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The complexity of Saudi Arabia's internal situation

Reader comment on item: Arabia's Civil War

Submitted by Carool Kersten (Thailand), May 15, 2003 at 22:49

As a fellow-scholar of Islam and former (ten-year) resident of Saudi Arabia, I agree with your description of Wahhabism's historical roots. But, although temptingly obvious, It think it is too simplistic a representation to make any direct connection between the Ikhwan movement of the 1930s and more recent expressions of violence, such as the 1979 uprising or the bombing spree occuring since 1995.

Apart from Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's political landscape is also shaped by other factors such as tribal affilliation. In addition to that, I consider it not correct to create the impression that political awareness in Saudi Arabia has not made any progress since the 1930s.

With regard to the first observation, I would like to note that, although the Ikhwan primarily clashed with the Al Saud dynasty over the further expansion of Wahhabism, the fact should not be ignored that the leaders of the Ikhwan leadership were proud tribesmen, coming from once powerful tribal confederations such as the Mutair, Ajman, and Otaiba. In that respect it is relevant to realize that the leader of the group that attacked the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, was a member of the Otaiba tribe.

As for the second issue. Although they may resemble the Ikhwan movement in mood and temperament, equating present-day religious fanatics with the Ikhwan misses an important point. These people have namely a much greater awareness of issues pervailing throughout the Islamic world (Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bosnia) and the world-at-large. They are also very capable of turning modern achievements in communication technology and organizational structures to their advantage.

Ignoring these two factors might easily lead to underestimating the challenge ahead. The task at hand in reforming Saudi Arabia's education system, judiciary and the semi-governmental Islamic affairs establishment is probably an even steeper uphill battle than we imagine.

However there is possibly also a bright side to questioning Wahhabi's validity. It might actually encourage the re-articulation of regional differences within Saudi Arabia, another fact that is often ignored.

Since the conquest of eastern Arabia in 1913 and the fall of the western region of the Hijaz by 1926, Wahhabism has covered the width of the Arabian Peninsula like a blanket. But, traditionally, the inhabitants of both the western and eastern coastal regions were outward-looking people, with extensive international trade relations. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina had, for centuries, provided hospitality to Muslims from all over the world. Thus the circumstances were conducive to create a cosmopolitan intellectual climate, in which debate on religious and philosophical issues could flourish. Hopefully this stimulating diversity can be restored as well.
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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

Daniel Pipes replies:


Interesting point about regionalism re-emerging.

Of course, the Ikhwan movement of the 1920s differs from what exists today in some ways, but there is a consistency of outlook that I find striking.

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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