AL-ANKARY: SAUDI ARABIA'S WAHHABIS ARE NOT SPREADING
Francis Fukuyama Distorts Islam as much as Osama bin Laden
Dr. Khaled M. Al-Ankary, the minister of higher education of Saudi
Arabia and chairman of the Islamic Conference on Higher Education, is
a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. He spoke with Global Viewpoint
editor Nathan Gardels in Rabat, Morocco, last week.
NATHAN GARDELS: The Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia has come under
increasing attack for spreading intolerant Islam around the world and
fostering the likes of Osama bin Laden and most of his suicide hijackers.
Recently, Francis Fukuyama has said "the present conflict is not
simply a fight against terrorism, nor against Islam as a religion or civilization,
but rather with Islamo-fascism -- the radically intolerant and anti-modern
doctrine'' that has arisen in the Muslim world. "A strong finger
of blame points at Saudi Arabia,'' Fukuyama contends. "Wahhabi ideology
easily qualifies as Islamo-fascism: a textbook mandated for use in Saudi
10th-grade classes explains that 'it is compulsory for Muslims to be loyal
to each other and to consider the infidels their enemies.' ''
As a leading member of the Saudi government in charge of education, what
is your response?
KHALED AL-ANKARY: Well, Francis Fukuyama's understanding of Islam
and the Koran seems as distorted as Osama bin Laden's. And Bin Laden is
not a "Wahhabi'' at all. In his educational transcripts, he had only
eight credit hours in religious studies!
I was brought up in Saudi Arabia and attended the 10th grade but was never
taught from a textbook that said such things; and there is no such teaching
This sounds like a quote taken out of context. Fukuyama's background surely
does not qualify him for the important task of interpreting the Koran.
From the American experience you know that learned men and women are needed
to interpret the U.S. Constitution, the intent or meaning about which
many, whether strict constructionists or liberals, may disagree as to
its true meaning.
The same logic applies to reading and interpreting the Koran. When citing
the Koran, one has to know the reason(s) and the circumstances behind
each passage in order to fully comprehend its context and meaning. The
Koran has to be taken as a whole and not by selective reading which serves
one's interest and argument.
I will give you one simple example. There is a passage that starts with
"DO NOT PRAY.'' One can claim the Koran forbids praying. But this
passage continues to say "WHILE YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL.''
Again, one can claim the Koran permits drinking alcohol, just not while
praying. However, if this passage is read within its context and its historical
circumstances, as an Islamic scholar usually does, one would know this
passage entered the Koran at a time before alcohol was forbidden, and
later understood as a step in a gradual program toward forbidding alcohol
Muhammad bin Abulwahhab's movement (whose followers you call "Wahhabis'')
is a reformation call that started in the 18th century to go back to the
purest, simplest roots of Islam as contained in the Koran and the direct
sayings and traditions of the Prophet. And nothing more.
Abdulwahhab believed there should be no intermediary between the faithful
and their Maker. He opposed all (ital) bid'h (unital), or unwarranted
innovations, in the faith after the early era of Islam. Religion for him
was supposed to create simplicity in a Muslim's life, not difficulties.
Most of the stigma given to "Wahhabism'' is probably due to historical
ideological divisions rather than the actual teachings of Muhammad bin
Abdulwahhab himself. Like other Saudis, I do not agree with using the
term "Wahhabism'' because I think this may lead people to believe
is a new version of Islam, which is definitely not the case.
GARDELS: Yet, Abdulwahhab thought all innovation was tantamount
to polytheism and against the unity of God. Isn't that the source of the
charge that infidels -- those not believing in the one God of Allah --
must be fought?
AL-ANKARY: The teaching of Abdulwahhab's reform movement is to
believe in the unity of God, yes. But the Koran is very clear there can
be no compulsion in religion.
One can judge the so-called "Wahhabism'' by the history of Saudi
Arabia over the past two centuries and see the country (which is supposed
to be embracing Wahhabism) as a peaceful, moderate source of stability
in the region. This is the best proof of the invalidity of the argument
that so-called "Wahhabism'' is subversive to others.
GARDELS: So "Wahhabism'' doesn't sanction intolerance and
AL-ANKARY: If someone in Saudi Arabia doesn't agree with the government,
following the Wahhabi teachings, they are not called upon to be violent
or aggressive, but to engage in peaceful consultation and advice -- Shura
-- to solve disputes and seek consensus -- Ijma. Any other way is
against the Book.
