Bin Laden's Islam is an ascetic brand

New York Times/October 7, 2001
By Neil MacFarquhar

Jidda, Saudi Arabia -- The faith that drives Osama bin Laden and his followers is a particularly austere and conservative brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, which was instrumental in creating the Saudi monarchy and if sufficiently alienated, could tear it down.

Throughout its history, the Wahhabis have fiercely opposed anything they viewed as bida, an Arabic word usually muttered like a curse, for any change or modernization that deviates from the fundamental teachings of the Quran.

The telephone, radio broadcasts and public education for women were at one point condemned as innovations wrought by the devil. Riots ensued over the introduction of television in 1965, and were only quelled after police fired on demonstrators.

Similar tensions exist today. A recent ruling suggested that the music played as mobile phone rings should be outlawed on religious grounds.

Whenever the forces of change prevailed, it was usually with the argument that the novelty could help propagate the Quran. When that argument fell flat, change stalled. So, for example, there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia -- they would promote the unhealthy mingling of the sexes -- and women are banned from driving.

But above all, the Wahhabis believe their faith should spread, not giving ground in any place they have conquered. Thus Saudi Arabia was a main financial backer of the mujahedeen fighting to expel the godless communists from Muslim Afghanistan, and bin Laden became the public's poster boy for that cause.

The dream of creating an Islamic state along Wahhabi lines has also inspired fighters of the faith to join the cause of the Muslims who were threatened in Bosnia, and the sect was at the center of some of the boldest attacks by Chechen separatists in parts of southern Russia.

The ferocity with which the Wahhabis fight for their cause is legend. One Arab historian described followers of the sect, founded in the 18th century, as they engaged in battle: "I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies, utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank after rank with only one desire -- the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men."

Today Wahhabis extol the purist state ruled by the Taliban as one that subscribes to their vision, and they would seek to replicate it.

"To the religious people, the extremists, the Taliban state is the ideal Islamic society," said a professor at King Abdel Aziz University, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivity about the subject since the Sept. 11 attacks.

In trying to balance U.S. demands that it join the fight against terrorism and the grass-roots popularity of bin Laden and the Taliban, the Saudi government is walking a tightrope. It broke relations with the Taliban, but has ruled out any role in attacking Afghanistan.

For the Saudi ruling family, the Wahhabis form a vital base of legitimacy, as well as an unpredictable threat. Since King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud unified the county in 1932, the royal dynasty has had to balance the demands of modernization and the intolerance of the Wahhabis, whose antecedents were vital to the battles that established the kingdom.

Many in the kingdom view Muhammed bin Abd Wahhab (1703-87), the founder of the sect, as the co-founder of Saudi Arabia, and indeed the royal clan and the religious clan have long intermarried.

"As the princes wanted to expand, they needed the backing of the spiritual leaders," said a prominent Jidda lawyer, pointing out that they still relied on those rulings today. "The best form of alliance is marriage."

Wahhab descendants continue to hold prominent positions in the kingdom.

And being a descendant of the founder naturally does not automatically mean being a religious zealot. King Faisal, for example, who was a descendant on his mother's side, introduced schooling for girls and television.

While the Saudi rulers essentially owe their power to the Wahhabis, the followers of Wahhabism have long been a fickle source of support, fiercely loyal as long as the royals followed Wahhabi ways, but ready to turn when they did not.

"They believe that Islam is a total system, that it has an answer for every question," said Yahya Sadowski, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "They believe there is a kind of blueprint that you can write out. It is all in the Quran."

Their Islam is an ascetic one. Men should wear short robes and even avoid the black cords used on headcloths. Mosques should be without decoration. There should be no public holidays other than religious ones, and even the prophet's birthday should not be celebrated. Drinking alcohol is forbidden.

Punishment should be meted out as described in the Quran. The right hand should be amputated for theft. Adulterers should be stoned to death. Murder and sexual deviation merit beheading. To this day Saudi Arabia metes out these punishments, especially beheading for capital crimes.

No one can put a number on those who support the most extreme form of Wahhabism. Estimates range from 10 percent of the population to more than two-thirds. At least 10 of the hijackers who carried out the attacks in the United States came from Saudi Arabia.

Adherents make no apologies for their beliefs.

"It may be hard to accept it, but you have to take Islam as a whole," said a Saudi who follows the faith's orthodox precepts, using the subject of veiling as an example. "When a guy says let a women uncover her face, what they are really aiming for is to be completely uncovered, to live like the West. This is just the first stone they are removing from the building. Where will it end if we allow every aspect of our lives to be taken away?"

For bin Laden, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and enjoys significant support in the kingdom, even Saudi Arabia's extremely conservative society and government -- where the Quran is proclaimed the constitution and all law must conform to Islamic law, or Shariah -- are not pure enough.

He abhors the alliance of the ruling family with the West, their dependence underscored by the hundreds of thousands of American and other foreign troops who flowed into the kingdom to defend it during the gulf war. And he is committed to the overthrowing of the Saudi regime.

While the Saudi government has deemed overt donations to bin Laden's cause to be illegal, he receives support, both popularly and through donations.

But just as the Christian world often found the Puritans intolerable in their strict adherence to the Scriptures, so the rest of the Islamic world does not always welcome the Wahhabis' joyless interpretation of faith.

Wahhabism started as a movement for social and moral reform, demanding a kind of simplicity by stripping away all interpretations of Quranic texts made after the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

Differences have often been the sharpest with members of the Shiite branch of Islam, the form prevalent in Iran, southern Iraq and parts of Lebanon, and have fueled Iran's tense relations with the Taliban.

More mainstream Sunnis can be equally critical. Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a former dean of the faculty of theology at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, explained it this way: "They started with one aim, to liberate Islam from any superstitions and heretic innovation, to the degree that it became frozen in old ideas."

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