The prism through which an event is viewed affects the understanding of its consequences. The conventional Western assessment of the Syrian conflict, as articulated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President François Hollande, is of a “dictator” suppressing his own people and being opposed by “freedom fighters”—a view that emerges from the fact that over the four decades that the Assad family has been in charge in Syria, its appreciation of global events has seldom coincided with that of Washington, London, and Paris. Loath to throw out the “dirty bathwater” of assessments made in situations very different from those of the present, the “zero-based budgeting” approach that practical geopolitics demands in the twenty-first century—of grounding conclusions in present-day realities rather than in historical quasi-analogies—is seldom followed by what may, in shorthand, be termed the “NATO bloc,” although the term in actuality refers more to the original members of the alliance rather than to its more recent additions from Eastern Europe.
The context within which the present Syrian conflict is taking place is, for the purposes of what follows, the growth of both Wahhabism since 1979 and the impact on Wahhabism from defeat or victory for NATO and its allies in the Syrian theater. Since the previous century and even during the last quarter of the nineteenth, Wahhabism has been a boon to key European powers, first as a means of separating Arab sympathies from the Ottoman Turks, then distancing these sympathies from the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasserite-Ba`thist ideology, and subsequently enabling the recruitment of tens of thousands of mujahidin to do battle with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Although the events of September 11, 2001 caused a pause in the strategic collaboration between the West and Wahhabism, matters soon reverted to their earlier course. The mendacity and triumphalism with which history is written by NATO-bloc scholars is illustrated by their analyses of the Afghanistan conflict. After the Northern Alliance swept through much of the country during the closing days of 2001 and the first quarter of 2002, they claimed that the alliance had been backed from the start by the West, when the reality is that the elements later comprising the so-called Taliban were the beneficiaries of financial and other support from the United States and its allies, both European as well as Middle Eastern and South Asian, since the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988–89. Such a rewriting of history has resulted in a blindness to the policy errors of the past and to the frequency with which these errors are being repeated in the present.
Wahhabism represents an existential threat not so much to the West as it does to Islam. The reality of that faith is that the word of God is suffused with a description of the almighty as redolent with the qualities of faith, compassion, beneficence and mercy. The holy texts of all major faiths contain references to struggle and to bloodshed, yet Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism are not perceived as aggressive the way Islam has been since the ascendance of Wahhabism and its theological twin, Khomeinism, since 1979, the year when the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took charge of Iran and elements of the al-Saud family began opening their pocketbooks to Wahhabi preachers worldwide to avoid Reza Pahlavi’s fate. Those within the Muslim umma as well as others who have opposed Wahhabism and are dismayed at its portrayal both within the West as well as by its practitioners as a “pure” form of Islam expected that 9/11 would break the link between the Wahhabis and the West. This has not happened. Indeed, the West has once again become the instrument through which Wahhabism in its myriad manifestations has risen to power in countries across the Middle East. In the case of Turkey, the AKP represents a clear break not only with the country’s Kemalist past but its Ottoman roots, backing a theology that may, for want of a better term, be labeled “Wahhabi Lite.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been skillful in enlisting the backing of his NATO partners in neutralizing the secular Turkish military to the benefit of his avowedly religious party, while the same alliance in Pakistan in effect backs the non-secular Pakistani military in its thus far successful effort to retain its dominance over the elected civilian government.
Since the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011, Western governments have backed the electoral victories of Wahhabi groups functioning under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. In Syria, NATO backs the Muslim Brotherhood in its efforts at wresting control of the country from the Assad dynasty, while for purposes of information warfare within the Middle East, this dynasty has been classified as Shi`a. The reality is more complex. Seven out of ten ministers in Syria are Sunni, as is the spouse of President Bashar Assad. Interestingly, even within the Shi`i community, the Alawites (the sect to which the Assad family originally belonged) are seen as “too Western” in their lifestyles and their beliefs, just as the Druze (another minority in Syria) are not regarded as "proper Muslims” by Wahhabis, despite being Sunni, due to their belief in reincarnation.
Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an shows the remarkable tolerance of its language, as well as the fact that the Day of Judgment is the preserve of the almighty, not that of cabals of maulvis and mullas, the way it is now portrayed during a period when Wahhabism and Khomeinism have superseded classic Islam in much of the umma. Instead of accepting that only on the day of judgment will a reckoning take place between good and evil deeds—characterized and differentiated as such not by the human mind but by the eternal wisdom of the almighty—both Wahhabis as well as Khomeinists take into their own hands the separation of “good” from “evil,” prohibiting and punishing what they believe to be the latter and encouraging those they see as the former.
Given that the almighty is all-powerful, it follows that, for example, if the ingestion of any form of alcohol in any situation were unforgivably sinful, then the very impulse to do so would have been removed from humankind. Certainly human beings have frailties, but the fact is that no human being is even close to the divine in his or her qualities. Hence it is possible to argue that the Wahhabis are wrong to equate character with ritual and with externalities, and that on the day of judgment, those who misuse state power and coercion to inflict their own sartorial and behavioral codes on the rest of the population will be the ones heading toward hellfire. As for those condemned by Wahhabi theology as “sinful,” despite their shortcomings, several may find on the Day of Judgment that the good that they have done has compensated for the effects of “transgressions” in dress and diet that do not in any way harm anyone else, so that their path to heaven is assured. It is fashionable among Western scholars to label Wahhabism as a “pure” form of Islam, whereas in reality the hate, intolerance, and absence of compassion exhibited in its theology and by its practitioners is the opposite of the divine qualities of compassion, mercy and beneficence repeatedly revealed in the Qur’an. While a superficial reading would postulate that Khomeinism is distinct from Wahhabism, at the core the two theologies are similar. Both have contempt for “others” and have an explicit intention to overpower them, as well as hatred toward equal treatment of women and minorities, or indeed, any individual outside their circle of believers. Hence, the halting of the spread of Wahhabism, followed by its rollback and eventual elimination, is vital for the recovery of the great faith revealed to the Prophet 15 centuries ago. Wahhabism and Khomeinism represent not a new golden age of Islam but an effort to plunge the faith into a dark age.
