Today's date:
Winter 2002


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 hijackers.

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 today.

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 meaning.

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 be fought?

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 violence?

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?

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 of.

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.