Abbas Bakhtiar: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
By Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar
6 February 2007
“To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Today as we witness the carnage in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Somalia, the troubles in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, everyone’s attention is focused on the gathering of the American Armada in the Persian Gulf and the possibility of US military attack on Iran. President Bush and his staff go out of their way to emphasize that they are doing their best to “reassure” their “allies” in the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia) that the United States is there to protect them against the evil Persians. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s ideology is spreading unchecked throughout the Muslim world. The actions of the Bush administration are helping to spread this ideology. United States is actually protecting the source of this malaise and helping it to spread.
Al Qaeda’s ideology is based on Wahhabism (also known as Salafism), named after Muhammad ibn al Wahhab (1703-1792). Wahhabis differ from traditional Sunnis in that they believe in the literal interpretation of the words of the prophet Mohammad. They are extremely puritanical and legalistic in matters of faith and religious practice. They believe such things as music, photographs, annual feasts, etc to be contrary to Islam. They do not accept any other branches of Islam and consider them heretics and killing them is not considered a sin.
Until the rise of House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism was a very small sect and was rejected by many scholars in Sunni world. The religion of the House of Saud is Wahabism. When in 1924-1925, Ibn Saud with the help of the British defeated Hashemite (another tribe in Arabia) and captured Mecca, Wahhabism became the official religion of Arabia, or what is now called Saudi Arabia (named after Ibn Saud).
According to Said K. Aburish, when Ibn Saud captured Ryadth, his Wahhabi followers burned 1200 people to death. By 1932 over 400000 people were killed or injured, over 40000 were publicly executed and over 350000 people had one of their limbs amputated. During this time close to 1 million people fled Saudi Arabia. All this in a country with a population at the time of 4 million people.[ 1] Such barbarity on such a scale had never been seen in Arabia before.
This was the birth pangs of Wahhabism as the state religion. The masterminds of the 9/11, the suicide bombers of in Spain, or England or Indonesia are all Wahhabis. The gruesome beheading of hostages, mass killing of civilians by bombs and spreading of terror is nothing new to these people. What is new is the financial and material support that they are receiving.
Today, the House of Saud with its 7000 princes, lacking legitimacy, relies on Wahhabi religious establishment to stay in power. There exists a symbiotic relationship between the two.
For over a quarter of a century, the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia has been trying to spread its brand of Islam across the Muslim world. The funding and logistical supports have been provided by the ruling princes and their associates either directly through the state or through religious charity foundations. They have built religious schools (Madrassas) in many (usually poor) Muslim countries. They distribute millions of Wahhabi books around the world. They build mosques and finance the education of (foreign) clergies in Saudi Universities. The Wahhabi ideology is being spread as never before and it is finding converts across the globe. But why? Why is this ideology so attractive to some Muslims?
The Arab world is composed of 22 countries with a combined population of 280 million people. For over 50 years the Arabs have been trying to deal with many problems both internal and external without much success. Rising poverty, lack of freedom, stagnating economy and repeated military defeats have increased the general frustration to such a level that people are willing to try anything, no matter how horrible, as long as it addresses some of their problems. For example, look at the Palestinian problem. Their leaders had tried war several times and had failed. They had tried to use their oil and failed. They tried an ever closer relationship with the US, in the hope of getting some results and failed. Having failed militarily and diplomatically the Arab countries also failed socially and economically.
In a much quoted report “UNDP: Arab Human Development Report 2002” [ 2] the authors, majority of whom were eminent Arab scholars and intellectuals ranked Arab human development at the bottom of their list. They comprehensively catalogue the shortcomings of the Arab society from lack of political freedom to poverty. According to this report one in five Arabs live on less than $2 per day and over the past twenty years, growth in income per head, at an annual rate of 0.5% was lower than anywhere else in the world except sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the other problems listed were the survival of absolute autocracies, the holding of bogus elections, constraints on the media and on civil society, intolerance, etc. In addition a sever deficit in production of knowledge was seen as a compounding problem for the Arab societies.
Having seen their leaders’ failures and not being allowed to express their anger and frustration; the young and old have turned to religion, for religion is the only thing that governments allow. It is under the banner of the religion and in the Mosques that people can gather and quietly air-out their grievances. And it is these people that Wahhabis are targeting. They promise a different system, a system without corrupt leaders and foreign influence. Wahhabis turn these frustrations and anger into hate; hate that is directed first at their own rulers and then other Muslims that do not share the same ideologies as them (Wahhabis), and then the infidels.
