Thursday, October 2, 2014

Is Daesh (aka "ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State") Salafist, Wahhabiist, Both, Something Else, And Does It Matter?

A conundrum before I disappear for awhile to have eye surgery.

So, "Daesh" is what most Arabs call this group that Anglophones seem to be having a silly argument over what to call, with most saying "ISIS" even as President Obama and some others insist on calling it "ISIL," with the "L" standing for "Levant," a politically incorrect term for the eastern Mediterranean from the French for "rising sun," although some political scientists have recently been trying to revive the term with one of them apparently getting the ear of the White House crowd.  Anyway, I am for now going to go with what their fellow Arabs call them, "Daesh."

So, I have recently read several perfervid columns by various folks, coming on very strongly as if they if they know their asses from a hole in the ground, and full of vituperative ranting and raving about Daesh, with some of these charging them with being "Salafist" and some charging them with being "Wahhabist" while doing so, as if being either of these justifies the vituperation.  Now, while I am going to ridicule these people for being ignorami, I am not going to defend Daesh at all.  They are about as bad as any group we have seen in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter, for quite a long time.  I shall also come down with that it may be that Daesh is either some combination of both of these categories, which have some overlap at least, or that they are simply some new awful thing that is beyond either of them.  Anyway, I shall at least attempt briefly to lay out a bit about their respective histories and how they have come to overlap to some extent, leaving it to readers to figure out on their own just how accurate either term is for Daesh.

The older of the two  terms is the one that has genearally been viewed until recently as an insulting term used by outsiders. That would be Wahhabist.  The term has a very specific historical meaning and context.  It refers to Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who in around 1740 met with a tribal sheikh under a palm tree in central Saudi Arabia near present day Riyadh named Mohammed ibn Saud.  That is, the first guy was Mohammed Son of Wahhab and the second was Mohammed Son of Saud.  They formed an alliance that remains to this day, between their two  families, with the Wahhab family over time coming to be known as the al Sheikhs.  Of the wives of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, the one from the al Sheikhs provided him with by far the smartest and most revered of his 43 sons, the late King Faisal, who was assassinated in the 1970s by a crazed nephew.  His sons are among the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia, with one of them, Saud al Faisal, serving as Foreign Minister since the late 1970s, making him the longest serving person in such a position in the world.  It is he more than any other who has pulled together the group of Sunni nations backing the US "war on Daesh." In any case, the descendants of Mohammed ibn Saud would become the modern Saudi royal family, named for the father of this man who allied with Mohammed ibn Wahhab, from whom the name "Wahhabist" came.

So, Mohammed ibn Wahhab was an advocate of imposing the strictest of the four Sunni sharias (legal codes) upon the world, the Hanbali code, which only recognizes sayings from the Qur'an and a limited set of Hadith, or reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, as being the basis  for laws, no use of precedents or judicial  reasoning as allowed in the other three sharias: Hanafi, Melki, and Shafi, with the Hanafi generally viewed as the most "liberal" and the one dominant in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states.  This very strict code is in place in Saudi Arabia and also in Qatar and is both very anti-Sufi, meaning against worshipping saints or grave sites, with the destruction of these something that Daesh has been known for, as well as being very anti-Shi'i, something else Daesh has been known for.  However, even while the Saudis have spread Wahhabist philosophy through madrassas (schools) they have funded in many places, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban were heavily influenced by their views, which are also very strict about what women can do (who are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia), the current Wahhabist Saudis are now opposing Daesh because Daesh opposes them and calls for their overthrow so that the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can rule the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

BTW, while now some in central Saudi Arabia have begun to accept being called "Wahhabist," they have long preferred to be called "Muwahideen," which is usually translated as "Unitarian," although "strict monotheist" would probably be more accurate and avoid the amusing comparison with the highly liberal religious group that carries that name in English speaking nations.

Curiously, the Salafis originally were a somewhat liberal group, appearing in Egypt in the mid-19th century with a goal to reform Islam so that it could deal with the modern world. Its initial enemy was the decaying Ottoman Empire, which ruled Egypt at the time, and some of its early leaders included  Jamal al-Din, Muhammed Abduh, who long taught at Cairo's al-Azhar University, and Rishda Rida, who founded a newspaper, al-Mana, which he edited until his death in 1935.  In this early period it encouraged accepting much of modern science, such as evolution, and so on, and had much influence in Libya and Tunisia, as well as some other areas.  It differed from Wahhabism in not accepting any particular Sunni sharia.  However, it also used much rhetoric that encouraged going back to the earliest days of Islam for pure interpretations, and "Salaf" refers to the original generations of Muslims.  It also had an anti-Sufi and anti-Shi'i bias, making it potentially an ally of the Wahhabis.

It was during the mid-20th century that Salafism in Egypt became more fundamentalist and less liberal, largely under the influence of Sayyid Qutub, also a leader of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, although today these are two  distinct political currents, with Salafist parties in Egypt more radical and fundamentalist than the Ikhwan, who won an election after the overthrow of Mubarak, only to be later overthrown by the military, now in power again.  Anyway, it was opposing the original military leader of modern Egypt, the pan-Arab nationalist socialist Nasser, that pushed Qutub and Egyptian Salafis towards a more fundamentalist position.

The link with Wahhabism came during this period when Nasser was in conflict with the Saudis during the 1960s.  Many Salafis fled to Saudi Arabia, including Qutub's brother, where many became school teachers, the Saudis sorely lacking in educated people able to do this.  This led to a Salafist influence in Saudi Arabia, as well as a counter influence from Saudi Wahhabism on those Salafis, which would get carried back to Egypt and in to other areas of the world.  It is this that leads some to simply declare that the two are one and the same, despite their distinct historical roots and some remaining differences between them in different places.

I shall note that one view is that Wahhabism is now a branch of Salafism, the latter now the broader category, with at least a dozen different groups around the world identifying themselves as Salafi, with a majority of these officially pacifist.  Needless to say, this latter does not apply to Daesh.

I would also  note that beheadings occur in Saudi Arabia.  However, these occur only as punishment for specific crimes, particularly murder, as laid out in the Hanbali sharia.  Daesh seems to like to behead people just for propaganda purposes or whatever.

Anyway, that is all I have to say for now, folks.

Barkley Rosser

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