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Under the Wahhabi shadow

04 December 2015

This author has talked to a range of Saudis, says Philip Lewis


Dissent: the funeral procession in May for Mansour Fateel, acclaimed as a martyr for jumping on a suicide bomber at a mosque in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, was also a protest blaming Wahhabism for attacks on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom

Dissent: the funeral procession in May for Mansour Fateel, acclaimed as a martyr for jumping on a suicide bomber at a mosque in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, ...

Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and beyond
Simon Ross Valentine
Hurst £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (use code CT813)


THE Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) continues to intrigue and repel the Westerner. The tribal dynasty began in 1745 from a compact between a local ruler, Ibn Saud, and a religious reformer, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. It has long attracted British travellers.

The title of the present work is taken from a comment by an earlier explorer, Harry St John Philby, who arranged British government support for the creation of the Kingdom in 1932. Fifteen of the 19 who were responsible for 9/11 being Saudis, this austere and supremacist sect — Wahhabism — has become the object of intense study and suspicion. Dr Valentine has written an arresting study that combines the curiosity of the travel writer, the tenacity of a good journalist, and the rigour of the academic.

The author lived for three years in the KSA, gathering material for the book while teaching English at a various institutions. He took every opportunity to escape the gilded cage to which most expatriates are confined. Frequently with his students, he travelled extensively, talking to people from different strata of society, from feared religious police — mutawa — to taxi-drivers, and from the despised and discriminated Saudi Shia to the Indian Christian migrant worker in search of ways of circumventing the prohibition on Christian worship.

As a result, the study provides not only an exhaustive account of Wahhabism’s founder, history and spread, doctrines, and practices, but also communicates something of the texture of its lived reality, as well as its impact on those outside the charmed circle of the saved, whether other Muslims, Christians, or Jews.

Valentine has gone to considerable pains to avoid caricature and to factor in diversity and dissent of expression. In a series of insightful chapters, he provides chilling insight into how Wahhabism is enforced by its often ill-educated mutawa and the pervasive fear this generates. There are particularly good chapters on "law, justice and crime"; the symbiotic relationship between rulers and the Wahhabi religious establishment; and the systemic destruction of hundreds of historic Islamic sites, driven by Wahhabism’s iconoclasm and puritanism.

Valentine’s careful research yields many surprises, whether the fact that divorce runs at 50 per cent; one in 15 crimes’ involving witchcraft, sorcery, and magic — Harry Potter is banned — or some unexpected and hopeful developments under the late King Abdullah (2005-15), ranging from support for an Interfaith and Intercultural Centre in Vienna to guarded support for women’s education and public employment in some mixed environments. The jury is out on whether such developments will survive the death of this reformist monarch.

The impressions one is left with are deeply troubling. Saudi textbooks continue to propagate attitudes to Christianity and Judaism which amount to hate literature. Rigid gender segregation remains the rule. Attending a public execution, Valentine speaks with passion of its "unforgivably cruel" nature.

Since 9/11, extremist preachers have been silenced within KSA. None the less, the damage done worldwide in projecting and legitimising such a Manichaean world-view — one estimate is that "Saudi Arabia has spent as much as $100 billion to spread Wahhabism in the West", which dwarfs the Soviet propaganda campaign at the height of the Cold War — is incalculable. A professor of Islamic theology, teaching in Sarajevo, describes Wahhabism as "a new plague", which has "destroyed every chance" for the development of Islam in Europe.


Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations to the Bishop and the diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales.

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