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Playing With Fire: The Salafist Option in the Middle East

April 7, 2012

Salafist bookshop in the Tunis medina, at what used to be called `Place des Israelites'...

by Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince


Note: This piece also appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus


In March 2004 , one of us submitted an op-ed to Denver Post titled “Wahhabism is a threat to World Peace.” The article posited that it was of no wonder that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, has become the philosophical guide for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Taliban. It fits the terrorist mentality well. Its pseudo-philosophy dictates dogmatic, outward acts of worship and rigid intolerance to others; its opposition to any refinement of Islamic culture, philosophy, theology, and the arts freezes cultural innovation. Its austere and regressive world view, and with its inflexible doctrine sows intolerance, discord, sedition, violence and hatred in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Still, we are not surprised that a piece like this never saw the light of day in the American mainstream media. It might be difficult to openly criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; It is even more difficult to challenge the Saudi  regime.


The critical question that bewildered everyone was the total support of the successive US administrations provided to Wahhabism and its enigmatic and more palatable sister Salafism. Salafism is the older literal interpretation of Islam out of which Wahhabism emerged in the 18th century. Wahhabism is the official religion of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism and Salafism, while slightly different, remain closely related. The Saudis and the Gulf States support Salafism, seeing it as a step towards creating a Wahhabist-dominated Middle East.

Wahhabism: Anathema to U.S. policy…or strategic ally?

On the surface it would appear that Wahhabism – a form of radical Islamic fundamentalism – would be an anathema to U.S. and European `values’ and that in fact, it is against precisely this form of Islam that the war on terrorism is being fought. History tells another story. Closer, more carefully analysis of U.S (and earlier British) Middle East policy suggest quite a different picture: that for nearly a century both American and British policy makers not only made their peace with Wahhabism (and Salafism) but have been in close cooperation with these movements throughout, and even more so today.

Some of the U.S. support for Wahhabism is linked to oil politics and arrangements arrived at as early as the 1940s when President Roosevelt met with King Saud on the former’s visit to Egypt on his way home from the Teheran Conference. The deal struck between the two was simple and enduring: in exchange for Saudi Arabia providing a steady flow of oil to the U.S. dominated world economy (at that time), the United States would not interfere with Saudi internal politics.

Nearly seventy years on, both sides have maintained this arrangement. While the analysts are content to attribute this support for oil and the role it plays in the US regional and global strategy, it appears that there are more sinister reasons behind this convenient relationship. It is part of the divide and rule strategy designed to divide and control; the Middle East.

Over one year after the Arab Awakening, better known in the vernacular as Arab Spring, and as we observe political developments in both West and North Africa as well as in the Middle East, it has become clear that Wahhabi and Salafist organizations and political parties are playing an increasingly active and menacing role throughout not only the MENA region but globally.

The Saudi and Qatari Wahhabi/Salafist organizations are very active domestically and internationally. They support other Wahhabi/Salafist groups around the world, in West and North Africa as well as across the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) andAsia, as well as European and American countries. The dogmatic Wahhabi/Salafist approach is gaining ground in these countries particularly among the young Sunni Muslims as it promotes a simple black-and-white licit/illicit, (halal/haram) understanding of Islam.

Wahhabism’s binary vision

This binary vision of the world (Muslims versus Kafirs, the good versus the bad, protected religious purity versus corrupting political involvement) has over the years shaped a religious mindset that has lead to isolation and a doctrine that sows intolerance, discord, sedition, violence and hatred locally. Muslims, they argued, must isolate themselves from the corrupt surrounding societies, and avoid involvement in politics.

But in recent years and months we have seen a change in Wahhabi/Salafist political involvement. Having for decades refused political participation — equating democracy with kufr (rejection of Islam) and opting for seclusion— they are now slowly emerging and engaging in politics, financed with Saudi petrodollars. Now we see, especially inEgyptandTunisia, the rise of active and quite efficient Wahhabi/Salafist organizations and political parties which are playing a substantial role in structuring debates and reshaping the political balance within the respective countries.

