Dominance and Culture

another article from previous semesters; this one is about Wahhabism; and was written for the paper on Culture Studies, because (a) I find Theology most interesting (right after post-structuralist thought) and (b) because the culmination of these essays is where post-structuralist thought comes in…

“A New World,
A Better World, than has ever been seen
There you are not what you are born with,
but what you have in yourself to be
Kingdom of Conscience;
Kingdom of Heaven.

That is what lies at the end of Crusade”

The World in Context

September 11, 2001. It started off as an ordinary enough day—people across the world headed to work (the Japanese were about tucking into bed) but it soon turned into a nightmare. Terrorists of the Al Quaeda network hijacked four commercial airliners, with the intention of crashing them into four high profile targets across the United States of America. Three of the aircraft found their targets—the main towers of the World Trade Center in New York; and the Pentagon. Of course, we are all familiar with the aftermath.

America—the only superpower in the modern World—brought to its knees by a handful of terrorists with box-cutters.

What started off afterwards of course; was “The War against Terror”—which US President Bush described as (among his many other faux pas) a “Crusade”—certainly a word not tuned in to the sensitivities of Muslims across the world.

There have been many conflicts in the World with more militant strains of Islam now—be it in Chechnya and Dagestan for Russia; the disputed territories of Palestine with Israel; the inter-Islamic clashes of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq (and the non-existent Kurdistan), the Australian intervention in East Timor, the Chinese police action on Islamic groups and communities on their Western fringes, India’s role in disputed Kashmir, and of course, the American Invasion of Iraq.

The focus of this essay is however, purely on the Middle East; and the issues associated with the region.

The Middle East, then; is the birthplace of the three Great Religions of the World—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, each formulated in fact, as a reaction to the previous; in that order.

The crisis of note for the past many years in this region has been the Israel-Palestine issue. Not for the intensity of the conflict, you understand—but because of all the problems of the Middle East, it is the most clearly defined (in terms of the good guy – bad guy equations) for Muslims in the region; and of course, because Israel is supported by the United States.

The simple fact that Israel is a democratic society is what has led to condemnation of Israel via the Islamic Nations of the World. Any unlawful military action is more clearly reported; and that is what makes Israel (already being in a static war zone) a scapegoat. It also makes the news more often; as the economics and histories of the world place greater emphasis of news relating to Jews. (Bernard Lewis)

Let us understand the situation for what it is… the main issues that the Middle East faces are:
(a) Good Governance
(b) High Population Growth Rate
(c) Uneven distribution of Wealth
(d) Lack of new jobs and opportunities
(e) Closed societies
(f) Influx of Western “Pop Culture”, and to an extent,
(g) Western-friendly leadership

Islamic Fundamentalism has increased rapidly over the past many years, due to the large (and growing) sections of unemployed and poor. Terrorist recruiters offer such people an easy way out—a ticket to Heaven; and an opportunity to die for a “just cause”.

The War against Terror is much more than just that. It is a war against Poverty and Injustice, and against radicalized views of what “God’s Will” is. The dangers inherent in such a war are obvious… how do you defeat an enemy convinced of God’s mandate?

Defining Islam

What is Islam? It is difficult to generalize about it. Islam is a religion and a system of belief, with over 1400 years of history and about 1.5 billion followers.

Islam is the principal religion of much of Asia, including Indonesia (which has the world’s largest Muslim population), Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula states, and Turkey. India also has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, although Islam is not the principal religion there. In Africa, Islam is the principal religion in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan, with sizable populations also in Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania (where the island of Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim), and Nigeria.

In Europe, Albania is predominantly Muslim, and, historically, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Georgia have had Muslim populations. Elsewhere in Europe, immigrant communities of Muslims from N Africa, Turkey, and Asia exist in France, Germany, and Great Britain. In the Americas the Islamic population has substantially increased in recent years, both from conversions and the immigration of adherents from other parts of the world. In the United States, the number of Muslims has been variably estimated at 2–6 million.

At the core of Islam is the Qur’an, believed to be the final revelation by a transcendent Allah to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam; since the Divine Word was revealed in Arabic, this language is used in Islamic religious practice worldwide. Muslims believe in final reward and punishment, and the unity of the nation of Islam. They submit to Allah through arkan ad-din, the five basic requirements or pillars: “Shahadah“: The Testimony that there is none worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is his messenger, “Salah“: Establishing of the five daily Prayers, “Zakat“: The Giving of Zakaah (charity), which is one fortieth (2.5%) of the net worth of savings kept for more than a year, with few exemptions, for every Muslim whose wealth exceeds the nisab, and 10% or 20% of the produce from agriculture. This money or produce is distributed among the poor, “Ramadan“: Fasting from dawn to dusk in the month of Ramadan, and “Hajj“: It is the Pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Dhul Hijjah, and is compulsory once in a lifetime for one who has the ability to do it. The importance of the hajj can hardly be overestimated: this great annual pilgrimage unites Islam and its believers from around the world.

