Manipal, India — Wahabbism, the radical Islam currently advancing around the globe, originated in the 18th century as a philosophy designed to counter the moderate, syncretic Islam that was the heart of Turkey's culture, and which the Ottoman Empire had disseminated among its principalities, including those in the Arabian Peninsula.
Quick to sense the potential of the new faith in weaning away regional loyalties from the Ottomans, Britain early on became a backer of the creed, thus ensuring its rise to dominance within the Arabian Peninsula by the dawn of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1980s it spread to much of the rest of the Muslim world.
Today, because of the unstinted financial support of its principal adherents, Wahabbism has become the fastest-growing faith on the planet. It has succeeded in taking over many of the institutions, as well as the physical infrastructure, of the Sunni branch of Islam. Even within the Shiite branch, it has found in the Khomeinists an ideological twin that since 1979 has controlled the largest country in the region, Iran.
Thus far, only Turkey has remained immune to its relentless advance, steeped as that country was in the Sufi traditions that underpin its culture.
Turkey is the only country in the Muslim-majority world – since the Mongol invasions of the continent nearly nine centuries ago – to have conquered territory in Europe. The memory of this still makes a majority of Europeans flinch from accepting this entirely deserving country into the European Union.
The clear double standard of the European Union, which fast-tracked several other countries for membership but has yet to seriously consider Turkey, has sharpened a sense of discrimination in the minds of the Turkish populace. In their minds, it is not the country's human rights or other infirmities that have led to this EU stonewalling, but the fact that Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority of the Turkish people. In consequence, many have begun drifting away from their Sufi roots and responding to the magnetic pull of Wahabbism.
In matters of dress and ritual, a steady process of confluence between Turkey and the predominant power in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, began in the 1980s. Ironically, this was triggered by the 1979-1988 proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As a U.S. ally, Turkey joined with Saudi Arabia in facilitating the advance of the mujahideen against the Soviets and their local accomplices, although far more discreetly than Riyadh.
Contact with the Wahabbi warriors exposed many Turks to the faith that was rolling over the globe, and seems to have resulted in an admixture of Wahabbism with the Sufi syncretism of the Turks. As in other countries, the Wahabbis gained traction as rebels against local corruption and decadence, and by the end of the U.S.-Soviet Afghan war, had succeeded in penetrating into mainstream Turkish society.
Since then Wahhabism has occupied an ever-increasing space, with visible effect on the streets of Turkey, where the casual informality of Western wear is steadily being replaced with closer approximations of the austere garb of the Wahabbis.
Although the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been given the credit – or the blame – for the country's retreat from Westernization, the reality is that the party has been the beneficiary rather than the cause of this shift in popular attitudes.
If the European Union continues its transparent reluctance to admit a Muslim-majority nation into the union, the odds are that by the close of this decade Turkey will be well on the way toward imposing "Sharia" law within the country, thus anchoring it firmly within the geopolitical ambit of Wahabbism.
Farther to the west, in Pakistan, the Taliban is advancing steadily into the cities, now that it controls much of the countryside in one-third of the country. In Indonesia, the gentle Turkish-style Islam that made the world's largest Muslim country such a buttress of moderation worldwide, is being chipped away, with nearly one-fourth of the population now Wahabbi.
The country is heading the same way as Malaysia, where many laws and procedures have a Wahabbi hue, despite the fact that the majority, even of the country's 60 percent Muslims, are moderate and therefore far removed from the faith that was founded by Abdal Wahab three centuries ago.
This apparently unstoppable advance of Wahabbism could yet be reversed, if the most important country in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, would begin to adopt policies to give equal rights to Shiites and treat the different variants of Sunni Islam the same. Such a shift would withdraw oxygen from the Khomeinists that rule Iran, and ensure harmony rather than dissonance between the two great civilizations of the West and Islam.
However, at present, no such change is apparent. Instead, the world is at risk of seeing the victory of Wahabbism over its historical enemy, Turkey.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)