Islamic State militants have been in the headlines for months, but groups like IS don’t appear out of nowhere, they arise in a political and historic context. IS has emerged out of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria at a moment when Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for political influence in the region.
It’s well known that Saudi Arabia has supported jihadist movements in Afghanistan, North Africa and Syria, and that most of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals.
‘The trend one notices in Saudi Arabia is that they are much more against jihadi organisations if they threaten the security of the House of Saud, or if jihadis begin to act within Saudi Arabia,’ says Patrick Cockburn, journalist and author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. ‘But they are quite prepared to use jihadis as an instrument of Saudi foreign policy and Saudi influence abroad.’
‘You had Saudi preachers, immensely influential, often speaking on satellite television stations financed by Saudi royals, preaching hate to Shia, preaching jihad in Syria and elsewhere. So there has always been ambivalence in Saudi policy between what they want to see at home and what they want to see abroad.’
Saudi Arabia’s history of involvement with jihad dates to the early 20th century, when the state as we know it was formed. Unlike other Arab countries, which had fully-fledged nationalist independence movements, Saudi Arabia was united through a series of wars.
‘There were no historical precedents whereby the whole region was governed as one entity, and therefore the Al Saud [family] reinvented the 18th century Wahhabi movement, which is a puritanical movement initially aiming to return people to the right path of Islam,’ says Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the London School of Economics and the author of A History of Saudi Arabia.
‘This involved religious wars against those who refused the political leadership or rejected the political leadership of the Al Saud, but they were depicted as people whose Islam wasn’t the right Islam and therefore they had to succumb to the authority of the Al Saud.’
‘They were able to bring this vast territory together and subject the people, under the pretext of Islamising them, which was a violent episode in the 20th century. It lasted for more than 25 years, at the end of which the Al Saud declared themselves as the rulers, and they had to continue this alliance with the Wahhabi clerics who supported the regime and also were given certain priorities in running the social and religious affairs of the country’
The alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics continues to this day. According to Al-Rasheed, the clerics provide a politically useful religious justification for the House of Saud’s political authority. From early on in the history of Saudi Arabia, all kinds of dissent, from strikes to demonstrations, have been banned.
The discovery of oil in commercial quantities both cemented the position of the Saudi royal family within Saudi Arabia and gave it enormous influence within the Muslim world. The country began to enjoy significants oil revenues during the 1950s and ‘60s, and by 1972 average oil revenue was between $2 and $3 billion a year.
That was nothing, though, compared to the profits that would flow after the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974 and the nationalisation of the oil industry. It’s that oil wealth, argues Cockburn, that has allowed Wahhabi Islam to spread and dominate the Muslim world.
‘One of the most important trends in the Muslim world, perhaps in the world as a whole over the last 50 years, is the way in which Wahhabism has influenced and to some extent taken over mainstream Sunni Islam: the 1.4, 1.5 billion Sunni Muslims in the world,’ he says.
‘Why has it become so influential? Well, mainly Saudi money. If you wanted to build a mosque in Bangladesh or some other poor country and you need $20,000, the only place you can get it easily is from Saudi Arabia or some Saudi charity.’
‘It is remarkable to me that we are at this moment again where the Saudis have been complicit in the rise of a jihadist network in Syria, seen it spread regionally, and now [it] becomes at least a regional threat, if not a global threat,’ says Jones. ‘We are not just repeating the sins of 2003 but the same kind of patterns that persisted in the 1980s and that led to the violence of the 1990s and 2001.’
Remarkable or predictable? Read it all at ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
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