But in order to gain the attention of the potential converts, it is always the infidels that are targeted first. If they can show that they are fighting to “liberate” Muslims from the “yoke” of the foreign domination it would be much easier to attract converts than if they begin to fight other Muslims. But ultimately, it is not the foreigners that are the real targets, but the Muslims that do not share the same vision as Wahhabis.
The House of Saud’s relationship with Wahhabis is symbiotic. The rulers rely on the religious establishment for legitimacy and support, while the religious establishment relies on the government for maintaining and spreading its ideology. Each feeds and supports the other. But there is a problem. As long as these people were fighting the infidels outside the Arabia, they represented no danger to the government. But now they have evolved and become something that poses a danger to the very people that were aiding it. Now Saudi Arabia has become a Wahhabi state that both supports and fight fights extremists. On one hand some of its princes, charity organisations and wealthy merchants supply these extremists with money and other supports; on the other hand the government tries hard to limit the activities of these groups at home while “supposedly” aiding United States to fight it abroad.
From all available evidence, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is actively propagating the Wahhabi ideology through-out the Muslim world. In a recent documentary: “Dispatch: Uncover Mosque”, shown on the English Channel 4, an investigative journalist with a hidden camera visited many Saudi supported mosques to find out what was really being preached (can be viewed here) [ 3]. It was a scary documentary. The preachers, most of whom were trained in Saudi Arabia, preached a violent and xenophobic version of Islam. They preached hatred of non-Muslims with a very strong anti-western tone.
Another example of Saudi support of this extremism was recently exposed in Algeria, where the government had to pass laws to prohibit certain Wahhabi rituals and activities imported from Saudi Arabia.
“Algeria has been trying to curb certain religious practices deemed subversive or out of line with mainstream Islam and the state's law. Qur'an forgeries, unlawful marriages and the spread of exorcism have the religious affairs ministry trying to consolidate its control over mosques and train new Imams.
On December 16th, the ministry said it was setting up committees across the country to ensure that Qur'an copies in circulation are authentic. This decision was taken due to the appearance on the Algerian market of copies of the Qur'an with "serious and malicious alterations to its verses", according to the ministry's information officer, Abdelmajid Tamine.
The ministry blames members of the fundamentalist Salafi movement for the alterations. The changes reportedly included additions and deletions in a subtle manner that no ordinary reader would be able to notice. The movement, which originated in Saudi Arabia, was brought to Algeria during the 1980s by young Algerians who studied in Saudi Arabia. Their spiritual leader, Abdelmalek Ramdani, created the "La Colonne Cell", named after a district of Hydra on the hills of Algiers. He is now an imam in a mosque in Saudi Arabia after receiving death threats in Algeria because of his views.
Algerian religious authorities have been increasingly facing a challenge from the Salafi movement, prompting Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs Bouabdallah Ghlamallah to declare that the country is going through a "severe cultural and religious crisis".” [ 4]
Yet another example of the Saudi Arabia’s support for this extremist ideology and spreading of terror is the creation of religious schools or madrassas. Dr Vali Nasr, an authority on Islamic Fundamentalism argues that: “all of these groups are rooted in a network of seminaries, or as the term is called in the local vernacular, "madrassa." My argument was that the main source of funding for these groups is Saudi Arabia. In fact, this whole phenomenon that we are confronting, which Al Qaeda is a part of, is very closely associated with Saudi Arabia's financial and religious projects for the Muslim world as a whole. ...
For instance, in one Madrassa in Pakistan, I interviewed 70 Malaysian and Thai students who are being educated side by side with students who went on to the Afghan war and the like. These people return to their countries, and then we see the results in a short while. ... At best, they become hot-headed preachers in mosques that encourage fighting Christians in Nigeria or in Indonesia. And in a worst case, they actually recruit or participate in terror acts.” [ 5] Those who received training in Afghanistan and later moved to Algeria, are now spreading throughout Northern Africa.
“They began in Algeria, moved south to Mali, west to Mauritania and now east to Morocco and Tunisia. Al Qaeda is alive and well in North Africa. Don’t credit Osama Bin Laden; he just issues orders. The group that has brought Al Qaeda to pro-U.S. allies in North Africa is the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call, the last active Islamic insurgency group in Algeria.
The Salafist Brigade announced a merger with Al Qaeda, which means little except that the brigade has a mandate to expand outside of Algeria in cooperation with foreign Islamic cells.
