The public schism between the Saudi, Wahhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood ideologues is neither new nor surprising.
It’s another chapter in a centuries-old conflict between the regressive, impoverished desert dwelling founders, users and propagators of the rigid Hambali-based Wahhabi doctrine and the founders of and adherents to the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood which sprang from one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
The struggle between the adherents of these two opposing philosophical approaches to the practice of Islam is based on religious and geopolitical enmity dating back to the 19th century and represents a protracted contest for leadership of the Muslim World. The Saudi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologues differ only in degree as to how strictly the precepts of Islam should be observed and to what ends.
The Saudi/Wahhabi doctrine is based on the 18th century teachings of the founder of the Wahhabi movement, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who was a disciple of Ibn Taymiyah, a follower of Ahmed Ibn Hambal, the founder of the Hambali brand of Islam which is considered the most rigid, rejectionist form, allowing “no scope for reason or independent thinking.” The Saudi/Wahhabi clans espoused a literal interpretation of fundamentalist Islam, insisting that all Muslim advances between the 7th century and the beginning of their movement in mid-18th century constituted deviations from true Islam. The Wahhabis still consider modern technology as dangerous to their beliefs and values.
The Saudi/Wahhabi clans’ debauched adherence to their interpretation and application of their repressive brand of Islam can be attributed to their social, political and geographical environments. Born and raised in the inhospitable land-locked impoverished desert of central Arabia (known as Nejd), the adherents to the Wahhabi doctrine were isolated from other civilizations, tolerant cultures and the infusion of evolutionary ideas that might have broadened their rigid perspectives. Given their unforgiving isolated environment and unbending, survivalist mentality, it’s not surprising that the Saudi/Wahhabi allies embraced the constricted interpretation of Islam as an end in itself, the only means which they believed would guarantee their survival, potential for conquest and absolute political and social control.
Because Islam was founded in their desert land and in order to ensure their survival and control, the Saudi/Wahhab rulers (the Houses of Al-Saud and Al-Alshaikh) claimed ownership of the faith and designated the Quran as their constitution and the arbitrary Shariah (Islamic law) as the law of the land when they established their kingdom in 1932. Additionally, they designated themselves as the guardians (Custodians) of Mecca and Madina, the holy shrines of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims so that they can exert religious influence over Muslims worldwide.
Muslim Brotherhood origins
In contrast to the founders of the Wahhabi doctrine, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan Al-Bana, an educated Egyptian socialist/nationalist who declared that the Quran should form the basis for the legal system in Egypt because he alleged that social justice and moral purity cannot be achieved and maintained under any other system. Ostensibly, he was revolting against social injustices and immoral practices which he blamed on the infusion of Western values in the evolving Egyptian society of the 1920s and 30s. Based on his education and background, including exposure to different philosophies of Islam such as Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Al-Banna developed a less rigid Sunni interpretation of Islam as a means to achieve social objectives.
While the Saudi/Wahhabi rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood (aka Brotherhood) share a type of religious totalitarianism (the rule of Islamic law rather than secular law), the Brotherhood is more tolerant of some modern values such as educational equality for women, semi-secular constitutions and acceptance of non-Muslim faiths and houses of worship in Egypt. For example, under the Saudi/Wahhabi system “women are excluded from studying engineering, journalism, pharmacy, and architecture,” an exclusion that does not apply to the Brotherhood’s philosophy or practice. Furthermore, the Saudi/Wahhabi rulers reject all forms of non-Islamic laws and not only prohibit public practice of non-Muslim faiths in their kingdom, but advocate destruction of Christian churches in the Arabian Peninsula.
Despite their different outlooks (as discussed above), experiences, cultural dissimilarities and mutual abhorrence, the two groups have one thing in common: use of their respective ideologies as a tool to vie for leadership among Arabs and Muslims. The Saudis and the Brotherhood have always competed with each other for power and influence even when they seemed to be cooperating.
The Saudis have shrewdly manipulated their friends and foes to promote their interests and divert potential threats to their survival. For example, they publicly embraced Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and put him on their payroll in 1948. Presumably, they wanted to cultivate his goodwill and by doing so infiltrate and control or weaken his organization which they saw as a challenge to their ideological influence.
