What is Wahhabism and why is it in North Africa?7 min read

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Over the last two decades, a strand of Islam, relatively unknown to many Westerners, had been brought into sharp focus as a result of an increasing number of attacks on global cities, as well as a growing threat from groups like Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

Wahhabism – sometimes referred to as Salafism, though technically slightly different – emerged in the Najd region of modern day Saudi Arabia from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, and supported by successive members of the Saud family, it spread across the Arabian Peninsula before becoming the mainstream strand of Sunni Islam in its Saudi base.

Commentators and academics have determined that the spread of Wahhabism is partly responsible for what appears to be an increase in global, “Islamic” terrorism (with the European Parliament identifying Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism) that has claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Categorised as an “austere” and “ultraconservative” form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism espouses the oneness of God and a rejection of the veneration of saints or “holy men” and other forms of “idolatry” that it sees as polytheistic. Of course, for many Wahhabis, the definition of idolatry is very broad. It argues for a strict adherence to Sharia law and a literal, decontextualised interpretation of this law and the Quran. This has brought Wahhabism into direct conflict with other Muslims and non-Muslims. It has been blamed, throughout its history, for the destruction of holy sites and shrines of major importance belonging to other Muslims and to those of other religions. Violent and non-violent attacks by Wahhabis on non-Wahhabi Muslims have been constantly perpetuated throughout its lifespan.

In recent years, the Saudi Royal family, helped by the enormous riches it has amassed through the production and sale of oil, has been accused of spending millions of dollars in an attempt to export Wahhabism throughout the world by the setting-up and funding of mosques, madrassas and cultural centres that preach a relatively more radical Wahhabi message. The conservative Muslim World League, for example, was founded in 1962 with funding from the Saudi government, establishing itself as an authoritative institution for Islamic rulings on religious practice. While the Saudi regime speaks out against terrorist atrocities as unrepresentative of Islam, it is increasingly implicated in the indoctrination of those self-same unrepresentative terrorists. This is partly because Wahhabism encourages a conservative adherence to leaders and representatives of constitutionally Muslim countries. Of course, it is in the interest of the King of Saudi, who historically self-identifies as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to endorse an ideology that discourages revolt against any Muslim rule.

Wahhabi ideology, and the part it has played in spurring on combatants in conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and the Balkans, has in turn played on the imaginations of some disaffected Muslim youths across the world. It has, incidentally, encouraged turbulence and revolution elsewhere. Whether or not this was the intentional consequence of Saudi royalty seeking a regional superpower status requires a whole separate analysis. Nevertheless, as the West stumbles from one Middle Eastern policy disaster to another, and as Islamophobia rises in towns and cities throughout the “Western world”, so the preachings of radical Imams become ever more appealing to some of those struggling to find a purpose in life in what appears to be a perpetually growing cycle of hatred. Wahhabism is easy access Islam for many new Muslims or Muslims without a strong theological basis – it has clear binary positions on what is acceptable and unacceptable in Islam and discourages any form of analysis and interpretation as this may lead to bida’ (innovation) of the faith and its “rules”. Incidentally, Wahhabism does not transcend interpretation, despite the fact that many Wahhabis and indeed Salafis believe that they indeed do transcend scriptural interpretation. Many Wahhabis may agree with Sayyid Qutb, for example, writing in Milestones that democratic governance can be used by aspiring Muslim politicians as a means to an end of establishing undemocratic Sharia law. Once elected, the aspiring Muslim leader can change the political system from within. This is a form of interpretation suggesting: a) that Islam or Sharia law does not encourage democracy in the conventional sense; and b) that the ends justify the means in Islamic philosophy.

Despite its ideological inconsistencies, many of those involved in some of the worst atrocities carried out from 9/11 onwards have been associated with this austere strand of Islam which harbours as deep a hatred for many Muslims as it does for non-Muslims. Indeed, they often label other Muslims infidels. Since the 1970s, Wahhabism has unfortunately spread into Northern Africa and has reared its head in conflicts in places such as Libya – especially since the fall of Gaddafi – and in Mali. In the case of the latter, Wahhabi preachers, it is said, have coupled the carrying out of acts of charity and social support with attempts at converting locals to its fundamentalist variant of Islam.

According to a 2013 EU parliament report on Salafi and Wahhabi terrorism, the spread of Wahhabism in Morocco was also partly a result of Saudi financing intending to stimulate Moroccan military action in the disputed Western Sahara region. In accepting money from GCC institutions, Morocco unintendedly opened its doors to Wahhabi ideas and political aspirations. The cultural discourse between Morocco and many Gulf nations now means that some Moroccans are even beginning to wear Saudi-style gowns in the Mosque and at home, despite the fact that this not a traditional style of dress in North Africa. The darker side of Wahhabism’s ideological exports into North Africa is the subsequent increase in terrorist activity in a region once seen as a bastion of moderate Islam. Of course, Saudi’s role in the Western Sahara conflict isn’t the sole factor determining a rise of Wahhabism in Morocco, but it is a factor to be considered, alongside others including globalisation and emerging Pan-Arab identities.

In Tunisia, the fall of former-president Ben Ali gave Salafist groups new impetus and allowed them to further spread their ideological agenda following an easing of the suppression that they faced under his rule. Wahhabis often believe that they are the representation of Islam in its purest possible form, detached from politics and the politics of interpretation, but it is constantly clear that its rise and spread is inherently political, filling political vacuums in Tunisia today, for example. Extremists influenced by a Wahhabi understanding of a clash of civilisations between the dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and the dar al-Harb (the abode of war) have been involved in a number of attacks in Tunisia; these included the attacks on the US embassy in Tunis, the killing of tourists on the beach in Sousse and the assassination of moderate politicians in the country. Tunisia has also become a particular cause for concern as many Tunisian Salafis and Wahhabis are now crossing the border to join Daesh in Libya.

Then, of course, we have the Algerian case, a country that had been subject to about 11 years of civil war at the hands of Islamist groups influenced by Saudi-style Wahhabism – a desire to establish Islamist rule at great cost because of an apparent belief that the ends justify the means. Perhaps Algeria’s resilience to democratisation during the Arab Spring can be seen in the context of a reluctance to leave a power vacuum that can result in yet another civil war between Islamists and secularists.

Finally, since the deposing of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has also struggled to stay united in the face of pressure from competing political and militant factions. This has cultivated a rise and spread of groups professing support for Daesh. With fighters moving in from the Middle East and the Sahel, Western powers have become increasingly concerned and promised to assist in the fight against Daesh, capping the further spread of Wahhabi inspired extremism in Libya. It is, however, likely that Western intervention will encourage yet more recruits to Wahhabism’s ‘us-versus-them’ ideology.

American journalist Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam (a study of Saudi Wahhabi extremism), wrote in a 2005 article that it is important for the West to “know its enemy” when confronting terrorists espousing a perverse strand of Islam. For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, this has never been more important as Wahhabism continues to spread its tentacles far and wide, thus contributing to a harmful view of Islam in the non-Muslim world and causing destruction and terror wherever it gains a serious foothold. The main victims of this, in the end, are other Muslims.

Authored by Andrew MacAulay and Osama Filali Naji. Constructive comments welcome.