The ethos of Islam is in its attitude toward Allah: to His will Muslims submit; Him they praise and glorify; and in Him alone they hope. However, in popular or folk forms of Islam, Muslims ask intercession of the saints, prophets, and angels, while preserving the distinction between Creator and creature. Islam views the Message of Muhammad as the continuation and the fulfillment of a lineage of Prophecy that includes figures from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, notably Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Islamic law reserves a communal entity status for the ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) i.e., those with revealed religions, including Jews and Christians. Islam also recognizes a number of extra-biblical prophets, such as Hud, Salih, Shuayb, and others of more obscure origin. The chief angels are Gabriel and Michael; devils are the evil jinn.

Other Islamic obligations include the duty to “commend good and reprimand evil,” injunctions against usury and gambling, and prohibitions of alcohol and pork. Jihad, the exertion of efforts for the cause of God, is a duty satisfied at the communal and the individual level. At the individual level, it denotes the personal struggle to be righteous and follow the path ordained by God.

In Islam, religion and social membership are inseparable: the ruler of the community (caliph) has both a religious and a political status. The unitary nature of Islam, as a system governing relations between a person and God, and a person and society, helped the spread of Islam so that, within a century of the Prophet’s death, Islam extended from Spain to India.

The evolution of Islamic mysticism into organizational structures in the form of Sufi orders was also, from the 13th century onwards, one of the driving forces in the spread of Islam. Sufi orders were instrumental in expanding the realm of Islam to trans-Saharan Africa, stabilizing its commercial and cultural links with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to South-East Asia.

Islam and the Evil Empire

For most of the fourteen centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad has been most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power. In Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dãr al Islãm), in which Muslim governments rule and Muslim law prevails, and the House of War (Dãr al-Hãrb), the rest of the world still inhabited and more importantly, ruled by infidels. The presumption is that the duty of the jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule. Those who fight in the jihad qualify for rewards in both worlds—booty in this one, paradise in the next. The conduct of the jihad is established with adherence to shari’a (Islamic Law)

The task set by the Prophet was in consolidating the word of Islam and taking it to the ends of the Earth. Within a remarkably short time, the Muslim armies overthrew the ancient Persian Empire (opening the way to invade Central Asia and India); and then annexed the Christian provinces of (modern-day) Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. With this first phase, the path had been laid for the further conquest of Europe—of Spain and Portugal, and of Italy and France. The army of the Arab Jihad was finally repelled by the Byzantines at Constantinople—which marked the beginning of the Reconquista—the re-conquest of Europe by the Christian Empires—this war was the first in a series of wars, called the Crusades.

The capture of Jerusalem in 1099 was a triumph for Christendom over Islam; but wasn’t frowned upon at that point. It was only a century later that the Jihad began in response to the Crusades. The cause was the Templar leader—Reynald of Châtillon, who held the fort of Kerak and attacked pilgrims bound for Mecca. The Muslim reaction was in the form of Saladin—one of Islam’s great heroes; known for his benevolence and chivalry. (This History Channel piece I saw said otherwise, but I’d like to believe the honorable version was closer to the real)
By the 1400s, the Turks (in the form of the Ottoman Empire) took Constantinople and the Balkans. The Ottoman Turks challenged the might of the Byzantines and even the Holy Roman Emperor, when they besieged Vienna. The re-conquest that followed however, was the one that changed the future of the world—it was the start of Imperialism and (as many Muslims saw it) an invasion of the Holy Land (of Arabia) by infidel armies.

It started off, in fact; with the French Revolution—General Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt with a small expeditionary force; but soon conquered the country. Bonaparte himself was defeated and removed not by the Turks or Arabs; but by a British Admiral—Horatio Nelson.

These were the first steps of the British Empire—and a bitter lesson for the Arabs and Turks to learn—their Empire was to decline continuously from then on.

