By Ameer Ali –
Just the other day I happened to watch a video on the recent anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka in which the reporter claimed that Islamism is on the rise in the country and went on to equate it on the spread of Wahhabism. I was appalled at the reporter’s confusion between Islamism and Wahhabism. In fact it is this confusion that is creating unnecessary alarm within the Sinhalese community and is being exploited by the ultra-national Buddhists to promote their own anti-Muslim propaganda. What is more shocking is the parallel the video drew between the Maldives Islands and Sri Lanka. Comparing the incomparable to prove a point is mischievous to say the least. The Muslims in the Maldives are the ruling majority and Islamism is a political weapon in the hands of contesting political groups; but in Sri Lanka Muslims are the second minority and there is absolutely no chance what so ever of them ruling this country or any part of it. Let me clear this confusion.
Islamism is a late twentieth century political phenomenon that arose out of the religious awakening amongst world Muslims, which in turn was the consequence of two related developments. One was the sudden increase in hydrocarbon-generated financial wealth, especially among members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC); and the other was the Islamised revolution in Iran. In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a plethora of conferences and colloquiums funded by oil rich nations and held in expensive venues in which met selected Muslim scholars, Muslim political leaders and Islamic activists to plan out programs to Islamise the World Order. The slogan, ‘Islam the Answer’ was heard everywhere. The concept of the Islamic state and its derivatives such as Islamic economics, Islamic finance, Islamic law, Islamic science, and Islamic education and so on, are different dimensions of this religious awakening. However, all this projects were meant to be implemented in countries where the Muslims are a majority and hold political power. The sad story is that until today, none of the Muslim countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have Islamised their state or economy. They are all nation states modelled on the Westphalian synthesis. Thus, the grand idea of Islamising the World Order still remains a utopian dream.
The eighteenth century eponymous Wahhabism on the other hand is not a political movement but an ultraconservative religious movement, which, owing to a historical coincidence in the eighteenth century won the political backing of the dominant Saudi family in Arabia. At that time the British super power welcomed this alignment with the hidden agenda of splitting and weakening the Ottoman Caliphate. Yet, Wahhabism remained mostly confined to the Arabian Peninsula until the late 1970s when, Ayatollah Khomeini, after throwing out the Americans from Iran, threatened to export his revolution to the American backed Sunni regimes in the Middle East. Though American administration panicked, it saw in Saudi Wahhabism an ultraconservative Sunni philosophy to counter Iran’s Shia radicalism. To the 21st century super power Wahhabism came as a Godsend. Thus, with blessings from the US and its Western allies this ultraconservative religious ideology received an open licence to spread its message throughout the Muslim world.
Wahhabism is not a political phenomenon and therefore does not fall into the category of Islamist movements like Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram or ISIS, even though many of the members of these groups are Wahhabis and are from Saudi Arabia. Their common objective of creating an Islamic state or a Caliphate is anathema to the Saudi as well as to all other Muslim regimes. Saudi’s support to these movements is conditional and not to encourage their Islamist ideology but to fight Shia Iran and its proxies. Even in Sri Lanka Wahhabism’s chief political objective is to counter Iranian influence.
Wahhabism as a religious phenomenon is essentially, anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-rational, and even anti-science in outlook. It is exclusivist and literalist in its religious interpretation as opposed to being accommodative and discursive. In the name of purifying Islam from all post-Salafi accretions i.e., additions to Islam that occurred after the death of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, it has become a backward looking ideology. A number of modern Islamic scholars like Prof. Khaled Abou El-Fadl feels that the Wahhabi teachings are out of step with what the Quran advocates. Yet, because it has the financial support of the Saudi regime and blessings of the West it is flourishing in countries like Sri Lanka, which not only needs Arab foreign investment but also is well entrenched in the American and Western ideological camp.
The most disquieting aspect of Wahhabism is that, because of its advocacy of strict puritanism not only in practising religious rituals but also in external behaviour, it is psychologically isolating the Muslim community in plural societies. In other words, Wahhabism promotes spiritual alienation among its followers. It is this phenomenon that has given birth to Islamophobia in several countries. In certain instances some extreme Wahhabis also advocate spatial isolation of Muslims. A few years ago, a certain Muslim activist from Trinidad came to Australia and advised the Muslim community here to buy a big plot of land away from the cities, migrate and live in an enclave. Such irresponsible preaching is recipe for communal unrest in plural societies.
However, it is undeniable that Wahhabism is disturbing the social equilibrium that has been in existence in Sri Lanka for many centuries. While the politicians of all hue are keen to exploit this disequilibrium to score political points and win elections, it is left to the Muslim civil society and its secular leadership to join hands with similar segments in other communities to combat this dis-equilibrator. In the meantime, for heaven sake avoid confusing Wahhabism with Islamism. There is absolutely no sign of the latter in Sri Lanka. Just because a handful of bigots have joined the ISIS it does not mean that they are going to create an ISIS vilayet in this country.
Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia