In the waning months of 1775 an elderly imam named Sayf ibn Ahmed al-Atiqi lay dying in Sudayr, a region north of Riyadh. Atiqi was a well known imam of the Nejd and he had spent his dying days opposing a new religious movement named Wahhabism. Two years before his death, this movement, led by the tribal sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, had conquered Riyadh, a sleepy desert oasis, and turned it into the capital of a new Islamic fundamentalist state.
In April 1775, on the other side of the world, American colonists were rousted from their beds in communities west of Boston by the cries of Paul Revere. The lonely rider warned them that the British had set out that very night to destroy their stockpiles of arms. The resulting conflagration was known as the "shot heard round the world" and would result in creation of the United States.
Although many have written about American involvement in the Middle East, few have realized that the eruption of Wahhabism and the founding of America were contemporary events. Those who cover US-Saudi relations usually date their beginnings to 1931 when the US recognized the government of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Further important events occurred when Standard Oil was given a concession in the kingdom in 1933 and when Franklin D. Roosevelt met the king in 1945. However that meeting merely represents one milestone in the history of two states whose ideologies have come to dominate the modern world.
Wahhabism is usually thought to have vanished into the desert after it was defeated by Ottoman punitive expeditions in the early 19th century. It didn't reemerge until the Saudi family and its Beduin army fully conquered modern Saudi Arabia in the 1920s.
However, author Charles Allen has recently uncovered a sort of secret history which illustrates that Wahhabism influenced Indian Muslim fundamentalists in the early 19th century. Allen illustrates in God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad that these "Hindustani fanatics" founded camps in Swat in what is now northern Pakistan.
These camps posed a perennial problem to British colonial officers and although they were destroyed several times, they continued to survive until the modern day when their ideology formed the basis of the modern Taliban. Allen claims that the arrival of Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters in the region in the 1980s was merely a coming together of the worldwide Wahhabi movement. By 2009 that movement has spread far and wide, influencing Islamist fighters from the Philippines to Bosnia, Chechnya, Gaza and Somalia.
WHAT OF the US in the same period? Like the Wahhabi movement, the US after independence was not a major player on the international scene. It too spent much of the 19th century consolidating its power and waging wars for territory and among its own citizens. World War I resulted in the emergence of the US as a world power and Saudi Arabia as an independent state. Neither country was imperialistic in the European or Ottoman model, pursuing instead a sort of cultural imperialism. The defeat of communism augmented US hegemony, but it had the corollary of increasing the power of Saudi Arabia, whose legions of Wahhabi fighters poured out of Afghanistan, fresh from victory over the Soviets, to spawn terrorist movements throughout the world.
September 11 should have served as a wake up call to the US that the Saudi ideology was the next great threat to civilization. It seems that George W. Bush's plan for the Iraq war was designed, at least in part, to undermine Saudi Arabia. Most analysts have misunderstood this side to the war. By attempting to bring democracy to Iraq and by establishing American bases there, the US could wean itself of reliance on Saudi oil and create an "American" cultural center in Iraq that would offset Saudi power.
The existence of American bases in the kingdom had been one of the major excuses for Bin Laden's decision to wage war on America. Removing them to Iraq might stem the tide of radicalism. However the failure in Iraq and the election of Barack Obama rolled back that initiative and placed America back in the arms of the Saudis, a position illustrated by the controversy over Obama's bowing to the Saudi king in April 2009.
Americanism has been a major influence in many parts of the world. Many anticolonial leaders modeled their movements and their ideas on the American example, from the liberation of Haiti in 1802 to Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh. However it appears that Wahhabism, with its Saudi funding, has come to view America and its allies, rather than China or Europe, as the greatest threat to its continuing expansion. Wahhabism understands that individual states such as Russia or India do not pose it an existential threat. Europe no longer represents a source of ideas but more a source of rhetoric that also does not pose this ideology a threat, especially as it gains quiet inroads in that continent.
Islamic jurists such as Sayf ibn Ahmed al-Atiqi have viewed Wahhabism as a revolutionary movement that may, in fact, not be Islamic at all. Wahhabism has spent as much time slaughtering fellow Muslims, who it has termed "pagans," as it has "infidels." America derived its intellectual foundations from Europe's values but recrafted them in a radical new ideology. The war that is being fought in many places, from Somalia to Kashmir, is not so much a war between Islam and the West but a war between two ideologies that derived from the former, namely Wahhabism and Americanism. The current war being fought between the fanatics in Afghanistan and the Americans will show who has the test of wills to win this round.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.
Posted Jan. 19, 2010, THE JERUSALEM POST