Suddenly, Salafist cells, now renamed Al Qaeda Organization for the Countries of the Arab Maghreb, have been growing like wild flowers in Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. .” [ 6]
All of these groups adhere to the Salafi/Wahhabi sect of Islam. Saudi Arabia by financing the spread of this form of fanaticism is indirectly or even directly aiding the very terrorist organisations that she is proclaiming to fight. The House of Saud has created a monster that is threatening to devour the Kingdom. To defeat it the House of Saud has to either accommodate it by showing that they are as puritanical and fanatical as the terrorists, or fight them head-on and try to destroy them totally. And here lies the dilemma: the House of Saud relies on this religious sect for its legitimacy and survival. It can not seriously weaken the Wahhabi establishment within the kingdom without weakening its own position.
So what does the House of Saud do? It does what it has always done: try to buy itself out of the problem and point the finger at others. I have already listed the past activities of the House of Saud in the article “Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan: With friends like these…”, so I will not go into detail here. Suffice to say that the House of Saud, when faced with a problem, has always gone for “rent a solution” or “check book diplomacy”.
Saudi Arabia vs. Iran
Another problem facing the House of Saud is the rise of the Shi’ite Iran. Wahhabis consider Shi’ites to be heretics and Saudi Wahhabi scholars have repeatedly issued religious decrees (Fatwas) calling for murdering of Shi’ites everywhere. For example, recently an influential Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak issued a Fatwa calling the Shiites infidels. He argued that “The rejectionists (Shi’ites) in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation’s sects. They bear all the characteristics of infidels. They are in truth polytheist infidels, though they hide this. The Sunni and Shi’ite schools of Islam are opposites that can never agree; there can be no coming together”. [ 7]
This decree coming out
of Saudi Arabia was very similar to the statements that came
from Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“In a ¬four-¬hour ¬anti-¬Shia sermon, released on the Internet a week before his death in a U.S. bombing raid in June but apparently recorded two months earlier, Zarqawi ran through a list of Shia “betrayals” and cited a number of venomously ¬anti-¬Shia tracts written by scholars in the fundamentalist Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. He declared that there would be no “total victory” over the Jews and Christians without a “total annihilation” of the Shia, whom he called the secret agents of Islam’s enemies. “If you can’t find any Christians or Jews to kill, vent your wrath against the next available Shia,” Zarqawi said. He claimed that his fellow terrorists, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, were only pretending to oppose Israel, while in reality their mission was to protect Israel’s northern border. Zarqawi concluded with a formal declaration of war on the Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada ¬al-¬Sadr and his “bastards.” [ 8]
Please note that there is a distinction between main stream Sunni Muslims and Wahhabies, in that the main stream Sunnis are very moderate, non-violent and very tolerant of others. However, as was mentioned before, the Wahhabis are extremists and as such are diametrically opposed to the Shi’ites. For instance, in Iran women vote, work, drive (even Lorries and taxis [ 9]), attend universities (Some 60% of university entrants are women [ 10]) and serve in paramilitary organisations and the police. They are also represented in the Parliament. And to cap it all, the Islamic Republic of Iran accepts and allows Gender change. Compare this to Saudi Arabia. It is no wonder that they consider Shi’ites to be heretics.
The core of the problem is that Shi’ites allow for interpretation of the laws. This makes it extremely flexible. It allows the religion to adapt to the needs of the society. Wahhabis are stuck in the past and abhor change. They are rigid. That is why, wherever they are, be it Afghanistan, Somalia or Algeria, they try to turn the clock back.
United States to the Resue
Dorothy Thompson once said that the only force that can overcome an idea and a faith is another and better idea and faith, positively and fearlessly upheld. Saudi Arabia is afraid that if Iran is successful in its rise, it may become a model for Muslims in the Middle East. It may weaken and ultimately destroy the Wahhabi version. The Wahhabi clerics know that in an ideological fight, their version of Islam is going to lose. They now are looking at United States to protect them by weakening Iran. And by all indications, United Sates is obliging.
Saudi Arabia is now pushing hard to “contain” Iran through United States and UK. It is also spending as much as it can in creating a fissure along the sectarian lines in the Islamic community. Saudi controlled press and their affiliates have started using Sunni and Shi’ite. The Saudis are trying hard to regain lost ground in the Muslim world by trying to scare them of the rising Shi’ite. But what they don’t seem to understand is that no one is fond of the Wahhabi version of Islam.
The House of Saud is very unpopular among both Arabs and non-Arab muslims. House of Saud is often referred to in Arabic as “Um al Fessad” or mother/origin of corruption. Even the very Wahhabi extremists that they have succoured for so long are after their heads. The only ones that seem to be willing to protect the House of Saud are the United States and other Western powers. And that is because of oil. United States is willing to aid and protect Saudi Arabia no matter what, as long as the oil companies are given lucrative contracts and armament manufacturers can sell their goods. The policy of see no evil, hear no evil, has been part and parcel of successive US administrations and it is not about to change. Everyone seem to ignore the financial aid that Saudis are giving to the Iraqi insurgents that are killing US servicemen.
