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Monday, February 05, 2007

Saudi Writer Recasts Kingdom's History

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When university professor Khalid al-Dakhil was growing up, clergymen had a say in everything.

Following the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who founded the Wahhabi ideology that has inspired Islamic extremism, mosque imams took attendance at dawn prayers; people did not smoke in public or listen to music because it was viewed as sinful; and stick-wielding clerics forced men to pray.

The pervasive religiosity permeating his childhood here, where Wahhabism is the state ideology, sparked a burning question in young Dakhil's mind: How had these Wahhabi clerics come to wield so much power and authority?

After decades of research and a doctoral thesis on the history of the Wahhabi movement, Dakhil came up with an answer. The clerics had inherited their power from Wahhab. The fiery, puritanical preacher had been instrumental in catapulting the House of Saud ahead of others vying for power at the time and became an influential and trusted partner in the first Saudi state. That alliance between the ruling family and the clergy continued down the generations, with the Wahhabis eliminating all other doctrines, taking charge of education and enforcing their strict brand of Islam in mosques and schools.

The religious connection also gave the Saud family legitimacy to oversee Islam's holiest places.

Dakhil's findings offer a new reading of the Wahhabi movement that contradicts the official narrative and could lead to a reduction of the clergy's power. Wahhab was inspired by politics as much as religion, Dakhil said, and he used religious discourse to further his political aim of creating a state in central Arabia, then composed of dozens of city-statelets under the Ottoman sphere of influence.

A more accurate historical reading, which would decrease the role of religion and highlight the political context, should reduce the clout of the clergy and give ordinary Saudis more of a say in how the country is run, Dakhil said.

"Rewriting the history would be a trigger to widening the political system's basis of legitimacy to include not only the religious institute and the ruling class," said Dakhil, 54, an assistant professor of political sociology. "The political formula should involve the people as well."

Dakhil's work, laid out in a series of articles published in November and December, was the first attempt by a Saudi-based scholar to revise the prevailing religious account of the birth of Saudi Arabia.

By mainstream Muslim standards of his time, Wahhab used an extremist interpretation of Islam -- and particularly jihad, or holy war -- to rally people around the first Saudi state. He castigated those who did not believe in his interpretation, declaring local emirs and the Ottoman Empire infidels. The concepts were later used by the Saud family to conquer new territory. But that Wahhabi doctrine came back to haunt the royal family when it inspired armed militant groups, such as al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, to label them infidels and wage war against them.

Though Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a freer press since the reign of King Abdullah began in 2005, two topics remain off-limits: the religious legitimacy of the state and succession within the royal family. Dakhil has brought up both.

British historian Robert Lacey, author of "The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud," said the religious purpose of the Saudi state has always been a principle beyond question. "It's the founding article of faith for . . . the state. To suggest otherwise is to question the roots of Saudi legitimacy. It's akin to saying that the Pilgrim Fathers were atheists," said Lacey, who is in the kingdom working on a sequel.

Dakhil was allowed to publish only the first two of a set of three articles, and a rebuttal to attacks in the Saudi press on his work, before his newspaper, al-Ittihad, asked him to stop writing on the subject and then put him on indefinite leave. The paper is based in the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally.

He tackled the subject of succession after the royal family announced in October that it had formed a council of senior members to formalize procedures and vote on the eligibility of future kings. The throne has passed to the eldest sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who forged most of the Arabian Peninsula's disparate regions into a country he named after himself in 1932. Abdullah, in his early 80s, is the fifth of his sons to take the throne.

In an article in the Dubai-based Forbes Arabia, Dakhil suggested that members of the appointed consultative Shoura Council, especially if it becomes an elected body, join the royal council to weigh in on who becomes king. Local censors ripped out Dakhil's column in the December issue before allowing it into the kingdom.

Sitting in his comfortable home near King Saud University, where he taught until last year, Dakhil said it was his duty to raise sensitive topics.

"I'm doing this because I'm an intellectual and an academic, and I have to be faithful to my job," said Dakhil, who had just returned from his daily walk around campus and was wearing running shoes under his traditional long, white robe. "I'm convinced this is not against the interests of the state; in fact, allowing diversity and critical thinking strengthens the state."

Dakhil has written for publications in the United Arab Emirates and the London-based Web site Saudi Debate since his column in al-Hayat, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper, was stopped in 2003. Though the topics open for discussion in the Saudi media have expanded, those who cross red lines may not write in the Saudi-owned press or appear on Saudi-owned satellite channels, the largest in the Arab world. A 2004 ruling making it a punishable offense for government employees, like Dakhil, who taught at a public university, to criticize government policy so inflamed him that he wrote an op-ed article against it in the New York Times.

Dakhil's fight for free expression has received some local support. In December, a form letter on the Muntdiatna Web site urged readers to fax the government-appointed human rights committee and ask it to help lift the ban on Dakhil and another prominent Saudi writer, Qenan al-Ghamdi.

Despite the censorship, Dakhil's articles on the history of the Saudi state and succession, and parts of his doctoral thesis on the Wahhabi movement, which he wrote at UCLA, have been reprinted and discussed on the main Web sites frequented by Saudis.

Some have applauded his courage. Others have accused him of stirring up trouble. But many Saudis, brought up on the official story, were incensed by his assertion that the Wahhabis were not purely a religious movement, as Wahhab's historians had laid out.

Dakhil said he was not surprised. When he had shared his findings with his seniors at King Saud University, many had been shocked and offended. The university later asked him to keep to the curriculum.

The Wahhabi version claims that the movement was created to save the region from declining faith, polytheism and widespread idolatry. But his research indicates that there was no change in people's beliefs at the time the Wahhabi movement was born and that polytheism was not rampant in the region, and therefore was not the trigger for the foundation of the movement, he said.

In a chapter he has written for the book "Understanding Wahhabism," to be published this year by the University of Michigan Press, Dakhil argues that Wahhab's goal was to create a strong state to make up for the disintegrating tribal system and that the preacher found his first willing sponsor in Muhammad bin Saud, first head of the House of Saud.

The mosque was a place to exert authority; the call to prayer and enforcing communal prayers were symbols of authority, Dakhil said. Wahhab labeled as apostates all the villages that broke away from the first Saudi state or refused to join it, he said.

"Religion is a much more powerful enforcer. Wahhabis made being a good Muslim contingent on obeying the ruler. That's a naked political statement," Dakhil said.

Despite what his detractors say, his intention is not to malign Wahhabism, Dakhil said.

"Whether you talk about succession, history of the state or Wahhabism, they all form one [problem]. I want to lift the censorship on this way of approaching the history of the state. I want to make opening it up for discussion normal," he said.

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