The US administration and other European countries are fully aware that Wahhabi/Salafist organizations, based in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East, are pouring millions into countries that have witnessed the recent uprising, especially recently in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Why, one wonders, do the western countries, especially the US, lend support to this most austere ideology that is so obviously at odds with their own? Well, it is much more sinister than oil.

Basis of the `marriagen of convenience’

Here is our take: This marriage of convenience has a number of benefits for the West:

1-      Economic Gain:

The Wahhabi/Salafist ideology may be concerned with political and religious legitimacy, and may be pushing for a rigid and literal interpretation of Islamic Law (Shari’ah), but economically they are in collusion with the WB and IMF and their neo-liberal capitalist policies, and as such, care less about Islamic ethics. A cursory look at the extravagant wealth and lavish life style of Wahhabi leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Salafis elsewhere is enough to clarify this point.

2-       Divide and Conquer:

The promotion of the Wahhabi/Salafist ideology within Muslim majority societies helps both to create divisions from within these societies and to prevent the reformist trends and movements, such as Islamic reformers, leftists and Sufi/Mystical movements, critical of western policies, from gaining ground as well as religious credibility. The West is following an old colonial strategy in using the Wahhabi/Salafists to divide the Muslims on religious grounds: in other words Wahhabi/Salafist become the agents of transforming what is natural diversity among Muslims into an effective and useful tool for division and colonial control. Nowhere this role is more visible than that played by the Saudi Wahhabi leaders in diverting the Arab spring from attaining its goals.

3-      Wahhabi/Salafis and the Palestinian Issue:

The Salafist resurgence is creating trouble and tension not only within the Sunni communities, but also between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well. The Sunni-Shiite fracture in the Middle East is a critical factor in the region especially in light of western and Israeli threats against Iran and the ongoing repression in Bahrain and Syria. The divide is deep even with regard to the Palestinian resistance, which for years had been a unifying legitimate struggle among Muslims. Now division is the rule, within and without, as Wahhabist/Salafist activism (which care less about the Palestinian cause) deepens among the Sunnis as well as between Sunnis and the Shiites.

This strategic alliance with the Salafist literalists, on both religious and political grounds, is critical for the West as it is the most efficient way to keep the Middle East under control. Protecting some oil-rich states, as well as their religious ideology while dividing any potential unifying political forces (such as alliances between secular and reformist Islamists or a popular front against Israeli policy), necessitates undermining the Muslim majority countries from within.

The countries of the new Middle East, as well as those of North and West Africa, are facing serious dangers. The religious factor is becoming a critical one and if the Muslims, the scholars, the religious and political leaders, are not working for more mutual respect, unity and accepted diversity, and if this unholy alliance of Wahhabist/Salafist ideological onslaught is not stopped soon, there will be Arab Winter and no Arab Spring.

The US and the Europeans are intent on exploiting disunity in the Arab world to protect Israel, to use the Salafists as a pawn in the global chess game between the West, China and India. If Muslims desire to reject their servitude and to free themselves from the shackle of western colonialism, Wahhabi/Salafist must be stopped from gaining footholds anywhere and everywhere.

Heading Towards Regional Civil War?

Unfortunately, this U.S. policy of supporting a Salafist Middle East revival takes on a more ominous hue. It is likely a key element of a more broad based regional strategy being put in motion for a coming conflict pitting the Moslem countries of the Middle East against each other along religious (Sunni-Sh’ite) lines. If this is the case – and we believe it shaping up in this direction – it helps to explain why, in part, the US probably does not want Israel to do anything that might spoil the planning by unilaterally attacking Iran. An Islamic civil war could result if the Wahhabi/Salafists are permitted to take control in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere with the US `managing’ the conflict and the Wahhabi/Salafist doing the dirty work, like it did by encouraging Iraq to attack Iran in the 1980.

