Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis Are Not Spreading Intolerance
Dr. Khaled M. Al-Ankary, the minister of higher education
of Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Islamic Conference on Higher Education,
is a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. He spoke with NPQ editor
Nathan Gardels in Rabat, Morocco, in January.
NPQ | The Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia
has come under increasing attack for spreading intolerant Islam around
the world and fostering the likes of Osama bin Laden and most of his suicide
Recently, Francis Fukuyama has said "the present conflict is not
simply a fight against terrorism, nor against Islam as a religion or civilization,
but rather with Islamo-fascism-the radically intolerant and anti-modern
doctrine" that has arisen in the Muslim world. "A strong finger
of blame points at Saudi Arabia," Fukuyama contends. "Wahhabi
ideology easily qualifies as Islamo-fascism: a textbook mandated for use
in Saudi 10th-grade classes explains that 'it is compulsory for Muslims
to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemies.'"
As a leading member of the Saudi government in charge of education, what
is your response?
KHALED AL-ANKARY | Well, Francis Fukuyama's understanding of Islam
and the Koran seems as distorted as Osama bin Laden's. And Bin Laden is
not a "Wahhabi" at all. In his educational transcripts, he had
only eight credit hours in religious studies!
I was brought up in Saudi Arabia and attended the 10th grade but was never
taught from a textbook that said such things; and there is no such teaching
This sounds like a quote taken out of context. Fukuyama's background surely
does not qualify him for the important task of interpreting the Koran.
From the American experience you know that learned men and women are needed
to interpret the US Constitution, the intent or meaning about which many,
whether strict constructionists or liberals, may disagree as to its true
The same logic applies to reading and interpreting the Koran. When citing
the Koran, one has to know the reason(s) and the circumstances behind
each passage in order to fully comprehend its context and meaning. The
Koran has to be taken as a whole and not by selective reading which serves
one's interest and argument.
I will give you one simple example. There is a passage that starts with
"do not pray." One can claim the Koran forbids praying. But
this passage continues to say "while you are under the influence
of alcohol." Again, one can claim the Koran permits drinking alcohol,
just not while praying. However, if this passage is read within its context
and its historical circumstances, as an Islamic scholar usually does,
one would know this passage entered the Koran at a time before alcohol
was forbidden, and later understood as a step in a gradual program toward
forbidding alcohol totally.
Muhammad bin Abulwahhab's movement (whose followers you call "Wahhabis")
is a reformation call that started in the 18th century to go back to the
purest, simplest roots of Islam as contained in the Koran and the direct
sayings and traditions of the Prophet. And nothing more.
Abdulwahhab believed there should be no intermediary between the faithful
and their Maker. He opposed all bid'h, or unwarranted innovations, in
the faith after the early era of Islam. Religion for him was supposed
to create simplicity in a Muslim's life, not difficulties.
Most of the stigma given to "Wahhabism" is probably due to historical
ideological divisions rather than the actual teachings of Muhammad bin
Abdulwahhab himself. Like other Saudis, I do not agree with using the
term "Wahhabism" because I think this may lead people to believe
it is a new version of Islam, which is definitely not the case.
NPQ | Yet, Abdulwahhab thought all innovation was tantamount to
polytheism and against the unity of God. Isn't that the source of the
charge that infidels-those not believing in the one God of Allah-must
AL-ANKARY | The teaching of Abdulwahhab's reform movement is to believe
in the unity of God, yes. But the Koran is very clear there can be no
compulsion in religion.
One can judge the so-called "Wahhabism" by the history of Saudi
Arabia over the past two centuries and see the country (which is supposed
to be embracing Wahhabism) as a peaceful, moderate source of stability
in the region. This is the best proof of the invalidity of the argument
that so-called "Wahhabism" is subversive to others.
NPQ | So "Wahhabism" doesn't sanction intolerance and
AL-ANKARY | If someone in Saudi Arabia doesn't agree with the government,
following the Wahhabi teachings, they are not called upon to be violent
or aggressive, but to engage in peaceful consultation and advice-shura-to
solve disputes and seek consensus-ijma. Any other way is against the Book.
