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Saudi Arabia is unknown to many. Hardly any news coming from Ryad makes global headlines. But regardless of this aura of mystery and silence, some of the most important social and religious issues of the Arab world are at stake within its borders.

The first issue, probably the most important one, is Wahabism, the State religion in Saudi Arabia. As many already know, Islam - if compared to Catholicism for instance - does not have a prevailing clerical structure guiding followers through the interpretation of the sacred books. This circumstance has allowed different people and competing schools of thought the possibility of interpreting, in the most diverse ways and with the most varying consequences, the words of the Koran and of Prophet Mohamed. It was on these basis that, besides from the division between Sunnis and Shiites, the different currents of Islam were born: the Sufi moderates on one side, the radical Salafists on the other.

The origins of Salafism and Wahabism

Salafism preaches a return to pure Islam, as it was in the days following the death of the Prophet, in the belief that foreign occupations and collusions with the Western world had pushed religion away from its original characteristics. Its main dogma is on the uniqueness of God ("tawhid"). It was on this basis that, over the course of time, the worshipping of saints and religious leaders was fought.

The war against the deviations from the right path, that has also taken an iconoclastic form (like recently against the tombs of Sufi saints in Timbuktu in Mali), is central to Salafi doctrine. Salafism begins with the religious theories of Ibn Taymiyah and then, later in time, with those of Mohammed Ibn Abel Wahab.

A Syrian, Ibn Taymiyah was a jurist and a theologian who lived in the 15th century and was a disciple of the Hanbalist school (founded by Ahmad Ibn Hanbali in the 9th century). His theory was that the sacred books of the Koran and the Sunna could and should have been individually interpreted (in what is known as "itjihad"). This theological approach, by extending to virtually anybody the possibility of attributing meanings and interpreting the sacred books of Islam, paved the way to what later will become the exploitation of religion for subversive goals.

In the 18th century, Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab (1703-1792, the founder of Wahabism) also joined Hanbalism to return to pure Islam. The latest relevant Salafist movement was the one founded by Hassan al Banna in 1928: the association of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian cleric added a new element to the formula used by his predecessors: the use of Islam as a political tool to guide the masses.

In the 50s another Egyptian and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb (1906-1966), theorized that political Salafism take up arms against impious Arabic leaders to return to an Islamic State. Qutb has become the ideological reference for several terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. He was put to death for his extremism by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.

Salafist movements follow a strict interpretation of the Koran and of the Sunna, they oppose all those traditions and customs that - in their eyes - have nothing to do with Prophet Mohamed's teachings and, above all, they stress the need for the uniqueness of God, absolute monotheism ("al ahwad"). This is one of the reasons why Salafi movements are often referred to with the appellation of "mowahiddun", the unitary.

What is the most interesting is that this approach to Islam has taken different meanings and forms over time: it has been irredentism, Arab nationalism, fight against Western consumerism and lax habits, until becoming jihad and islamic terrorism.

The negative evolution of Salafism has transformed what had begun as a reformist and modernist approach to religion (that freed the interpretation of the sacred books from the clergy) into a radical and fundamentalist approach. Today its main representatives, besides from the numerous organizations that spring out on the Middle Eastern landscape, are both the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabism. If we were to trace a line in the struggle between the reformist and modernist souls of Islam and the fundamentalists, the latter would bring it home.

Wahab's Salafism historically served the purpose, especially during colonialism, of confronting and contrasting Western habits and culture. But it then turned against all those other Sunni movements that were not as dogmatic and rigid in applying the precepts of Islam. In the present day as in the past, the first to be targeted were Sufi confraternities and their moderate approach to religion. There was then yet another evolution in the doctrine: Salafism became the element justifying subversion (against apostates and impious rulers) and, as a consequence, terrorism. It was in the name of this radical stance on Islam that killings, attacks, coups, destructions and vendettas through fatwas and edicts were carried out.

sayyed qutb
Sayyed Qutb

Saudi Arabia and Wahabism

Although initially Wahabism was more of a movement of public opinion and a religious doctrine, its collusion with the secular power of Mohamed al Saud and the successive development of the Saudi monarchy in Saudi Arabia have submitted religious precepts to political goals and vice-versa. It is emblematic that in Saudi Arabia the oath of loyalty to the leader ("al bayah") follows a religious scheme dear to Wahabism. And since Islam is also a faith with a strong social impact, likewise has been Wahabism's role in forging both Saudi society and, thanks to the revenues granted by oil, a good portion of Sunni muslim Arab world.

