Western governments are drenched in hypocrisy. Finally, the media seems to have come to this near-unanimous conclusion- or maybe it is more to their benefit to say it now. The hypocrisy of promoting free speech, (whatever that really is), whilst repressing elements of expression themselves and cuddling up to the strongmen throughout the world has been revealed. Pats on the back to all for stating the bleeding obvious. But something has been missed; the other strand of our duplicity. Our opposition to IS/ISIS/ISIL/those nasty fellas in Raqqa. If our relationship with Saudi Arabia is so important, ‘strategically,’ what’s wrong with Saudi Arabia mark II?
Before I continue, I am not advocating an alliance with either of these two. But pretence is multi-polar and not just a case of good and bad. Look to history and you will see that the ‘ISIS’ of past centuries was worthy of alliance. Do not be surprised if we utilise the seemingly inherent flexibility of western values and interests, (again, whatever they really mean), to secure stability while reneging on justice.
Modern Saudis trace the founding of their first state back to 1774, when Muhammed Ibn Saud agreed to rule over the oasis town of al-Dir’iyya with Muhammed ibn ‘abd al-Wahhab’s radically reformed version of Islam, thus founding Wahhabism; the austere, monotheistic faith followed and espoused by the current Saudi Kingdom and ISIS. The state that we recognise today as Saudi Arabia came into being in 1932. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Wahhabis attacked Southern Iraq, pillaging the Shiite shrine town of Karbala. Contemporary chronicler ibn Bishr witnessed the events, detailing the slaughter of 2000 civilians and destruction of Imam Husayn’s tomb. A year later in 1804, they conquered Mecca and Medina, the two holiest Islamic shrines, halting the pilgrimage caravans and desecrating tombs.
Fast forward a hundred years, and they were once again rampaging through these holy Arab lands, having had their land arrested from them in the intervening years. Now under the leadership of Ibn Saud, the Ikwwan – zealous Wahhabi fighters, were given free rein to pillage and plunder, as had been the case a century ago, and the consequences were similar. Oxford scholar Eugene Rogan has noted that the 1924 attack on Taif, where ‘an estimated 400 people were killed’, ‘sent a shock wave through the Hijaz’- this helped them secure the near bloodless capture of Mecca, before laying siege to Medina in 1925 for nearly a year.
Between the 1902 Saudi resurgence and the Kingdom’s foundation in 1932, British diplomacy went into overdrive, partially because of its relationship with the neighbouring Hashemite kingdom. The British concluded its second treaty with the Saudis in 1927, which affirmed the kingdom’s independence. The 1938 oil discovery confirmed Saudi Arabia as a desirable ally for many western nations. As former MI6 officer and founder of the Conflict forum Alastair Crooke has highlighted, ‘Saudi leadership would use its clout to ‘manage’ Sunni Islam on behalf of Western Objectives,’ namely containing the spread of Arab nationalism and Soviet influence.
The emergence of the Wahhabi Islamic State today has descended from the force that destroyed Karbala in 1804 and Taif in 1924, and could only have grown with Western consent. Without it, it is difficult to see how it would have withstood the uniting force of Nasserism. Indeed, today’s events are almost mirror images. For today’s Ibn al Wahhab and Muhammed Ibn Saud there is al-Baghdadi and remnants of the Baath party. For Karbala, the Armenian Christians of Deir el-Zour. And of course, like in 1938, there is oil.
Western governments have quite rightly verbally attacked ISIS over the past year for its mass killings and beheadings. But where was the condemnation when the group, as Robert Fisk has noted, ‘put captive Syrian soldiers to the torch…then barbecued their heads on video?’ Of course, this was when they were ‘moderates’ fighting the original enemy Assad, before our interests changed. And did we denounce the Christians of Sidnaya when they, again the words of Robert Fisk, ‘chopped off the heads of the Nusra and pushed them onto stick?’ No we did not.
Whether the Iraq war was right at the time is largely irrelevant now, however the post invasion and occupation planning is not. The sheer thoughtlessness of disbanding the Baath Party police but allowing them to keep their weapons was mad, not only in hindsight. And when you consider the highly sectarian and corrupt state that the west encouraged, are today’s events really surprise? Even if diplomats had not ignored the warnings of Iraqi politicians that the Syrian war might spill over, which they did, conditions were ripe for sectarian conflict.
Wahhabi Islam and the sectarian brutality of Iraqi and Syrian leaders have evidently played a major role in fostering the conflict. But western governments must also realise their own complicity if they are to tackle ISIS. Narrow self-interest has allowed Islam to be warped to meet the objectives of the Saudis and themselves, and set up the third incarnation of violent Wahhabi expansion.
By Dan Morrison
[image credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann dated: October 3, 2014]