Leaving Islam



Saudi embassy in Washington agrees to curb the spread of Wahhabism

A strenuous relationship has been developing between America and Saudi Arabia over the issue of Islamists coming to American soil carrying diplomatic visa sponsored by the latter. Americans are becoming increasingly edgy ever since Muslim terrorists struck down the twin towers located at the WTC complex in New York on September 11, 2001. News media in the US are having a field day unearthing extremism and hatred that is alleged to be endemic in Wahhabi teachings. Scholars who study Islamic fundamentalism in America have been saying lately that Wahhabi teachings promote hatred, and it preaches intolerance amongst its devotees. Notwithstanding this assertion, the Saudi regime is an unabashed promoter of Wahhabi teachings all over the globe. It is quite conceivable that since Wahhabi teachings do not advocate democracy and staunchly support a vicegeral form of government, the teachings are like sweet music to the ears of Saudi royal family members. Therefore, Saudi royalty has been a big patron of the Wahhabi school of Islam.

The Wahhabi brand of Islam has been spreading by leaps and bounds all over the world for over the last five decades, but most scholars thought this to be an innocuous movement. The proliferation of mosques in American cities and their suburbs is a new phenomenon that dates back to only a decade or more. In South Asia, however, the Wahhabi teachings have made inroads a long time ago -- to be precise, over half a century ago. The religious school in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, India, which is considered the Oxbridge equivalent as a seat of Islamic higher learning saw the intrusion of Wahhabi teaching quite early in the twentieth century. One offshoot of this Wahhabi takeover of South Asia's prominent madrassahs is the establishment of the religious organization Tablig al-Jamaat. Every year, in Raiwand, Punjab (Pakistan), and Tongi (Bangladesh), Tablig al-Jamaat hosts Bishwa Ijtema (world congregation) to reinforce Wahhabi teachings amongst ordinary Muslims. More Muslims congregate at this spectacle than the hajj ceremony held in Mecca annually. Most attendees to Ijtema hardly know that the event is the brainchild of a Deobandi cleric. The Indian Mullahs favouring Wahhabi teachings had eyed on a small mosque located in Kakrail in the early 1950s. Only a handful of devotees then would come in the winter months from rural areas to join in Tafsir. However, the Wahhabi movement has grown beyond the periphery of Kakrail mosque. The Ijtema in Bangladesh is a national phenomenon now. I am bringing up the Bangladesh experience to illustrate a salient point, that is the teachings of a small number of clerics can bring a massive change in the way people visualize their religion. The hallmark of Old Bengal's Islam is tolerance and inclusion of various ideas. Sufism was an integral part of Islam in our part of the world. But that is in times past. Thanks to Tablig al-Jamaat and the Deoband madrassah. They are out there to purify Islam and give the religion a razor sharp image. In America also, the Wahhabi clerics have been coming by droves from Middle Eastern nations to spread Wahhabi teachings which would like to take Islam back to medieval times.

Muslim clerics from various Middle East nations would come to America seeking help from American mosques. Unbeknownst to most ordinary Muslims in America, many a cleric would come with Saudi governmental assistance. One such case was unearthed in the American media very recently. Both the Washington Post (WP) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on December 7 and 8, respectively, that the Bush Administration had urged the Saudi officials not to issue any more diplomatic visas to clerics. As a prelude to this story, the WSJ had published an article on December 3, detailing the Saudi Embassy's support for the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in Fairfax, Virginia, which "advocates a strict brand of Islam that experts say breeds extremism."

The first cleric to lose his diplomatic visa is Jafaar Idris, a Sudanese Imam, who was a former research director of the Fairfax's Islamic Institute. According to the WP news report Mr. Idris "is a popular fundamentalist imam who on his web site has critiqued Western-style democracy as incompatible with Islam." This is exactly the mantra of the Saudi regime. The Saudi royal family finances these mullahs to perpetuate the myth that democracy is incompatible with Islam. The gullible clerics then reiterate this phrase from the pulpit of a mosque. Consequently, the gullible devotees would believe the litany thinking that a country or a nation could be ruled by a regime as Lord's vicegerent or khalifa. The devotees, however, forget that we are now living in the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In the past, the Americans were not that crazy to investigate Islamic clergies who gave sermons during a Jumma prayer or who would lecture an Islamic gathering. However, all this changed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Under pressure from America, the Saudis are cutting back diplomatic visas that they routinely issued to religious figures, which many observers consider a part of a broader Saudi government effort to strengthen its Islamic outreach effort.

Strangely enough, Saudi embassies all over the globe have autonomous Islamic affair wings that promote the Saudi version of Islam. The embassy's religious wings spend lavishly to set up religious schools and mosques. Critics of the Saudi regime in the West point out that such operation provides an outlet for Islamic extremists to travel and move money. Some of this money ends up in the hands of global terrorists. The Saudis are very defensive about these allegations. Buckling under pressure, now they want to phase out the "Islamic affair wing" in Washington DC. The bigger question, however, is will they shut down those wings in all countries? Only time can tell.

AH Jaffor Ullah, a newspaper columnist and research scientist, writes from New Orleans, USA.

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