Muslim Politics, Across The Street

A mixed blessing of working in Washington is that politics are all around--particularly foreign politics. Wandering around, it's not uncommon to find a group of 50 or so protesting the Chinese or Russian embassies, or, a perennial favorite, the World Bank.

Today, a few hundred protesters marched around the Saudi embassy, which happens to be across the street from the Atlantic's offices in the Watergate, chanting "al-Baqee, al-Baqee, rebuild al-Baqee!" and waving signs that read "Stop Wahhabi Terrorism": men, women and children bused in from other cities and mostly wearing black, the women with their heads covered.

The protest was organized by The Al-Baqee Organization, a Shi'a group (though not all present today were Shi'a) dedicated to protesting the Saudi government and the destruction of holy sites in the 1930s.

In that regard, the protesters actually shared something in common with conservative U.S. think-tankers: al-Baqee's sworn enemy is Wahhabism--the reformist movement that sprung up in Arabia in the 1800s and would become the ideology of the Saudi elite, practiced today by the ruling family--the same enemy of some conservative American foreign-policy types who see the country at war with extremist Islam...with Wahhabism, some might say.

(Al-Baqee, an organizer from Chicago told me, is the name of a cemetery destroyed 84 years ago today by the Saudi government in a rash of Wahhabist impulse--aversion to idol worship is a facet of Wahhabism--where the son and grandsons of Mohammed were buried.)

"They claim to be Muslims, and they do so many things which are against Islamic laws, Islamic Sharia, and Islamic creed," said Molana Mehboob Mehdi, an Imam at an Islamic education center in Chicago and one of the organizers of the event.

"Like you see nowadays, the terrorism and the violence committed by them is in the name if Islam...and in this way they defame Islam. So we came here to first denounce any terrorism which is committed and supported by the Wahhabis, and Wahhabis are of course supported by Saudi Arabia, the government, and originally today...about 84 years ago, they destroyed and demolished all those sacred sites, just because they don't agree with that," Mehdi said.

American commentators go after Wahhabism both directly and indirectly. When talking about fundamentalist, reformist Islam, and the madrassas from which extremism springs, it can for instance be taboo to refer to Wahhabism by name, since the U.S. enjoys an alliance with Saudi Arabia, and, as an expert I talked to put it, as soon as you mention Wahhabism, you're talking about Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only countries that practice it nationally.)

But some, like the Hudson Institute's Dr. Herbert London, for instance, are less bashful about identifying Wahhabism by name as the enemy. The Saudi ruling family, meanwhile, is considered much more liberal and Westernized than the clerics and madrassas in their country--in other words, more friendly to the U.S. and its proclivities than Saudi Arabia's ideological alignment might suggest. The Saudi embassy had no comment on the protests.

Mehdi, for all his criticism of the Saudis, did not mention the U.S. and its support for the Saudi government--though nor did I ask him about it.

I am no expert on Saudi affairs, nor do I claim to be. But if nothing else, a protest like this one reminds us that U.S. allies in the Middle East have enemies too, and, more specifically, that Muslims are engaged in ideological war with the same elements of Islam we are, but geopolitics makes it a little more complicated than that.

Posted Sep 28 2009, The Atlantic