Saudi Arabia and the Fight against Sunni Extremism

Last week Colleen Hufford was brutally beheaded by a co-worker who had converted to Islam. This didn’t happen in Syria or Iraq, but in Oklahoma! The gruesome practice of beheading used to be something we in the West encountered only in history books. But that changed when al-Qaeda began using beheading as a terror tactic in 2002 with the murder of kidnapped Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl. A videotape was released by al-Qaeda showing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed decapitating the journalist. This heinous terror tactic has been continued by the so-called Islamic State (IS). And so in recent weeks the world has witnessed the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff; aid-worker David Haines; and French mountain guide, Hervé Gourdel. There are countless other victims of IS whose names never make the front pages of newspapers or appear on TV screens: Christians beheaded because they refused to renounce their Christian faith; minorities like the Yazidis; captured Iraqi soldiers. This morning alone, IS beheaded seven men and three women in a Kurdish area of northern Syria.

As part of the strategy to stop the killing and halt the advance of IS in the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry has put together a ‘coalition of the willing’ that includes four Sunni-majority Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE. Kerry has been praised for achieving what was once thought unachievable: finding Sunni Muslim-majority countries willing to fight other Sunni Muslims. And thus, when the bombing campaign against IS began, Jordanian and Saudi planes, along with US planes, were in the skies over Iraq. Sunni Arab participation is intended to be a declaration to the Islamic world that this is no war between ‘Crusaders’ and Muslims.

Looking at Kerry’s coalition, however, one sees an obvious irony (one to which Kerry must have wilfully ‘turned a blind eye’). Saudi Arabia–one of the four countries Kerry enlisted to fight “Sunni extremism”–itself adheres to an extreme form of Islam: Wahhabism. Not only does Saudi Arabia follow Wahhabi Islam, it actively exports it abroad. It is this same Wahhabi Islam which is behind all Sunni Islamic extremism.

Wahhabi Islam originated with Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792) who led a reform movement promoting the notion that every idea added to Islam after AD 950 was false. Only those Muslims who adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs as set forth by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad are ‘true’ Muslims. And, importantly, this authentic form of Islam does not change over time. Wahhabi Muslims thus insist on a strict, literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Whoever does not follow this ‘true’ form of Sunni Islam is takfir , ‘apostate’, and therefore an enemy of Islam.

IS believes its version of Islam is the only correct one. Wahhabis also believe they alone are following the true Islam. And true Islam means taking the Qur’an literally. In the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, beheading remains an integral part of the justice system. Of all the countries in the world, only Saudi Arabia continues to behead people. On average, one hundred beheadings take place each year. For this reason, Deera Square in downtown Riyadh, site of public beheadings, has acquired the name ‘Chop Chop Square’. While predominantly the penalty for murder or drug offences, beheading can also be the sentence for non-violent offences like apostasy or sorcery. In August 2014, nineteen people were beheaded, eight for non-violent offences, including sorcery. And what constitutes an offence in Saudi Arabia is left solely to the discretion of the religious judges. A case in point is that of the Saudi blogger Raef Badawi, creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals, who was arrested on a charge of insulting Islam. One religious judge recommended that Badawi be charged with apostasy, a crime which would have led to the death penalty. That particular judge’s recommendation did not prevail and at his re-sentencing, Badawi was sentenced instead to 1000 lashes, a hefty fine, and ten years in prison. In Saudi Arabia, the death penalty always remains a possible consequence of dissent.

Given its own harsh ideology and own abysmal record on human rights, can Saudi Arabia rightly be considered a ‘partner’ in the war on Sunni Islamic extremism? The Saudi monarchy no doubt views IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate as a threat to their kingdom and has joined the coalition out of self-interest. Some have called Saudi Arabia’s participation ‘hypocritical’. That’s a valid criticism. What Saudi Arabia’s participation says to me is that, with partners such as these, the struggle to defeat Islamic extremism is going to be a very long one.

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