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Empire's Salvation Story

Berry Friesen (January 25, 2015)

In my prior post, I said following Jesus entails debunking the empire’s salvation story.

It tells us how the empire is saving the tolerant, open-minded West from violent, closed-minded Islam.  This is why (it says) we have perpetual war against Muslim nations ( fourteen nations bombed, occupied or invaded since 1980) and must endure the militarization of our society and erosion of our rights.

I find this story deceitful because the empire deliberately empowers and works with the very terrorist elements that it claims to protect us from.

Of course, the empire defends itself by claiming to work with terrorists only for good purposes, not bad ones.  Thus (the empire insists), it is not like a fire department that covertly helps arsonists light fires around the town.  We will consider this defense in a future post.  But first, we need to absorb the fact that in the so-called war on terrorism, the empire fights on both sides.

Displaying the deceitfulness of the empire’s “clash of civilizations” story requires discussion of two big topics:  (1) the Wahhabi stream of Islam and (2) the often covert way the US has used Wahhabi extremists to carry out the Carter Doctrine, which proclaimed that because of oil, the US would use any means, including military force, to prevent other powers from challenging US control in the Middle East.

This entails a bit of work. Thankfully, Karen Armstrong, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, Shamus Cooke  and Nafeez Ahmed have done much of this work for us.

Armstrong explains that the violent and extreme strand of Islam we see displayed on the evening news is rooted in Wahhabism, an expression of Islam that developed only in the last 250 years.  At its origin, Wahhabism was a renewal movement meant to revitalize Islam and stem its decline.  As Armstrong puts it, “The 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God–rather than materialism or worldly ambition–dominated the political order.”  She compares the leading figure in the movement, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, to Martin Luther.

During the latter years of his life, al-Wahhab’s religious reforms were embraced by a Saudi chieftain who found them to be helpful in rallying support for his own goals of territorial expansion.  Thus, two strands of Wahhabism emerged, one happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword, the other insistent that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.  After al-Wahhab’s death in 1791, both strands of the movement that bore his name became increasingly intolerant of other forms of Islam and adopted takfir, the practice of declaring Muslims who did not follow Wahhabi dogma to be unbelievers.

After several decades of success, the strand that combined Wahhabi reform and violence was crushed by Ottoman forces. It then largely disappeared for an entire century, only to re-emerge during World War I when another Saudi chieftain, Abd al-Aziz, blended Wahhabi dogma with Bedouin fighting skills to create a highly effective militia called the Ikhwan (Brotherhood).  The Ikhwan is the source of the imagery and practices we associate with ISIS today:  the covered faces, the slit throats, the emphasis on takfir, the murder of civilians who cannot say a particular Islamic prayer from memory, the rigid adherence to what is perceived to be the original form of Islam.

Al-Aziz and his militia fought the Ottomans during World War 1. After the Ottoman defeat in that war, al-Aziz worked with the British to forge the state of Saudi Arabia in 1932, but not before doing battle with his own militia, which opposed telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking–indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time.  Although al-Aziz prevailed and ruled as the first Saudi king, the two strands of Wahhabism had become firmly established as integral parts of the new Saudi nation.

Outside of Saudi Arabia, Islam’s development was very different.  Hossein-Zadeh describes it by quoting Armstrong:  “About a hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, which at that time meant Europe. America was still an unknown quantity. Politicians and journalists in India, Egypt, and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France; philosophers, poets, and even some of the ulama (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic model of the West.”

During the three decades immediately after World War 2, secularism gained much ground in the Muslim world.  By the early part of the ‘70s, Wahhabism was “virtually extinguished,” according to Cooke.  Saudi Arabia and later Qatar remained as the last bastions.

So why has Wahhabism emerged as such a threat in our world?  Three primary factors explain this and Armstrong identifies the first: Saudi wealth.  According to Armstrong:

“The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo . . . gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial . . . to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighborhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

“A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop.”