Some important landmarks of the Anglo-French imperial rule began with the French in Algeria (1830), British in Aden (1839); the extension of French control to Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1911) and of the growing British influence in the Persian Gulf and Arabia (and India from the East)

Great Wars and Great Powers,
and demonization of the West

One thing that should be noted here, is that it is only the Islamic nations that form their own Power Bloc in the world (in the UN) via the OIC—“Organization for Islamic Conference”—primarily because Islam talks of the Muslim Nation as a construct that transcends borders (and clearly also, because the modern borders are legacies of colonial masters rather than an accurate representation of history)

Unlike the West that has largely moved past the influence of figureheads such as the Pope; religious edicts, declarations and fatwa’s in Islam still transcend all borders. The concept of the Muslim Nation, is very real, and considered a matter of fact by the citizens of most people across the Middle East.

In the early 20th century, the Arab opinion of the West was hostile, at a minimum by the time of the World Wars. On both occasions, the Arab nations chose to side with Germany—though they did not agree with the principles of Racial Superiority; many sections of the populace found the Jews a convenient scapegoat and considered the Third Reich the lesser of the two evils.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany; the Arabs looked for a new ally—which they took as the Soviet Union. During the time of Hitler, many propagandists drew out the US and Western Europe to be places with lower morality and ethical and religious standards and degeneracy (indeed claims which have been made against the US by terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists even today).

Thus began the process of demonization of the West. Radicals began to place parallels between the modern Western and earlier, Christian Europe, and ascribed total responsibility of the Crusades and other wars between Islam and the West to the modern “West”—comprising of Europe and the United States.

Being the leader of the new powerful Western Bloc, the United States was viewed as the leader of—and therefore primarily responsible for past acts of aggression by Christian Europe. The process of demonization was helped along by the ideas of German thinkers such as Heidegger, Rilke Spengler, and Jünger, who criticized the US for being a materialistic society devoid of morality and decency and ethics; with degeneracy and debauchery in every walk of life—“the ultimate example of a civilization without culture; rich and comfortable, materially advanced, but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown; mechanical not organic; technologically complex but without the spirituality and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and other “authentic” peoples.”—ideas adopted by the Muslim countries at the time of the Great War—ideas what would make their Holy War against America just.

As per the idea that the US was not involved in the process of Crusade, Islamic scholars and fundamentalists alike argue that the American Settlers invaded and destroyed the lives of the native people of the continent—and that they were therefore complicit in the sort of crimes against humanity that they accuse others of.

“The Great Satan”, bin Laden called America—as much for its “immorality” as for the comforts of life and liberty that the nation offered that he perceived as a threat to Islam in the autocratic form and closed societies—“Satan is the seducer, the insidious tempter who whispers in the heart of me” (Qur’an CXIV, 4, 5)

In many ways, then; rejection of the United States and the West; and of Western thought is a rejection of modernity as we know and understand it; and has led to movements of “going back to the roots”—of turning conservative, radical or fundamentalist. One such movement is called Wahhabism.

The Wahhabi Reaction

So what has the point of the past 10 pages of back-story and history been?

It has been to set up for the final chapters of this essay—of the rise of Wahhabism and of tackling Terrorism.

The rejection of modernity in favor of a return to the sacred past has a varied and ramified history in the region that has given rise to a number of movements. The most important of these is known (after its founder) as Wahhabism.

Wahhabi theology advocates a fundamentalist, puritanical and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice.

Wahhabis see their role as a movement to restore Islam from what they perceive to be innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies and idolatries. Some of the ideas they scorn are:

1) That invoking any prophet, saint or angel in prayer, other than God alone, is polytheism
2) Grave worship, whether to saints’ graves, or the prophet’s grave
3) Celebrating annual feasts for dead saints
4) Wearing of charms, and believing in their healing power
5) Practicing magic, or going to sorcerers or witches seeking healing
6) Innovation in matters of religion (e.g. new methods of worship)
7) Erecting elaborate monuments over any grave

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) was a theologian from the Najd area of Arabia, ruled by local sheikhs of the House of Saud. In 1744, he launched a campaign of purification and renewal. His declared aim was to return to the pure and authentic Islam of the Founder, removing and where necessary destroying all the later accretions and distortions.

The Wahhabi cause was embraced by the Saudi rulers of Najd who promoted it successfully by force of arms. In a series of campaigns, they carried their rule and their faith to much of central and eastern Asia and even the lands within the Fertile Crescent then under direct Ottoman administration.

By 1804-1806, they had taken over and “cleansed” the cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ottoman Empire reacted and crushed the movement; but the doctrine survived. Wahhabism began as a reaction to its times—of the advance of Christendom (via Imperialism) and the consolidation and decline of Islam (Ottoman Empire).

