Mixing Islam and politics: a historical perspective

Tarek Heggy  

(1) In 1891, the Second Saudi / Wahhabi state collapsed, 147 years after the founding of the first Saudi / Wahhabi state (Saudi – named after Muhammad ibn Saud and Wahhabi — named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab).  The Saudi / Wahhabi state was to be headed by the governor of the Saud family (which, according to the fatwa of the family, the Sheikh would be Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his descendants).  Further, the society should abide by the Sharia (religious law), based upon the Hanbali school of orthodox Sunni jurisprudence.  In practice, the Sharia followed within the first Saudi state (established in 1744), was based on the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah.

On January 13, 1902, approximately ten years after the collapse of the Second Saudi state, the young Abdul Aziz Al-Saud was able to capture the city of Riyadh.  Between 1902 and 1934, the first rulers of the Third Saudi state expanded its influence, with the ruling powers being the al-Saudis in combination with the power of the fatwas issued by the al-Sheikh al-Abd al-Wahhab.  This expansion covered more than two million square kilometers.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the United Kingdom decided to unite most of the Arabian Peninsula under one ruler, and, as the British contributed to the rule of this great new state, it could delay the discovery of oil in it.  With this influence, the new state then came under the authority of the new state’s pro-British ruler, and in its next phase, that ruler continued under the authority of Britain’s successor patron in the region — the United States of America.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1934 and in 1938 began production of oil from the largest deposits in the world, located in its Eastern Province.  During the early 20th century, there were two points of view within the British Intelligence Service (MI6).  The first point of view, expressed by St John Philby of the British Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi, believed in the need to unite the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam.  Another opinion — held by T.E. Lawrence of the Bureau of British intelligence in Cairo (the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”), believed in the need to unite the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and al-Sham — Greater Syria and Iraq — under the banner of Arabism (an Arab kingdom).  British intelligence was allowed to work for both of them: the first (Philby) with Abdel Aziz Al-Saud, and the second (Lawrence) with al-Sharif Hussein, King of Al-Hijaz.  Britain decided to side with Philby in retaliation against the Arabs, who had supported the Ottoman Empire during the First World War in 1914 – 1918, during which the Ottoman Empire was on the side of Germany (i.e., the “Central Powers”) against Great Britain and its Allies.  Thus, Britain supported the creation of the state that, in the future, would play an important role in the creation and spread of the ideas of Islamic states. 

(2) In India, prior to independence in 1947, Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi worked as a writer.  It can be argued that the works of Mawdudi are the basis of all that has been written over the years by an Egyptian and influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb. Perhaps the most important idea in all the writings of Mawdudi is the idea of ​​“control”, which states that the Muslim community should not be guided by man-made law and that all provisions of Sharia law should come only from Allah.  One of the most important associates of Mahatma Gandhi was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was a Muslim.  British intelligence working in India did everything to ensure Muhammad Ali Jinnah absorbed the ideas of Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi, which led to the formation of an independent state of Muslims in India.  In 1947, when the Raj relinquished authority, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became the founder of the state of Pakistan, formed at the same instant as the newly independent India.

While India has the largest democracy in the world and promotes statewide pluralism and co-existence, Pakistan has seen many upheavals and was divided into two states in 1971, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh.  An extremely dangerous development is that Pakistan has become one of the largest sources of fundamentalism and terrorism.  Instead of one state, the sub-continent now has three (India + Pakistan + Bangladesh), and mankind has been forced to endure a state that possesses nuclear weapons and has in its territory such groups as the Taliban and al-Qaida.  And while the last British Governor – General of India (Lord Mountbatten) opposed the partition of India, the Bureau of British intelligence (MI6) in Delhi reached its goal as India was forcibly divided, and two large new states were formed solely on the basis of religion.  As I have said many times, every Pakistani (during the creation of Pakistan) was a person who went to sleep on May 12, 1947 as an “Indian Muslim” and awoke on May 13, 1947 as simply a “Muslim”.  After the adjective “Indian” was removed, religion now became the sole basis of Pakistani identity.

