Fintan O’Toole: Time to lift veil on Saudi Arabia’s hijacking of Islam
Saudi Arabia has spent $100 billion in recent decades spreading an extremist ideology
A Muslim protester holds a placard reading “Islam” and another one holds one reading “For peace and against terrorism” during a demonstration outside Atocha Station in Madrid against the recent Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks . Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Imagine an attempt to ban the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad. Go further and imagine a plan to level his tomb in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam, dig up his remains and rebury them in a secret, unmarked grave. Go further again and imagine the actual, systematic destruction, in the early years of Islam, of the tombs of the major figures, including the prophet’s closest relatives.
What lunatic would even imagine going to these extreme lengths to provoke, insult and enrage Muslims? Well, the House of Saud, rulers of Saudi Arabia and guardians of the extremist ideology that fuels much of today’s Islamist terrorism, wouldn’t just imagine them. It does them.
In all the official rhetoric about freedom of speech in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is notable that there are two words that apparently must not be spoken: Saudi Arabia. Yet it is impossible to understand what is happening now without grasping the fact that the mentality of the killers is not a weird aberration. It is shaped by an official cult propagated by a government western states are anxious to appease at almost any cost. Saudi Arabia has spent about $100 billion in recent decades spreading an extremist ideology, a hybrid of Wahhabism and Salafism, two versions of an Islam supposedly “purified” of its “foreign” influences.
These are not ancient traditions. Wahhabism was born in the 18th century, Salafism in the 19th. And they are not “Islam” – Salafis and Wahhabis make up 3 per cent of Muslims. One of the more bizarre aspects of this ideology is that it involves attacks on things most Muslims regard as sacred. When western liberals wring their hands about giving offence to Muslims by depicting or representing the prophet, they miss the most important point. Cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are vastly less offensive to most Muslims than the destruction of early Islamic tombs by the Saudis. But of course self-appointed defenders of Islamic sensitivities, funded by Saudi largesse, won’t tell you that.
In the last 20 years or so, the Saudis have destroyed hundreds of holy sites in Mecca to clear ground for the construction of hotels and shopping malls and around the Grand Mosque. Much of this is about money, of course, but the destruction is sanctioned by Wahhabi ideology and Saudi history. The Wahhabi sect regarded the veneration of sacred tombs as heretical.
The Wahhabis destroyed dozens of holy tombs in Mecca and Medina when they conquered those cities in 1806 and even attempted to level the prophet’s tomb. They did the same when they reconquered the cities in 1925. This mania continues: just last year, a senior Saudi cleric prepared a detailed plan for the dismantling of the prophet’s tomb. The followers of this ideology have continued to destroy sacred Islamic sites and tombs in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
How do most Muslims feel about this? Outraged of course. A large survey in 2012 of opinion among Muslims in western Europe, west Africa and Malaysia found 75 per cent of respondents believed the veneration of the graves of Muslim “saints” (ziyarah) was essential or desirable.
For the vast majority of Muslims the running story of sacrilege and provocation is not a few cartoons in secularist European newspapers, it is the Saudi iconoclastic assault on veneration of the prophet.
And yet we never hear about this when the question of “insulting” the prophet or disrespecting the sacred traditions of Islam is raised in Europe. Why? Money. The Saudis have vast amounts of it and use it to fund mosques, schools and Islamic cultural centres all over Europe. A hundred billion dollars buys you a lot of silence. And that silence engenders one of the great hypocrisies of our times: a cartoon of the prophet is a provocation that deserves death but the destruction of his tomb is a religious duty.
This hypocrisy is underwritten by a tacit understanding among western governments: don’t mention the Saudis. The house of Saud runs a vicious tyranny that, among other things, treats women as badly as apartheid South Africa treated blacks. While the Charlie Hebdo killers were going about their ultimate acts of censorship, the Saudi government was savagely lashing the blogger Raif Badawi for daring to promote public debate in his blog.
But the Saudis are “our” Islamist extremists and they’re sending us lots of cheap oil right now. So when we talk about not insulting Muslims, we ignore what most Muslims regard as most offensive. And when we talk about confronting the nihilistic bigotry of extremist Islamism, we ignore the government that is pumping it into our societies through its promotion of a cult that most Muslims reject. It is long past time for democracies to take offence.