Carl suggested we talk about Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist and highly puritanical strain of Islam that became anchored in Saudi Arabia two centuries ago. Throughout the 20th century, the Saudi royal family used its vast oil wealth and political influence derived from their control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to spread this once-obscure theology around the Middle East and beyond. Wahhabism’s theology and world-view are a potent influence behind a lot of the political extremism that plagues Islam today. Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s exporting of Wahhabism has been fingered as one of the Middle East’s biggest problems. To top it off, the sudden rise of ISIS last year and the death of Saudi Arabia’s king just last week makes Wahhabism an even timelier topic for us.
The different strains of Islamic radicalism and their many, varied causes is not a strong area of knowledge for me. So, I’ll open the meeting by just giving the briefest thumbnail of “what is Wahhabism,” and then we can right to the discussion. My main goal for the meeting is for us to develop a better understanding of the many different shades of radical Islamism. Americans tend to lump them all together into one giant, undifferentiated, monolithic menace. IMO, this type of thinking is not helpful in understanding how to distinguish and combat the true threats. I hope the background readings as well as our sharing of knowledge at the table will help us to do better. I hope we also will get into the geopolitical questions surrounding the future of Saudi Arabia and our support of it.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is Wahhabism? How in general does it differ from other Islamic theologies?
- Why and how (both!) did the Saudi monarchy export Wahhabism around the Middle East? Why was it so appealing to do many people?
- How responsible (as opposed to other factors) is the spread of Wahhabism for the region’s political extremism? If Wahhabism had never existed, how different might things be?
- So, now what? Can the Saudis reign in the monster they created? Do they want to? Can we influence them to do so?
- What is the future of Saudi Arabia – the main counterrevolutionary and counter-reformatory force in the Islamic world? Do we really still need the Saudi royal family so much?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wahhabism: It’s history and links to ISIS: A must-read.
- Shorter: NYT on Wahhabism and the rise of ISIS: Recommended.
- Longer (and a bit more forgiving of Wahhabism), as explained by Karen Armstrong, the well-known historian of religion.
- A discussion among three experts: How big a threat is the continued spread of Wahhabi Islam?
- Saudi Arabia: Guardian of the status quo. Recommended.
- The future of Saudi Arabia:
Next Week: Who Runs the Republican Party? (Hint: If you find out let me know.)