October 12, 2006


God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. By Charles Allen. Da Capo. $26.95.

     Written with a scholar’s eye for detail and a popular historian’s flair for the dramatic, God’s Terrorists does a remarkable job of exploring and elucidating the story of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, his fanatical followers, and the ever-increasing fanaticism of those who expanded and precision-honed Wahhabism after its rise in the 18th century.

     This is an excellent book of history but a very poor guide to policy, even though it is for policy guidance and information that most readers are likely to turn to it.  For Wahhabism pervades Saudi Arabia and the terrorists it has spawned, including the followers of al Qaeda; and it underlies the Taliban in Afghanistan and its collaborators and supporters in Pakistan.  Allen forthrightly says, “This history offers no solutions,” and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect policy suggestions from an academic, no matter how skilled a historian he may be.  Yet at a time when Wahhabi-fueled jihad is among the greatest destabilizing forces facing humanity, it seems not unreasonable to expect an expert in the rise, spread and development of that force to have some ideas regarding any possibility of countering it.

     Were the spread of terrorism not so urgent an issue, it would be unfair to criticize the book for what it is not.  Yet were that issue not so important, it is questionable that this book would have been published at this time and have risen quickly to best-seller status in England, a country whose growing Islamic population certainly contains a small but significant number of Wahhabi followers committed to destroying the land where they live and the people with whom they interact daily.

     Allen shows with clarity and care how Wahhabism, originating as a reform movement not unlike Puritanism (which was responsible for some excesses of its own), spread from the Arabian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent.  It was in the 1920s that Wahhabi leaders helped the Saud clan rise to power, creating the super-strict Islamic society of modern Saudi Arabia and indirectly sowing the seeds of hatred in such followers as Osama bin Laden, whose rage is directed as much (if not more) at modern Saudi Arabian rulers as at the West.  It is crucial for anyone trying to understand Wahhabism to realize that this is a movement dedicated to what its followers see as a purified form of Islam.  All who oppose Islamic purity, including Moslems deemed moderate by the West but considered apostates by Wahhabi followers, are appropriate targets for death in holy war.  Wahhabism truly believes that God (Allah) is on its side, and only on its side, and that all who say otherwise are by their nature opposed to Allah and worthy only of death.

     Allen’s book makes these points through exhaustive research and academically careful explanations of who did what to whom, when and why.  This can make for an unpleasantly didactic style at times: “The pusillanimity of the Government of Bengal in failing to order the disarming of the sepoys in Dinapore and in turning its back on Commissioner Tayler’s actions has to be set against the shared determination of the Governor-General of India and Lieutenant-General of Bengal not to further alienate the Indian public, which for the most part had watched the [Sepoy] Mutiny unfold from the sidelines, waiting to see which way the struggle went before coming forward to profess loyalty to the winning side.”  Allen’s balance and care in presenting the various elements of Wahhabism’s rise and spread is admirable, and his knowledge of the 18th- and 19th-century events crucial to the group’s spread is encyclopedic.  But his book is not an easy read, and although historians may welcome its perspective on the development of a dangerous, fanatical cult whose strength continues to surprise Western policymakers, the general reader is likely to find the level of detail excessive and the deliberate lack of attention to the modern consequences of Wahhabism’s spread quite frustrating.

No comments:

Post a Comment