Cooke identifies the second factor: US exploitation of Wahhabi-inspired mercenaries as proxies. In 1979, this brainchild of Zbigniew Brzezinski was implemented by the Carter Administration to harass the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  According to Cooke:

“The United States responded by working with Saudi Arabia to give tons of weapons, training, and cash to the jihadists of the then-fledgling fundamentalist movement, helping to transform it into a regional social force that soon became the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“The U.S.-backed Afghan jihad was the birth of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movement. The jihad attracted and helped organize fundamentalists across the region, as US allies in the Gulf state dictatorships used the state religion to promote it.  Fighters who traveled to fight in Afghanistan returned to their home countries with weapons training and hero status that inspired others to join the movement.”

The strategy worked very well to weaken the USSR during the ‘80s.  It worked so well, in fact, that during the ‘90s, the empire deployed Wahhabi-inspired fighters trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Chechnya to fight against Russia in support of independence, to Algeria to use terror to undermine a Islamic democratic movement, to Iran to destabilize that society and effect a change in government, to Azerbaijan to help effect a government coup, to Bosnia and Kosovo to dismember Yugoslavia and then Serbia, and to western China (Xinjiang) to create social unrest there.  After 9/11, they were a key part of US strategy in Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban and in Iraq to fuel the Sunni “surge” that facilitated the US troop withdrawal.  A few years later, fighting under air cover provided by NATO jets, they brought down the Gaddafi government in Libya.   They then deployed to Turkey and Jordan to attack Syria and try to drive President Assad from power.  This time, the US and Israel provided air cover.

Each of these initiatives required extensive planning and coordination, funding and logistical support, weapons and training, the sharing of military intelligence and communications support.  Remarkably, throughout this 35-year period (1980-2015), violent jihadists never lacked for any of this.  While the US has generally remained far in the background, close allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey have played leading roles.  We see this clearly in ISIS and the other Muslim groups arrayed against Syria, all of which have been funded by US allies or directly by the US itself.

Writing in the March 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported a US policy which entailed clandestine operations aimed at Iran and Syria. “A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”  In other words, the alignment we see today in Syria between the US and radical Islamic jihadists reflects policy, not coincidence.

When President Obama declared in 2011 that the Syrian president “must go,” the empire’s goal of bringing Syria within its orbit became public knowledge. Again, Shamus Cooke:

“Islamic fundamentalism grew steadily during this period, until it took another giant leap forward, starting with the U.S.-backed proxy war against the Syrian government, essentially the Afghan jihad on steroids.

“Once again the U.S. government aligned itself with Islamic fundamentalists, who have been the principal groups fighting the Syrian government . . . To gain thousands of needed foreign fighters, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states promoted jihad with their state-sponsored media, religious figures, and oil-rich donors.”

Of course, the two US-led invasions of Iraq (1990, 2003) do not fit the pattern of using Wahhabi fighters as the empire’s mercenaries; instead, Western troops directly engaged and experienced the sting of determined Muslim resistance.  Yet even these departures from the pattern served to strengthen the extremist element within Wahhabism. Thus, the broad-based radicalization that inevitably follows the invasion by a foreign army became the third factor in the resurgence of a violent strand of Islam.

Hossein-Zadeh explains:

“For many Muslims the recent turn to religion often represents not so much a rejection of Western values and achievements as it is a way to resist and/or defy the humiliating imperialistic policies of Western powers.  This explains why many of the frustrated youth in the Muslim world (as well as in the belly of the beast, in the core capitalist countries) are flocking into the ranks of militant anti-imperialist forces and employing religion as a weapon of mobilization and defiance."

No, I have not forgotten 9/11.  For many people in the West, the fact that the people of the US were victimized on that day trumps all the evidence presented here about how the empire often works with (not against) extremist Muslim fighters.

That discussion will need to wait until another day; for now we simply acknowledge that in the so-called great struggle between the tolerant, open-minded West against violent, closed-minded Islam, things are not how they appear.  Far more often than we like to admit, the violence of Islamic extremists has been heightened and facilitated by the empire as part of its strategy to weaken and destroy its opponents.  All of this is detailed in Ahmed’s work, including his article, “Our terrorists.”

And we are left with the troubling question:  is Wahhabi-inspired violence occurring in Africa today (especially in Kenya and Nigeria) also enabled and strengthened by the empire, just as similar violence in so many other countries has been over the past 35 years?