaths. Many Pakistanis reacted angrily.

They expressed their dismay by voting strongly in favor of a pro-Taliban and anti-American alliance in the recent elections in Pakistan.

The problem with the American Wahhabis is not just their ideas and their hate-mongering but the fact that they have a reasonably large following — sufficient to influence the electoral outcomes in American elections.

By virtue of both votes and fund raising capacity the Christian Right can influence the U.S. Congress and the President — just as the Mullahs of Saudi Arabia have influence over the decisions of their King.

Furthermore the close relationship between the President himself and the Reverend Franklin Graham and other members of his administration — such as Attorney General Ashcroft — with the Christian right is extremely disturbing.

Is it a coincidence that the first group to receive financial benefit from George Bush's impulse to finance faith-based social programs was that of the Reverend Pat Robertson?

One must ask if the very purpose of the administration’s initiative to support faith based programs is to allow the Christian right to intertwine its operations with those of the federal government?

The theology of hate emanating from American Wahhabis is designed to Christianize America. That will undermine its multicultural ethos, its welcoming posture towards immigrants and its openness to the practice of other religions.

The American Wahhabis are determined to create a Christian nation that will wage crusades abroad and conduct inquisitions at home.

The growth of American Wahhabism may well destroy the dream of the founding fathers. They imagined America as a beacon of freedom and tolerance. But the Christian right imagines something quite different.

While the world's oldest democracy struggles with Christian Wahhabis, the world's largest democracy has seen the amazing growth of its own home-grown version of Wahhabism.

In the last two decades India has experienced the growth of something new: The Hindu Nationalist — or Hindutva — movement.

Ultimately, Hindutva turns out to be just another Wahhabi-like theology of hate. The Hindutva movement constructs Muslims as its “other” — and blames them for all of India's problems, real and imaginary.

The movement calls for a "purification" of India by the legal, cultural — and now physical — elimination of Muslims from the Indian landscape. The movement began with the relatively modest objective of eliminating the Muslim identity from India's legal system.

Today, India recognizes different faith communities in its legal structure, so that Muslims, for example, are governed by Muslim law when it comes to marriage and inheritance. The Hindutva wants to impose a common — Hindu-based — law against the wishes of India's minorities.

The Hindu nationalists have since graduated to wanting to define an India as a Hindu state — just as the Islamic Wahhabis fight for an Islamic state, and the U.S. Wahhabis talk about the United States as a Christian nation.

This equation of Indian nationalism with Hinduism automatically estranges Muslims and other minorities.

By definition they cannot be loyal Indians — and they are easily demonized as enemies of the Indian nation. Their religious symbols, their property — and their very lives, and their then become fair game for Hindu mobs.

In the last ten years, over 10,000 Muslims have been killed in several riots all over the nation. The most egregious massacre took place in early 2002 in the state of Gujurat.

The local and national governments completely cooperated with what was nothing less than an attempt at genocide. Over 2,000 Muslims were killed — and the authorities worked hard after the tragedy to cover up what happened.

International human rights groups and media, however, reported on the thousands killed, the widespread looting and arson of targeted Muslim properties, the women who were raped, undressed and paraded before being burnt alive along with children — even as watching police refused to stop the pogrom.

These actions were allegedly the response of an angry mob at the burning of almost 60 Hindus in a train by Muslims.

Forensic reports have since questioned these reports — raising the ugly specter of a frame-up for the explicit purpose of justifying a premeditated plan to riot and massacre Muslims.

Many Hindutva movement leaders have expressed satisfaction at what happened in Gujurat. They are determined to create a Hindu nation. Armed with nuclear weapons, it will wage war against its enemies abroad and at home — to realize their vision of a pure and powerful Hindu India.

We must, by all means, fight Wahhabism. But we must do so on a global scale. It is not just a battle against the Islamic version that originated in Saudi Arabia.

The basic tenets of Wahhabism are intolerance of others, a desire to gain political power to impose religious purity on others — and nothing less than hatred of anybody who suggests another way. Those tenets can be seen elsewhere — in the U.S. fundamentalist Christian community and in the Hindu politicians of Hinduvta.

Whether in Afghanistan, the United States or India, "Wahhabists" must be fought strenuously by those who believe that tolerance and mutual respect will make the world a more peaceful and better place.