One can also judge this by studying Saudi Arabia in the pre- and post-Wahhab
era. Before this reform movement there was hatred and animosity. This
movement was successful in making people more respectful of others and
peaceful toward them. It has managed to transfer loyalty from warring
tribes to statehood. Saudi society is now composed of people from different
tribes who live together in harmony.
GARDELS: Another charge, this time from the Wall Street Journal
op-ed page by a retired U.S. military officer. He writes: "The obvious
source of fundamentalist terrorism, subversion and hatred is Saudi Arabia
... the Saudis themselves have engaged in a decades-long campaign to destabilize
secular and relatively tolerant regimes throughout the Muslim world ...
the syncretic, easygoing version of Islam that prevailed in Indonesia
is anathema to the Wahhabi vision of religion ....'' Your response?
AL-ANKARY: I totally disagree with this. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia
has taken a moderate position in its relations with the international
community, winning the respect of moderate Muslim states and the West.
Through institutions from the Gulf Cooperation Council to the World Bank
we have assisted Islamic and non-Islamic countries alike in development.
If anything, Saudi Arabia has been subject to criticism from some Arab
and Muslim countries for being too moderate and too close to the West,
mainly the United States.
In everything written or said about Saudi Arabia over the past 30 years,
I have never seen or heard until now about efforts to destabilize any
Muslim country. I end up wondering what the Arab and Islamic world would
look like today without the balanced and moderate leadership role played
by Saudi Arabia.
GARDELS: What about the charge that the Saudis are financing extremists
by supporting radical mosques and "madrassas'' (religious schools)
across the world?
AL-ANKARY: Let me be more specific and comment on institutes and
schools that are the responsibility of my ministry.
First, these schools have been opened in response to requests from both
the people and the governments of the countries in which they are established.
Second, they have been providing quality education (not just Koranic studies)
for people who otherwise would not be educated. Third, they are in close
coordination with the government as well as other schools and institutes
in these countries. If they were accused of inspiring extremism, these
countries would close them down since they operate with licenses from
education authorities in the host country.
Finally, I have never seen evidence of extremist instigation in schools
we sponsor. And if there is any, I would, in my official capacity, be
the first to know.
GARDELS: Critics say that since so many suicide hijackers came
from Saudi Arabia, there must be something in the school system that lays
the groundwork for them becoming terrorists. As a minister in charge of
education, how do you respond to that?
AL-ANKARY: This year, 200,000 students have graduated from high
school in Saudi Arabia; 175,000 students graduated the year before. If
a handful of these students is accused of being terrorists, then does
that mean one can overgeneralize and label the whole education system
as fostering extremism?
Is there any logical or statistical validity to this argument? If so,
the education system in the United States also needs an overhaul due to
the shootings at Columbine or the events in Waco, Texas. If so, then the
United Kingdom system needs to be changed because of the IRA.
GARDELS: The post 9-11 reaction against Saudi Arabia could be coming
from within the broader values of American society. Saudi Arabia is seen
not only as a country that supported the Taliban's oppression of women
but oppresses women at home. The women's constituency in the West, and
in the United States in particular, is far more influential than the Israeli
AL-ANKARY: First of all, it is unfair and incomprehensible to compare
woman's rights in Saudi Arabia with Taliban. Saudi women have equal rights
to men in education, jobs, social welfare and almost all other facets
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has been under scrutiny in recent
years. Still, there are many facts that people in the West are not aware
The growth rate of female students is faster than the rate of male students.
More than half (55 percent) of higher education students in Saudi Arabia
are female. There are a significant number of female faculty in Saudi
higher education institutions who were educated in the West through government
scholarships. And this is for a country much younger than others where
women have far fewer opportunities.
Another point: There are pillars of the Islamic faith that Muslims are
bound to abide by because they are direct teaching of the Koran and the
Prophet -- the oneness of God, praying, charity, fasting, Haj and so on.
But there are many other areas subject to varying interpretations by scholars.
It is in these areas where social traditions are confused with religious
teachings. For example, there is no statement in the Koran or the Prophet's
teaching that forbids women from driving cars. Whatever one may think
of that, it is not an Islamic issue.
Finally, I believe the women's rights issue is exaggerated because people
in the West try to overextend their value system to other societies which
have their own way of defining a fair system of human rights.
(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 1/22/02)