The ire of the Wahhabis was directed not primarily against outsiders, but against those whom they saw as betraying and degrading Islam from within; on the one hand those who attempted any kind of modernizing reform; on the other—and this was the more immediate target—those whom the Wahhabis saw as corrupting and debasing the true Islamic heritage of the Prophet and his Companions.

Wherever they could, they enforced their beliefs with the utmost severity and ferocity, demolishing tombs, desecrating what they called false and idolatrous holy places, and slaughtering large numbers of men, women and children who failed to meet their standards of Islamic purity and authenticity. Another practice introduced by Ibn ‘abd al-Wahhab was the condemnation and burning of books deemed contrary to the Wahhabi ideology.

The second alliance of the Wahhabi doctrine and Saudi force began in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and continues today. Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud (born 1880, ruled 1902-1953) skillfully played the political game, signing treatises with Britain, and invaded Mecca and Medina on 1925; and took on the title of King in 1926; taking over from the Hashimite dynasty, that had descended from the line of the Prophet.

A formal treaty was signed between Ibn Saud and Britain, recognizing his Kingdom as an Independent State. Further treaties with Russia saw him recognized as the protector of the Holy Places of Islam (Mecca and Medina) in 1927.

Six yeas later, though; came the House of Saud’s greatest political move. On May 19, 1993; the Saudi Minister for Finance made agreement with a representation of the Standard Oil of California Company. American involvement in the Middle East had now begun. To show the rapid rise of American involvement, one needs only to look at the figures… in millions of barrels, 1945, 21.3 million; 1955, 356.6 million; 1965, 804.8 million; 1975, 2582.5 million.

Though the influx of money due to oil helped modernize Saudi Arabia; it was viewed with skepticism or downright hatred by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. As the leadership looked to improve favorable relations with the West to maintain the flow of money; the greater Wahhabi population considered this new relationship an affront to Islam—the idea of infidels in the Holy Land, making financial profits from it, to pursue their “immoral” lives was something that rankled the vast majority.

As seen by the people of the Middle East; both democracy and socialism failed when implemented in their countries (with the exception of Turkey)—indeed, both models produced even more poverty and tyranny, and as a consequence, much of the anger in the Islamic world was directed against the Westerner (seen as the ancient and immemorial enemy of Islam since the first clashes between Muslim Caliphs and Christian emperors, and against the Westernizer, seen as the tool or accomplice of the West and as a traitor to his own faith and people.

By the end of the World War, America had taken on the leadership of the Western World, and was therefore seen as the greatest Challenger to the spread of Islam, and as an invader in the Holy places of Islam; between the oil business and the protection of Israel.

Indeed, Osama bin Laden—who belongs to the Wahhabi faith (Wahhabism is the brand of Islam employed by Al Qaeda) referred to President Bush as the Pharaoh—not as the Egyptian line of Kings, but as the Pharaoh of the Exodus—i.e. a man of evil.

The interesting thing here is that Wahhabism does not despise the State of Israel—indeed it does not recognize the modern-State of Israel as the Children of Israel that Moses led across the sea to the Promised Land… Israel is hated (as revealed by Egyptian President Sadat’s assassins) that Israel was a relatively minor phenomenon—being a state worthy of derision merely because it aped the West and the ways of the infidel.

Tackling Terrorism

There are several forms of Islamic extremism current at the present time. The best known are the subversive radicalism of Al Qaeda and other groups that resemble it all over the Muslim world; the preemptive fundamentalism of the Saudi establishment; and the institutionalized revolution of the ruling Iranian hierarchy. All of these are, in a sense, Islamic in origins, but some of them have deviated very far from their origins.

All these extremist groups sanctify their action through pious references to Islamic texts, notably the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, and all three claim to represent a truer, purer, and more authentic Islam than that currently practiced by the vast majority of Muslims and endorsed by most though not all of the religious leadership. They are, however, highly selective in their choice and interpretation of sacred texts. In considering the sayings of the Prophet, for example, they discard the time-honored methods developed by the jurists and theologians for testing the accuracy and authenticity of orally transmitted traditions and instead accept or reject even sacred texts according to whether they support or contradict their own dogmatic and militant positions. Some even go as far as to dismiss some Qur’anic verses as “Revoked” or “abrogated”

One such example is the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 against Salman Rushdie because of his novel—the Satanic Verses. The fatwa is indeed responsibility for the negative connotation that the word is viewed with today. Offering monetary compensation to the person who killed Rushdie was similar to the idea of a mob boss taking out a “contract for a hit job”. The fatwa is a tool much like the Roman responsa prudentium (a legal summons to stand judgment before a court)—to treat a fatwa as an assassination offer—well; many Islamic scholars have expressed their concern over this issue.