(3) The political landscape in Egypt at the time of Hassan Al-Banna tells us a lot.  Starting in 1918 and continuing for nine years, a period of difficulties between Egypt and Britain helped to create an Egyptian patriotic wave, headed by Saad Zaghloul.  This threatened British rule and created a political vacuum.  At the same time, there was another political vacuum being created when in 1924, Kemal Ataturk announced the collapse of the caliphate – the Ottoman Empire.  Parallel to this development, the ruler of the Third Saudi / Wahhabi state, Abdel Aziz Al-Saud, succeeded in driving out the Hashemite seizure of Mecca and Medina and became (in 1926), the King of the Hejaz and Sultan of Najd.  Also at about this same time, a Syrian, Mohammad Rashid Rida, came to Egypt and began to exert great influence on the 22-year-old Hassan al-Banna, whose father (al Banna-al Saati) had come to Egypt from Morocco.  In the midst of all these events, the Bureau of British intelligence in Egypt decided that the time was ripe to create a movement based on a religious rather than a patriotic (or nationalistic) foundation, as the movement of Saad Zaghloul in 1918 – 1927 had been.   

There is evidence that Muhammad Rashid Rida was the one who convinced the young Hassan al-Banna to establish the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.  There is also evidence that the British Embassy supported this.  There are documents proving that the company of the Suez Canal gave a considerable amount of money to Hassan Al-Banna when he founded the Brotherhood, and that it even paid the rent for the headquarters of the Brotherhood in the city of Ismailia.  After the death of Saad Zaghloul in 1927, the United Kingdom felt it was time to eliminate the patriotic movement with which he was associated; a movement that brought Muslims and Christians in Egypt together under the banner of a shared homeland.  Through this process, the United Kingdom supported the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which then destroyed the Egyptian national movement of Saad Zaghloul.

4) The year 1979 saw the birth of a giant wave of Islamic fundamentalism.  With the arrival of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at Tehran airport on board an Air France flight from Paris, the expansion and seething Shiite Islamic fundamentalism began; matched only by a volcanic eruption of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism.  During this same period, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan.  At the same time, the CIA and Saudi intelligence agreed on a plan to create groups of jihadists from among the Afghans and Muslims from other countries to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The western and northern areas of Pakistan became a staging ground for formation of these jihadi groups.  This introduced the Taliban to the global stage along with Al-Qaeda.  The world was now to see more Sunni Islamic fundamentalism than it had ever seen before.

Conclusion: after more than four decades of personal, cultural and political cooperation with Europe and with thousands of Europeans, I have no doubt that the European conscience has never felt any shame or guilt for the numerous documented excesses of its collective colonial history.  There appears to be no sense of guilt in Europeans and Americans towards the countries and peoples they colonized. Most European and American industries and assets could not have been created without slaves and cheap labor,  frequently imported from their colonies.  The history of African slaves in the United States and Europe is a story of ruthless exploitation.  The absence of any systemic objection by the European (and American) conscience regarding their crimes of colonialism reflects another crime –this one of omission, rather than commission — in the lack of respect shown for any “other”, no matter who that other may be.  Further, this crime appears as part of a plan to weaken the “other” by limiting their capacity and opportunity, the consequence of which is to keep this population living under a relative scarcity of human rights, in a pursuit limited to the supply of raw materials and imports, while encouraging purchases of products from Western societies, including weapons.  Learning what the British intelligence did in China a hundred years ago, (when it worked hard to make the majority of the Chinese people abuse opium), can open our eyes.  This may answer the question—why do the intelligence communities of Europe and the United States support the establishment of extremist fundamentalist organizations in most of the Arab and Muslim communities, as well as in a number of African societies?  It has proven to be an effective way to keep these communities in a weakened state, comparable to the drug-induced disability inflicted on China, which was the desired goal of the European colonial powers and their descendants – the United States. 

This does not mean that our societies are completely innocent.  Ideas emanating from extremist fundamentalist organizations that have been used to destroy our societies originate from our history and our reality.  While we may not have been the colonizers, we were certainly complicit to a sufficient extent that we must accept a portion of the blame as well.  

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