May 13, 2004
I recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where I attended an international conference on terrorism at the global headquarters of Wahhabism. It wasn't a how-to clinic. It was an effort to come to grips with the growing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.
The Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh is the factory where Wahhabism is produced and serviced in Saudi Arabia. A large number of the Saudi clerics are educated and trained here. Nearly 20,000 students study the core teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab, an 18th century cleric and founder of the Saudi Salafi movement. This subgroup of Sunni Muslims follows a literal interpretation of the Quran and is believed to have helped shape the minds of Osama bin Laden and the 15 Saudis who were among the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks.
During the conference in closed-door sessions, I was extremely critical of Wahhabism as well as Saudi policies, and I found the Saudi scholars and the various ministers who attended were open and willing to listen.
Sometimes they were in agreement. Sometimes they were baffled. But they were never offended. Some even encouraged me to speak more.
There were, of course, the usual number of sycophants and apologists, but even they seemed apprehensive and willing to question their own beliefs.
I ran into a member of the Majlis-e-Shura -- the Saudi pretense for a parliament -- at a TV studio where I recorded a one-hour interview on Islamic democracy, and he berated me for not being more critical than I was. I listened to him lambaste the university and Wahhabi clerics for being the source of the problem behind terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
"All they teach," he said, "is to hate those who are different. We are a country that is economically in the 20th century and intellectually in the 14th century."
The House of Saud has long relied on the Wahhabi movement for domestic control and legitimacy. It has also depended on the United States for international security. But after Sept. 11, these two allies of Saudi Arabia have clashed, and the House of Saud realized it could not have both as allies anymore.
It is now becoming apparent that the House of Saud has chosen America over Wahhabism. It is determined to maintain its relations with the United States and is actively seeking to reform Wahhabism and reconstitute the domestic basis of its rule.
Saudi society is composed of two types of elites: the conservative, religious elite, and the liberal political and economic elite. For decades the latter had focused on milking the oil cow. In exchange for unrestrained freedom to become rich, the ruling elite allowed the religious elite the freedom to preach their narrow and intolerant interpretations of Islam.
Without self-critical and reflective voices within the religious establishment, Wahhabism got out of control.
Wahhabi ideas are now so deeply embedded that neither the ruling elite, which had abdicated its responsibilities, nor the religious elite, which is afraid of what it has created, can rein it in. Any attempts at sudden reforms may upset the delicate balance within the society and empower those who have decided to use terrorism to replace both elites.
Saudi Arabia needs to push social and political reforms without undermining domestic and regional stability. It must fast track its social reform and maintain a steady progress toward political reform. The promise of municipal elections must be kept and the momentum toward more representative and accountable governance must be sustained.
For the House of Saud and the House of Abdel-Wahhab to come together to dismantle Wahhabism and replace it with a self-critical, more open and softer form of Salafi traditions, moderates within the religious establishment must prevail over the extremists. They need to be prepared to make significant compromises -- maybe even deviations -- in the Wahhabi doctrine and in Wahhabi institutions. The extremists could then be isolated and their power weakened.
The staging of the terrorism conference at the Imam Muhammad University signals hope.
It is time Saudi Arabia stopped looking backwards for guidance. Those who drive looking in the rearview mirror are only destined to crash.
Muqtedar Khan is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also the chair of the political science department and the director of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan. He is the author of "American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom" (Amana, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.