“The Associated Press reports that "key Iraqi officials" say private Saudi citizens are providing millions of dollars in funding to Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Much of the money is used to buy weapons.
The Iraqi officials interviewed for the article say most of the money comes from "private Islamic donations inside Saudi Arabia, known as zakat." The zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are obliged to give it, primarily for the "poor and needy." Some Saudis know where the money goes, the officials say, but others give the money to Islamic clerics and don't know where it goes.
The two Iraqi officials said that while some of the funding goes to Iraqi Sunni leaders, who then disburse it, other channels are being used to send money directly to insurgents. Among them are Iraqi drivers working on road links between Iraq and neighboring countries.
Several drivers interviewed by the AP in several Middle East capitals said Saudis have been using religious events, like the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and a smaller midyear pilgrimage, to send money into Iraq on buses that carry returning pilgrims.”[ 11]
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the arming of the Somalia’s Islamic court was recorded by UN, yet no one said a word.
“The Bush administration has acknowledged that Saudi Arabia was financing the Al Qaida-aligned regime in Somalia. Officials said Saudi Arabia has become a leading financier of the Islamic takeover of Somalia. The so-called Islamic Courts Union, headed by an Al Qaida commander wanted by the United States, has garnered most of its foreign support from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. "I don't want to say the Saudi government is supporting any particular [Islamic] court," Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said. "But I do know that there is money coming in from Saudi Arabia.".”[ 12]
Their involvements with Taliban, their funding of Maddrassas in Pakistan and other places are also well known. Yet we see that United States is gathering an armada to threaten Iran and “protect” Saudi Arabia.
Am I the only one that thinks that US is looking for terrorists in all the wrong places? Am I the only one that thinks that it is about time we forced the House of Saud to change its policies? Am I the only one that thinks the mainstream media should begin to discuss the role of Saudi Arabia in all these problems? Am I the only one that thinks it is about time to look at Iran as an ally in the fight against terror rather than an enemy?
It seems that despite all evidences United States is determined to attack Iran or at least goad Iran to attack US interests. So far US has and is trying to strangulate Iran’s economy (please read “Plan for Economic Strangulation of Iran”), repeatedly breached the Iranian airspace, arrested its diplomats and according to the latest reports probably has been involved in kidnapping another diplomat [ 13]. It has repeatedly accused Iran in aiding the insurgent, despite the contrary evidence provided by US intelligence services.
“A new U.S. intelligence estimate Friday, however, concluded that Iranian and other outside meddling is "not likely" a major cause of the bloodshed in Iraq, and a new McClatchy analysis of U.S. casualties in Iraq found that Sunni Muslim insurgents, not Iranian-backed Shiites, have mounted most — but not all — attacks on American forces.”[ 14]
What is United States’ aim in all this? Is it to ensure the survival and spread of Wahhabism and its extremist views or is it to fight terror? From what I can see, Bush administration like House of Saud has become Schizophrenic. What do you think?
1. Said K. Aburish, “The House of Saud”, Bloomsbury, 1994. ISBN 0-7475-2040-2
2. United Nation Development Program (UNDP), “UNDP: Arab Human Development Report 2002”
3. Channel 4 Documentary, “Dispatch: Uncover Mosque”
5. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), “Frontline: Analysis: Madrassas” ,
6. Geostrategy.com, “Al Qaida cells multiplying across North Africa” , 2 February 2007
7. Dailytimes.com, “Saudi cleric labels Shias ‘infidels” , 30 December 2006
8. The Wislson Quarterly, “The Revenge of The Shia” , Autumn 2006
9. Guardian Unlimited, “Iranian taxi company breaks rank to enlist women cabbies” , 2 February 2007
10. Guardian, “Iran then and now” , 25 September 2001
11. Christian Science Monitor, “Report: Private Saudi citizens funding Iraqi insurgents”, 8 December 2006
12. Middle East Newsline, “SAUDIS HELP AL QAIDA REGIME IN SOMALIA”, July 2006
13. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “Iran envoy 'abducted in Baghdad'” , 6 February 2007
14. Seattle Times, “Intelligence officials play down Iran's role in Iraq”, 4 February 2007
Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He is a
management consultant and a contributing writer for many
online journals. He's a former associate professor of
Nordland University, Norway.
Bakhtiarspace-articles @ yahoo.no
Copyright Abbas Bakhtiar, all rights reserved.