It is in such a context—of the need to halt Wahhabism—that the ongoing conflict in Syria needs to be analyzed. Since the coming to power of Wahhabi Lite and full-blown Wahhabi regimes after the 1980s Afghan conflict, the theology has been almost unstoppable. Wahhabis’ vastly superior organization and access to resources has meant that those Wahhabis who constitute the Muslim Brotherhood took office in Tunisia and Egypt. A decade earlier, the Wahhabi Lite AKP party came to power in Turkey and began the process of reversing not merely the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but the Sufi traditions of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, the very NATO that has backed the religiously-inclined military in Pakistan against its more secular civilian counterpart backed Erdogan in neutralizing the influence of the secular Turkish military. The alliance between Wahhabism and the West, which began during the early years of the twentieth century in a common battle against the Ottoman Empire and continued in the 1950s against Arab nationalists and in the 1980s against the Soviet Union, barely paused for breath after 9/11 before being resumed by George W. Bush’s decision to once again rely on the Pakistani army to find a solution to Afghanistan. In the 1980s, had Pashtun nationalists been empowered to do battle with the Soviet Union rather than Wahhabi fanatics from across the globe, many of the security challenges that the world faces today would have been absent. After 9/11, had the United States and its coalition partners continued to rely on anti-Taliban elements in Afghanistan rather than allow the Pakistani army to first protect the militia and later bring it back into a central role, the United States would not be facing defeat in Afghanistan. Whatever apologists may say, the reality is that the Taliban have been resurrected, and by U.S. policy, which to this day sees this band of thugs as part of the solution rather than as a group that will, if encouraged, send Afghanistan into chaos. Coming to 2011, after Egypt it is Libya that has seen a growth in Wahhabi influence. A country where al-Qa`ida was almost totally absent has today become a base for operations of groups that subscribe to the objectives of that fraternity.
By now, the advance of Wahhabism, including in its most violent forms, has become patent, yet even now NATO persists in facilitating the takeover of yet another country in the Middle East by the Wahhabis, whether they call themselves the Muslim Brotherhood or the Nusra Front. Now that the fate of Muammar Qaddafi has influenced Bashar Assad, it is clear that the calls by NATO or the GCC for him and his regime to trust in the benevolence of their tormentors will go unheeded. Unlike Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi, who for some reason did not go all out in repelling enemy forces, the Assad team is likely to use whatever means are at its command, not to save itself but to take down as many regimes as possible with it. The war in Syria has already morphed into a Shi`i-Sunni conflict, except that it is not Shi`i-Sunni but Shi`i-Wahhabi. The overwhelming majority of Syria’s Sunni population are anti-Wahhabi, which is why by default they have clustered around Assad, whose own spouse is a Sunni and who has been running a much more inclusive administration than that of, say, Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq. Of course, it is best not to mention Shi`i-phobic regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Qatar, all of which practice discrimination against the Shi`a, with no protest from their NATO allies. By backing the GCC in its sectarian and ideological war against the (Shi`i-led and anti-monarchy) Ba`th regime in Damascus, NATO is making the same mistake that Ariel Sharon made in 1982, when Israel took sides in a regional civil war. Sharon’s decision to assist the Maronites in their attack on the Shi`a in Lebanon has made Israel the only country in the world to endure Shi`i terror in a context in which the entire globe is facing the menace of Wahhabi terror. NATO’s backing for the GCC in the latter's efforts at toppling yet another anti-monarchy Arab leader will ensure that Shi`i terror hits the rest of the West as well, in addition to states active in the conflict such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Should the advice of U.S. Senator John McCain be heeded and NATO intervene even more decisively in the Syrian theater, the bloodletting will rise to proportions not seen in the region for centuries. Just as the conflict between Maronite Christians and Shi`a in Lebanon was not Israel’s war, neither is the war between Wahhabis and the Assad dynasty the West’s war. Should Assad emerge victorious out of the carnage, the resultant shock would serve to halt the onward progression of Wahhabism and have ripple effects most immediately in Turkey and Egypt. The moderate majority of Muslims would then get their chance to displace the Wahhabis who have sought to push them back into medievalism, a chance that has thus far been denied to them because of the facilitation that NATO provides to Wahhabism. This is why Assad must win. Those who argue that Assad’s victory would be a victory for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran fail to understand that the Alawites are as removed from the theology and favored lifestyle of Khamenei as chalk from cheese. The two are in alliance because secular forces in the Middle East are often at the receiving end of the backing given by NATO to Wahhabi-favoring regimes. Over time, it is the moderate societal vision of the grand syncretic and diversity-tolerant version of Islam that must prevail. For that to happen, the Wahhabis must first lose the war in Syria.
This contribution is part of MEI's Middle East-Asia Project (MAP).