Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is...
[This is part II of Alastair Crooke’s historical analysis of the roots of ISIS and its impact on the future of the Middle East. Read Part I here.]
ISIS is indeed a veritable time bomb inserted into the heart of the Middle East. But its destructive power is not as commonly understood. It is not with the “March of the Beheaders”; it is not with the killings; the seizure of towns and villages; the harshest of “justice” — terrible though they are — that its true explosive power lies. It is yet more potent than its exponential pull on young Muslims, its huge arsenal of weapons and its hundreds of millions of dollars.
Its real potential for destruction lies elsewhere — in the implosion of Saudi Arabia as a foundation stone of the modern Middle East. We should understand that there is really almost nothing that the West can now do about it but sit and watch.
The clue to its truly explosive potential, as Saudi scholar Fouad Ibrahim has pointed out (but which has passed, almost wholly overlooked, or its significance has gone unnoticed), is ISIS’ deliberate and intentional use in its doctrine — of the language of Abd-al Wahhab, the 18th century founder, together with Ibn Saud, of Wahhabism and the Saudi project:
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the first “prince of the faithful” in the Islamic State of Iraq, in 2006 formulated, for instance, the principles of his prospective state ... Among its goals is disseminating monotheism “which is the purpose [for which humans were created] and [for which purpose they must be called] to Islam...” This language replicates exactly Abd-al Wahhab’s formulation. And, not surprisingly, the latter’s writings and Wahhabi commentaries on his works are widely distributed in the areas under ISIS’ control and are made the subject of study sessions. Baghdadi subsequently was to note approvingly, “a generation of young men [have been] trained based on the forgotten doctrine of loyalty and disavowal.”
And what is this “forgotten” tradition of “loyalty and disavowal?” It is Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine that belief in a sole (for him an anthropomorphic) God — who was alone worthy of worship — was in itself insufficient to render man or woman a Muslim?
He or she could be no true believer, unless additionally, he or she actively denied (and destroyed) any other subject of worship. The list of such potential subjects of idolatrous worship, which al-Wahhab condemned as idolatry, was so extensive that almost all Muslims were at risk of falling under his definition of “unbelievers.” They therefore faced a choice: Either they convert to al-Wahhab’s vision of Islam — or be killed, and their wives, their children and physical property taken as the spoils of jihad. Even to express doubts about this doctrine, al-Wahhab said, should occasion execution.
“Through its intentional adoption of this Wahhabist language, ISIS is knowingly lighting the fuse to a bigger regional explosion — one that has a very real possibility of being ignited, and if it should succeed, will change the Middle East decisively.”
The point Fuad Ibrahim is making, I believe, is not merely to reemphasize the extreme reductionism of al-Wahhab’s vision, but to hint at something entirely different: That through its intentional adoption of this Wahhabist language, ISIS is knowingly lighting the fuse to a bigger regional explosion — one that has a very real possibility of being ignited, and if it should succeed, will change the Middle East decisively.
For it was precisely this idealistic, puritan, proselytizing formulation by al-Wahhab that was “father” to the entire Saudi “project” (one that was violently suppressed by the Ottomans in 1818, but spectacularly resurrected in the 1920s, to become the Saudi Kingdom that we know today). But since its renaissance in the 1920s, the Saudi project has always carried within it, the “gene” of its own self-destruction.
THE SAUDI TAIL HAS WAGGED BRITAIN AND U.S. IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Paradoxically, it was a maverick British official, who helped embed the gene into the new state. The British official attached to Aziz, was one Harry St. John Philby (the father of the MI6 officer who spied for the Soviet KGB, Kim Philby). He was to become King Abd al-Aziz’s close adviser, having resigned as a British official, and was until his death, a key member of the Ruler’s Court. He, like Lawrence of Arabia, was an Arabist. He was also a convert to Wahhabi Islam and known as Sheikh Abdullah.
St. John Philby was a man on the make: he had determined to make his friend, Abd al-Aziz, the ruler of Arabia. Indeed, it is clear that in furthering this ambition he was not acting on official instructions. When, for example, he encouraged King Aziz to expand in northern Nejd, he was ordered to desist. But (as American author, Stephen Schwartz notes), Aziz was well aware that Britain had pledged repeatedly that the defeat of the Ottomans would produce an Arab state, and this no doubt, encouraged Philby and Aziz to aspire to the latter becoming its new ruler.
It is not clear exactly what passed between Philby and the Ruler (the details seem somehow to have been suppressed), but it would appear that Philby’s vision was not confined to state-building in the conventional way, but rather was one of transforming the wider Islamic ummah (or community of believers) into a Wahhabist instrument that would entrench the al-Saud as Arabia’s leaders. And for this to happen, Aziz needed to win British acquiescence (and much later, American endorsement). “This was the gambit that Abd al-Aziz made his own, with advice from Philby,” notes Schwartz.
BRITISH GODFATHER OF SAUDI ARABIA
In a sense, Philby may be said to be “godfather” to this momentous pact by which the Saudi leadership would use its clout to “manage” Sunni Islam on behalf of western objectives (containing socialism, Ba’athism, Nasserism, Soviet influence, Iran, etc.) — and in return, the West would acquiesce to Saudi Arabia’s soft-power Wahhabisation of the Islamic ummah (with its concomitant destruction of Islam’s intellectual traditions and diversity and its sowing of deep divisions within the Muslim world).
“In political and financial terms, the Saud-Philby strategy has been an astonishing success. But it was always rooted in British and American intellectual obtuseness: the refusal to see the dangerous ‘gene’ within the Wahhabist project, its latent potential to mutate, at any time, back into its original a bloody, puritan strain. In any event, this has just happened: ISIS is it.”
As a result — from then until now — British and American policy has been bound to Saudi aims (as tightly as to their own ones), and has been heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia for direction in pursuing its course in the Middle East.
Winning western endorsement (and continued western endorsement), however, required a change of mode: the “project” had to change from being an armed, proselytizing Islamic vanguard movement into something resembling statecraft. This was never going to be easy because of the inherent contradictions involved (puritan morality versus realpolitik and money) — and as time has progressed, the problems of accommodating the “modernity” that statehood requires, has caused “the gene” to become more active, rather than become more inert.
Even Abd al-Aziz himself faced an allergic reaction: in the form of a serious rebellion from his own Wahhabi militia, the Saudi Ikhwan. When the expansion of control by the Ikhwan reached the border of territories controlled by Britain, Abd al-Aziz tried to restrain his militia (Philby was urging him to seek British patronage), but the Ikwhan, already critical of his use of modern technology (the telephone, telegraph and the machine gun), “were outraged by the abandonment of jihad for reasons of worldly realpolitik ... They refused to lay down their weapons; and instead rebelled against their king ... After a series of bloody clashes, they were crushed in 1929. Ikhwan members who had remained loyal, were later absorbed into the [Saudi] National Guard.”
King Aziz’s son and heir, Saud, faced a different form of reaction (less bloody, but more effective). Aziz’s son was deposed from the throne by the religious establishment — in favor of his brother Faisal — because of his ostentatious and extravagant conduct. His lavish, ostentatious style, offended the religious establishment who expected the “Imam of Muslims,” to pursue a pious, proselytizing lifestyle.
King Faisal, Saud’s successor, in his turn, was shot by his nephew in 1975, who had appeared at Court ostensibly to make his oath of allegiance, but who instead, pulled out a pistol and shot the king in his head. The nephew had been perturbed by the encroachment of western beliefs and innovation into Wahhabi society, to the detriment of the original ideals of the Wahhabist project.
This is part 1 of the article.
The views expressed in this article are the author's opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ODVV.