In Part Two, we will look how the roles of  the Wahhabi/Salafist movement in Egypt and Tunisia in the current new situations.


Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint phd at the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Relations of the University of Denver

Rob Prince is a lecturer of International Studies at the Korbel School of International Relations of the University of Denver

6 Comments leave one →
  1. robert greene permalink
    April 7, 2012 3:31 pm

    thank you. this is an issue i’ve felt has been under reported. people in the united states don not think there is such a thing as a suadi lobby.the idea of an islamic civil war is very scary

  2. April 7, 2012 8:22 pm

    This alliance is not without conflict and contradiction between the ruling elites of these ethnically diverse nation-states. The Saudis in particular have shown some subtlety and maneuverability in the way that they have played off and subsidized the Wahhabi clergy to deflect their messianic enthusiasm against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, in alliance with the competeing Shi’a theocracy in Iran, the much resented resurgent Turkish Islamists, who still aspire to revive the Ottoman empire that dominated the Arabs, and even their ostensible Zionist enemies, not to mention Pakistan allied with China. The Saudis are simultaneously an extended family-clan and tribal elite, a religious faction, a national regime, and a powerful junior-partner to US-led finance capital, fully integrated into the globalized capitalist structure; their strength is therefore their weakness: the need to import all forms of labor from across the region with little regard for their religious sensibilities or political conceptions of rights. A fierce clas sstruggle isinevitable, and already underway there and in the peripheral gulf satrapies protected by the Saudi-US alliance.

    But you neglect another dimension of the alliance with Western imperial capital, specifically the ideological compatibility of Islamist banking and capital-formation with capitalism: It is the ideology of a merchant class that aspires to become an industrially-developed bourgeoisie yet retains certain atavistic traits, attitudes and behaviors (that is, policies) from the earlier pre-capitalist, pre-colonial and tribal past. But oil is a commodity whose production and processing have been diversified and integrated into a structure of global markets over which finace capital rules, and to which each of these national regimes must adapt in a subservient form. This tension underlies the conflict between Saudi-led and fiannced Wahhabists and the Shi’a who look to the Islamic Republic of Iran as model, sponsor and financier if not liberator from Sunni domination. Neither pole represents the interests of their sectarian base and neither poses a long-term strategic threat to imperialism, which is therefore relatively free to manipulate, reward, punish and partner as circumstances demand locally as part of this divide-and-rule maneuvering. Meanwhile, class divisions and conflicts within and between these regimes continue to build, barely contained by religious indoctrination, repressive measures and contradictory siren call of nationalist appeals. I look forwardto your addressing those aspects in your future posts.

  3. April 9, 2012 6:58 am

    from a friend in Chicago:

    This is a piece (in fact study) of exceptional importance, demonstrating several key – and until now hidden – aspects of the undercurrent – or countercurrent – of the last fifteen month’s developments in the Arab World.
    It has been tremendously educational for me in many regards.
    The Western-Wahhabi/Salafi nexus has caused more harm, beginning in earnest in Afghanistan and Pakistan circa 1978, than perhaps anything else. It also explains a good deal of the past twenty years’ conflicts in the Balkans and the North Caucasus

  4. April 9, 2012 6:59 am

    from a Denver friend – retired academic:

    I thought the article Kazerooni and you wrote about Salafism and Wahhabism was terrific: clear and informative. It significantly changed my understanding of the politics of the Arab Spring and the Middle East/North Africa generally. Will it get a wider distribution in the alternative media? It should. Or at least this version should.

  5. April 9, 2012 7:07 am

    from an L.A. Chicano friend:

    This was fascinating to read, especially because the particular details were so clearly stated. Although I am not familiar with the historical and political details of the Mideast, much less of Islam, reading these details as they were presented made the matters easy to grasp instead of puzzling.


  1. Rob Prince – Publications This Last Year or so « Rob Prince's Blog

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