The state of Saudi Arabia began in 1744 with a political alliance. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam untainted by “modernity”, sought protection with the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family. In exchange, al-Wahhab promised political legitimacy and regular tithes from his followers.
This alliance continues to this day, but has proven more detrimental than beneficial as of late. On the one hand, Wahhabist clerics in Saudi Arabia are some of the most influential within Islam. The extremist Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Arifi, for example, who was banned from the European Union for advocating wife beating and anti-Semitism, commands a Twitter following of 9.4 million users. On the other hand, Wahhabist clerics’ extremist ideas have been the basis of the some of most infamous violent Islamist sects: al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State, to name a few. And while the Saudi government boasts some of the most sophisticated counter-terrorism operations in the world, the rhetoric of Saudi Arabian clerics guarantees the perpetuation of Sunni Islamist radicalism.
This problem within Saudi Arabia has become most prevalent with the declaration of an Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq, as the Islamic State (IS) is founded on the principles of Sunni Wahhabism and also sees the state of Saudi Arabia as its primary target. IS has explicitly referenced early Wahhabi teachers, such as Mohammed ibn Abdulwahhab, to justify its destruction of Shia shrines and Christian churches as it advanced further into Iraq and Syria. At the same time, IS’s road to the caliphate lies through the kingdom and its monarchy; as the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, IS has even launched a campaign against Saudi Arabia, called qadimun, or “we are coming” to take over the country.
In order to “degrade and destroy” IS, Saudi Arabia must take a leadership role multilaterally. Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, and delegitimising IS is arguably most effectively performed by powerful Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia with the backing of other Sunni-majority Arab states; as the message sent by them to the Muslim and Arab worlds comes off radically different – and much preferable to – a message sent by the United States.
A strong coalition of regional powers, led by Saudi Arabia, would be the most effective force to stop IS. After all, it is in their best interest to stop IS before it reaches any of their borders, and to stabilise Iraq and Syria for the long-term. This coalition would also enable the United States and other Western states to avoid having to send ground troops to the region and allow it to counter IS’s propaganda about an alleged Western crusade. In September 2014, a conference in Jeddah attended by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States was the first glimmer of an anti-IS coalition. The conference’s final communiqué, which was signed by all governments in attendance barring Turkey, emphasised the attendees’ commitment to stopping the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, halting IS’s cash flow, and combating the group’s “hateful ideology”. The statement also included “joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign” against the group. While this conference is a good start, Saudi Arabia in particular still has a lot more it could be doing.
Saudi Arabia has already classified IS as a sponsor of terrorism, declared funding the group a crime with severe punishments and has arrested a number of IS supporters and operatives in Saudi Arabia over the past several months. Saudi Arabia also donated $100 million to the United Nations in August 2014 in order to fund counterterrorism in the region. In addition, a number of influential Saudi clerics have referred to IS as “the number one enemy of Islam” and have even called on Muslims everywhere to fight the group and repel its advances in the region in what could be interpreted as a religious edict, or fatwa.
Authorities and clerics have been quick to condemn IS and its followers, but they neglect to acknowledge the important ideological links between Wahhabist thought and IS ideology. While current domestic efforts in Saudi Arabia may be somewhat effective, more awkward and painful steps must be taken in order to destroy IS and prevent other radical Sunni groups from forming for good. First off, it is hypocritical for Saudi Arabia to condemn the extreme interpretation and implementation of Sharia Law without looking to how it governs its own state, which is itself determined by an extremist interpretation of Sharia Law.
In addition, King Abdullah and his government must compel clerics within the kingdom to adopt a more harmonious interpretation of Islam, one that specifically sanctions the existence of other religions. This process will be painful and massively controversial, as it comes into direct conflict with the original Wahhabist-political alliance formed in 1744. It is necessary, however, because even if IS is defeated on current measures alone, new groups will form again from Wahhabist ideology as they have done time and time again. It is time for Saudi Arabia to kill the Hydra once and for all, lest two more heads grow in the place of IS’s one.
While the Islamic State’s practices and potential for terrorism are on the agenda of nearly every state, it is Saudi Arabia’s government and clerics that should take the lead in establishing a coalition for the defeat of IS, facilitating the post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation of Syrian and Iraq, and delegitimising the group’s Sunni extremist ideology. In addition, it faces the daunting yet vital task of changing clerical rhetoric to prevent further radical Sunni sects from forming again.