The practice and theory of assassination in the Islamic World arose at a very early date, with disputes over the political headship of the Muslim community. Of the first four caliphs of Islam, three were assassinated—the second by a disgruntled Christian slave, the third and fourth by pious Muslim revels who saw themselves as executioners carrying out God’s will. Members of the Muslim sect known as Assassins (Arabic Hashishiyya: taker of Hashish) were active in Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th Century. The name assassin (from hassassin) was given to them by their enemies—the name they took upon themselves was fidayeen (one ready to sacrifice himself for a cause)

The fidayeen were destroyed by the Turks in the 13th century; but were resurrected by the PLO in the 1960s and so on. Assassins however—though occasionally cited are NOT the source of the ideas of suicide killings—suicide being looked down by Islam at every stage of its existence.

The suicide terrorism of Wahhabi groups such as Al Qaeda then, is a new phenomenon—and they are perhaps the hardest to explain. Is it propaganda or belief that makes people suicide terrorists? How great must the task of convincing a Muslim of becoming a suicide terrorist be, if it is looked down on as a crime worthy of eternal damnation? And why then do people choose to become suicide terrorists?

The rise of asymmetric warfare in the Middle East is easy enough to explain—after the six-day War of the 1960s, it became clear that the Arab world could win no more wars fought directly, and this saw the creation of the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on…

What is inexplicable though is the carrying out of suicide terrorism… excerpts from the Qur’an say:

The Prophet said: Whoever kills himself with a blade
will be tormented with that blade in the fires of Hell.
The Prophet also said: He who strangles himself
will strangle himself in Hell, and he who stabs him-
self will stab himself in Hell… He who throws him-
self off a mountain and kills himself will thrown
himself downward into the fires of Hell for ever and
ever. He who drinks poison and kills himself will
carry his poison in his hand and drink it in Hell for
ever and ever… Whoever kills himself in any way
will be tormented in that way in Hell… Whoever
kills himself in any way in this world will be tor-
mented with it on the day of resurrection.

Two features that mark the attacks of 9/11 are: the willingness of the perpetrators to commit suicide and the ruthlessness of those who sent them—concerning both their own emissaries and their numerous victims… does Islam provide any justification whatsoever for such actions? The answer is a categorical no.

From the Muslim perspective, 9/11 then was an act of blasphemy on the part of the hijackers.

Many Muslims across the World have begun to take a stand against the elements within Islam that they consider are too radical, or that have polarized the World, and are pushing us into the situation of us vs. them. The Wahhabi strain of Islam, however, returns to the roots, returns to the basics and only time shall reveal whether the Wahhabis can co-exist with the West.


And the rejoicing in Arab streets at the sites of the burning towers?—blame that on past Western actions against the Middle East, Western intervention to maintain their supply of oil no matter how tyrannical the ruler was with his own populace (never mind the Western ideals of human rights and ethical governance) and the process of demonization of America as a soulless money-grabbing materialistic and immoral society, that is controlled by the Jews.

That may not be the truth, not quite—but that is the perception—and perception defines reality. Perception defines culture. And the Middle-Eastern perception of the West does not paint a rosy picture.

Will a day of Peace ever come?—when men and women of all Religions may live together in harmony? Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t.

The fate of Peace lies in the battle that rages today—of Multi-Culturalism and Global Expansion versus the return to roots; and the shunning of modern ideals.

Either way, there’s a long way to go yet, before the Mid-Eastern situation is resolved.


1) Bernard Lewis. The Crisis of Islam. New York. Random House. 2003

2) The Economist. “After Fahd, Abdullah. But then?” The Economist. 2005

3) Fareed Zakaria. The Saudi Trap. Newsweek. 2005

4) Fareed Zakaria. The Radicals are desperate. Newsweek. 2005

5) Fareed Zakaria. How to escape the oil trap. Newsweek. 2005

6) Robert Bear. The devil you think you know. Newsweek. 2005

7) Newsweek. Terror 101. Newsweek. 2004

8) Anuj Desai. Less than meets the eye. Newsweek. 2005

9) GuruNet Corp

10) “Wahhabi.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

11) “Wahhabi.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003.

12) “Wahhabi.” Islamic Dictionary., 2002

13) “Wahhabi.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 2005

14) “Islam.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004

15) “Islam.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003

16) “Islam.” The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002


About this entry