The Saudis further manipulated the Brotherhood to combat the rise of secular Arab nationalism in the 1950s, 60s and 70s under the leadership of President Nasser of Egypt who considered Arab religious movements and monarchies reactionary and obstacles to Arab unity. The Saudi rulers supported the Brotherhood’s efforts to undermine Nasser’s secularization of Egyptian society which the Saudis, like the Brotherhood, felt would weaken the appeal of both groups’ ideologies.
When Nasser turned against the Brotherhood and hanged their spiritual thinker, Syed Qutb in 1966, Saudi King Faisal, a staunch enemy of Nasser, welcomed a large number of the Brotherhood to stay and conduct their anti-Nasser activities from Saudi Arabia. However, during their stay in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brothers converted many Saudis to their way of thinking. With the ascendance of friendly Egyptian leaders such as Sadat and Mubarak after Nasser’s death, the Saudis’ need for the Brotherhood diminished. The assassination of pro-Saudi President Sadat in 1981 by soldiers associated with the Muslim Brotherhood further fueled Saudi rulers’ distrust of that organization.
Saudi acrimony toward the Brotherhood mushroomed publicly into open accusations and blame after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US by mostly Saudi nationals, led by an Egyptian affiliated with the Brotherhood.
In a burst of emotion and anger, former Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif blamed the Brotherhood for destroying Arabs and Islam. In a passionate interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Prince Naif was quoted as saying, “The Brotherhood has done great damage to Saudi Arabia.” He went on to say, “All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood. We have given too much support to this group… The Muslim Brotherhood has destroyed the Arab world.”
He blamed the Brotherhood for a list of wars and terrorist activities including the attack on the US on 9/11, the takeover of Islam’s holiest shrine, Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 by Saudi zealots/nationalists and Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91. Even though Naif’s attack on the Brotherhood was meritorious, he was also hypocritical. The Saudi government and other wealthy Gulf rulers engage in subversive activities throughout the world. Naif’s accusations against the Brotherhood were presumably designed to deflect some of the global media’s unprecedented criticism of Saudi support for terrorists and extremists as well as to counteract the Brotherhood’s rising influence.
The Brotherhood’s recent geopolitical gains in Egypt and in other Arab countries due to the “Arab Spring,” combined with other events looming over Saudi Arabia had left its rulers more vulnerable, isolated and uncertain of their future than ever. Saudi failure to recruit support for their Syrian policy; their dwindling regional and global significance due to less dependence on Saudi oil and strategic location; the US and European Union’s flirting with Iran; likely ties between Israel and Iran and budding alliances between the Brotherhood and major Muslim states (e.g. Turkey, Iran and Qatar) have all coalesced to weaken the Saudis’ influence and threaten their sense of security.
The Saudi/Brotherhood relations suffered a major blow immediately after the election of President Morsi due to his strategic outreach to Iran. Furthermore, the current Administration of the US, the Saudis’ most staunch ally, had voiced support for the Brotherhood as the legitimate government of Egypt.
These worrisome developments left the Saudis with no options but to counter the Brotherhood’s growing power not only in Egypt, but in Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States and the Greater Middle East. Consequently, the Saudis joined with unlikely allies, secular and liberal Egyptians. Taking advantage of the anti-Brotherhood surge in Egypt, the Saudi rulers supported and financed the Egyptian military to depose the Brotherhood’s first elected government. This move halted the immediate spread of Brotherhood-instigated revolutionary movements in the Gulf States, as well as thwarting nascent alliances between the Brotherhood and major Sunni Arab and Muslim states.
While the Saudis have removed these immediate threats by using the Egyptian military to trample the Brotherhood, they may have only won a temporary victory. Like the Muslim Brotherhood’s colossal mistakes in governing Egypt, the Saudis may have made a perilous miscalculation by driving the group underground. Given their numerical strength in Egypt and throughout the world, their widely appealing social philosophy among many Muslims and their delivery of significant social services, the Brotherhood will be in a stronger position to mobilize their imbedded cells, especially in the Gulf region, and do more damage to the autocratic Saudi and other Gulf monarchies than they would have, for pragmatic reasons, had they remained in power in Egypt.
Given their long history of enmity, as long as the Saudi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologues remain active, they will likely continue to struggle for leadership of the Muslim world.
Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.