Last autumn I visited a Sufi shrine just outside Peshawar in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. Rahman Baba was a 17th-century mystic poet, and his tomb has for centuries been a place where musicians and poets have gathered. A friend who lived nearby in the 1980s advised me to go on a Thursday night when great crowds of Pathans would sing mystical love songs to their saint by the light of the moon.
Since my friend left Peshawar, however, much had changed. A hardline Islamist party had come to power. And two Saudi-funded Wahhabi religious schools – Deobandi madrasas – had now been built near the shrine and had attempted to halt what they saw as the unIslamic practices there.
As advised, I went along on a Thursday evening. I found an enclosure sheltered by date palms. Above rose the white dome of the saint’s tomb. It was beautiful; but there were no musicians, only a small crowd of beggars. Watching suspiciously stood two young men with full beards, white robes and checked red-and-white Saudi headscarves. I asked the guardian of the shrine what had happened to the musicians.
” My family have been singing here for generations,” he told me. “But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble. They tell us that what we do is wrong. Sometimes arguments break out – even fist fights and brawls.
“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this. It only began when Reagan and the Saudis starting sending jihadis to Peshawar. Before that the Pushtuns here loved Sufism. Now trouble happens more and more frequently.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“What can we do?” he replied. “We pray that right will overpower wrong. But our way is pacifist. We love. We never fight. When these Arabs come here I don’t know what to do.”
I thought of the shrine over the weekend as further violence shook Saudi Arabia. Following on from the kidnapping and murder last month of 22 expatriates in Khobar, gun battles in the streets of Jeddah and the murder in broad daylight of a BBC cameraman, this weekend has bought further violence to the kingdom. One American has been kidnapped and another murdered. The Foreign Office has begun the process of pulling out non-essential staff.
Things are clearly coming to a head in Saudi Arabia. It is not yet exactly falling apart, but we are close to seeing the mass exodus of the expatriate community that runs its oil business, with a disastrous effect on oil prices.
On the BBC’s Today programme last week, the Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki al Faisal, expressed his grief at the death of the cameraman and swore that the authorities were doing everything to arrest the culprits – despite growing evidence of collusion between the Saudi national guard and the militants. But at no point did the interviewer ask Turki about his role in supporting jihadi groups while head of Saudi intelligence, nor was it mentioned that Turki has admitted having had five meetings with Osama bin Laden in the past. Indeed, al-Qaida was in some respects a creation of Saudi intelligence during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets.
Yet if more of the Muslim world is now open to a newly intolerant and violent strain of Islam, no force has been more responsible than Saudi Arabia. Ever since the 1930s, the Saudis have promoted Wahhabism, the most severe incarnation of Islam. After the oil boom of the early 1970s this became a fundamental tenet of Saudi foreign policy, and a sizeable slice of the country’s vast oil revenues has been devoted to promoting Wahhabism at the expense of more tolerant forms of Islam. The Saudis have provoked a clash of civilisations, not so much between east and west as within Islam itself.
The Wahhabis have always been opponents of Sufism: on coming to power in the early 19th century, the Wahhabis destroyed all the Sufi and Shia shrines in Arabia and Iraq. At the time, most Muslims regarded the Wahhabis as an extreme and alien sect. But in recent years the Wahhabis have used their oil revenues to attempt to remake Islam in their own puritanical image.
The Saudis now dominate as much as 95% of Arabic language media; 80% of mosques in the US are controlled by Wahhabi imams. While limiting radical Islam at home, the Saudis have promoted it abroad, principally by funding hardcore Wahhabi and Salafi schools in the Muslim world, most concertedly in Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Pakistan. In Pakistan, a recent interior ministry report revealed that there are now 6,607 madrasas, up from 245 at the time of independence in 1947. The great majority are built with Saudi funds and it was in these madrasas that the Taliban were trained. Saudi Arabia later became one of only three countries to recognise that unpleasant regime.
A direct result of this Saudi influence is that many Muslims have been taught a story of Islamic tradition from which Sufism is rigorously excluded, which justifies violence and which breeds a strong antipathy towards non-Muslims.
It is not just that Saudi oil wealth has promoted the theological environment that has allowed the ideas of groups such as al-Qaida to flourish. The link is more direct, for it was Saudi money that financed both the most extreme jihadis fighting in Afghanistan and the camps where they were trained: a recent UN report calculated that in the decade leading to 9/11 Saudi Arabia transferred over $500m to al-Qaida via Islamic charities. It is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis.
Yet the west, dependent on Saudi oil and rich from arms sales, continues to ignore the culpability of the Saudis – to the extent that the Bush administration blacked out 28 pages of a Congressional report that documented Saudi government ties with the 9/11 hijackers. The US continues to allow the Saudis to suppress human rights and lock up political activists, with barely a whisper of criticism. Indeed, Bush and Blair do all they can to shore up this hated and corrupt autocracy.
Far more than the secular Ba’athist regimes targeted by the Washington neo-cons, the Saudis have turned the face of Islam against the west. The war on Iraq has only provided a rallying cry for al-Qaida supporters. The country that has played by far the greatest role in advancing global Islamist militancy was never listed in Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, and is a major US ally. Indeed George Bush Snr continues openly to lobby for the Saudis and to take a salary from the Carlyle Group, a multi-billion dollar corporation channelling US investment into Saudi Arabia.
The ultimate irony is that Saudi money comes from the west as oil revenues and investment: in the end it is we who are funding the export of Wahhabi intolerance. If the Saudi regime is now crumbling, we have only ourselves to blame.