One can also judge this by studying Saudi Arabia in the pre- and post-Wahhab
era. Before this reform movement there was hatred and animosity. This
movement was successful in making people more respectful of others and
peaceful toward them. It has managed to transfer loyalty from warring
tribes to statehood. Saudi society is now composed of people from different
tribes who live together in harmony.
NPQ | Another charge, this time from the Wall Street Journal op-ed
page by a retired US military officer. He writes: "The obvious source
of fundamentalist terrorism, subversion and hatred is Saudi Arabia...the
Saudis themselves have engaged in a decades-long campaign to destabilize
secular and relatively tolerant regimes throughout the Muslim world...the
syncretic, easygoing version of Islam that prevailed in Indonesia is anathema
to the Wahhabi vision of religion...." Your response?
AL-ANKARY | I totally disagree with this. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia
has taken a moderate position in its relations with the international
community, winning the respect of moderate Muslim states and the West.
Through institutions from the Gulf Cooperation Council to the World Bank
we have assisted Islamic and non-Islamic countries alike in development.
If anything, Saudi Arabia has been subject to criticism from some Arab
and Muslim countries for being too moderate and too close to the West,
mainly the US.
In everything written or said about Saudi Arabia over the past 30 years,
I have never seen or heard until now about efforts to destabilize any
Muslim country. I end up wondering what the Arab and Islamic world would
look like today without the balanced and moderate leadership role played
by Saudi Arabia.
NPQ | What about the charge that the Saudis are financing extremists
by supporting radical mosques and "madrassas" (religious schools)
across the world?
AL-ANKARY | Let me be more specific and comment on institutes and
schools that are the responsibility of my ministry.
First, these schools have been opened in response to requests from both
the people and the governments of the countries in which they are established.
Second, they have been providing quality education (not just Koranic studies)
for people who otherwise would not be educated. Third, they are in close
coordination with the government as well as other schools and institutes
in these countries. If they were accused of inspiring extremism, these
countries would close them down since they operate with licenses from
education authorities in the host country.
Finally, I have never seen evidence of extremist instigation in schools
we sponsor. And if there is any, I would, in my official capacity, be
the first to know.
NPQ | Critics say that since so many suicide hijackers came from
Saudi Arabia, there must be something in the school system that lays the
groundwork for them becoming terrorists. As a minister in charge of education,
how do you respond to that?
AL-ANKARY | This year, 200,000 students have graduated from high
school in Saudi Arabia; 175,000 students graduated the year before. If
a handful of these students are accused of being terrorists, then does
that mean one can over generalize and label the whole education system
as fostering extremism?
Is there any logical or statistical validity to this argument? If so,
the education system in the US also needs an overhaul due to the shootings
at Columbine or the events in Waco, Texas. If so, then the United Kingdom
system needs to be changed because of the IRA.
NPQ | The post 9-11 reaction against Saudi Arabia could be coming
from within the broader values of American society. Saudi Arabia is seen
not only as a country that supported the Taliban's oppression of women
but oppresses women at home. The women's constituency in the West, and
in the US in particular, is far more influential than the Israeli lobby.
AL-ANKARY | First of all, it is unfair and incomprehensible to
compare woman's rights in Saudi Arabia with the Taliban. Saudi women have
equal rights to men in education, jobs and social welfare.
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has been under scrutiny in recent
years. Still, there are many facts that people in the West are not aware
The growth rate of female students is faster than the rate of male students.
More than half (55 percent) of higher education students in Saudi Arabia
are female. There are a significant number of female faculty in Saudi
higher education institutions who were educated in the West through government
scholarships. And this is for a country much younger than others where
women have far fewer opportunities.
Another point: There are pillars of the Islamic faith that Muslims are
bound to abide by because they are direct teaching of the Koran and the
Prophet-the oneness of God, praying, charity, fasting, Haj and so on.
But there are many other areas subject to varying interpretations by scholars.
It is in these areas where social traditions are confused with religious
teachings. For example, there is no statement in the Koran or the Prophet's
teaching that forbids women from driving cars. Whatever one may think
of that, it is not an Islamic issue.
Finally, I believe the women's rights issue is exaggerated because people
in the West try to overextend their value system to other societies which
have their own way of defining a fair system of human rights.