As already stated, Wahabism has developed along Salafi beliefs and preaches a return to primordial Islam; traditions and customs as they were supposed to be before being infected by time. A purism that has turned into radicalism and has then been exported thanks to the strength of the petrodollars. Followers of Wahabism refuse being labelled as "wahabis", but only as "muslims" in the belief of being the unique bearers of Islamic doctrine. The most dangerous aspect of Wahabism is it fueling a religious culture of intolerance and it waging a borderless endogenous war against other muslim "infidels" and basically on anyone who is not a Salafist (the worshipping of saints and pious men is considered along the same lines as polytheism). On the external and exogenous front, Wahabism fights non-believers, like Christians and Jews. A war against the infidels ("kufr" in Arabic) is theologically justified by what wahabists consider the sole true and inescapable right path of Islam. In their view, there is no room offered to the unification of the different Islamic schools of thought ("madhahib"). Anyone not following the "true" teachings of Islam (as identified by Wahabism of course) is a "jahili", an infidel.

Wahabism's iconoclastic fury lead the followers of Al Wahab to destroy all muslim burial sites they encountered when conquering new territories. The same happened to the tomb and worshipping site of Prophet Mohamed when al Wahab conquered Mecca and Medina. Until now, the devout of Wahab refuse being buried in tombs, they forbid all celebrations for the birth of Prophet Mohamed and any other Islamic feast. God is unique and every form of devotion should be addressed at him only.

The end result is a world frozen in the past, with no space for the evolution of society and its habits. Wahabism has prevented from the start any chance of going along a path leading to a modernization of intentions and of ideas. Until today in Saudi Arabia apostasy is punished with death, the cult of other religions and the displaying of their symbols is forbidden and persecuted by the Saudi reign. Religious crimes can even be punished with crucifixion.

Wahabism also imposes precise behavioral norms: those common to all muslims (no alcohol or pork meat), plus more specific ones (no exhibition of wealth and jewels, no silk, beard no shorter than a designated length and the hair no longer than another). The strictest rules are for women who have to dress with dark cloths covering them from head to toes. It is the application of a somewhat medieval Wahabism that forbids women from driving a car, going to study abroad, traveling unaccompanied, taking certain jobs and being admitted to hospital without the tutorial consent of a husband or a relative. In Saudi Arabia women are to all effects second class citizens.

All of this inevitably leads to the internal diatribe between the Wahabi clergy and its unswerving radical vision of society and a good portion of Saudi public opinion that demands the emancipation of the country. King Abdallah has introduced limited concessions to improve the condition of women: the right to vote in local elections from 2015, their membership in the Consultative Council ("Shura") with a minimum 20% of representation (30 out of 150 members in a hardly relevant organism. Women will access the premises from a separate entrance, will seat in a separate part of the assembly and will have to wear the hijab), the right to become lawyers, participate in the olympics and be part of the General Intelligence Department. All of these initiatives have been met with protests and reluctance by the clergy, hostile to any emancipation of women.

osama bin laden
Osama bin Laden

The doctrine of terrorism

Such closed society system and its annexed religious vision that accepts no compromises or concessions are taught from an early age to the youth through a network of islamic schools ("madrasse"). There is currently a strong competition in the Salafist field between wahabis and the members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a competition played over ideological and theological extremisms, the politics of religion and the influence over Arab societies. This circumstance provides wide space for religious extremism that then turns into terrorism and holy war against the impious and the infidels.

Among the muslim and Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is the only country where Salafism in its wahabi interpretation has become the dogmatic inspiration of the State. The financial strength of the Saudis grants Salafism and Wahabism the possibility of expanding their doctrine to other muslim countries. And if one were to look for a common ideological denominator for global islamic terrorism and jihab this would be Wahabism. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, the Somali al Shabaab, the irredentist movements in northern Mali, the Nigerian Boko Haram, the talebans in Afghanistan all share this common doctrinal approach.