Southeast Asia in danger of adopting dangerous Wahhabi ideology, says Dennis Ignatius
Could the kind of Islamic extremism that has been wreaking havoc in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and other countries take root in Southeast Asia? Dennis Ignatius, a retired Malaysian diplomat, thinks it’s entirely possible. And if it happens, he would lay the blame at the doorstep of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Already, said Ignatius, there are troubling signs of a growing extremism in his native Malaysia and other countries of the region: heretofore moderate Muslims adopting a more rigid view of Islam versus the world, debates over whether to adopt Sharia law, and greater restrictions on public displays of religion among non-Muslim communities.
Where is the trend coming from?
"Security experts increasingly point to the Wahhabi ideology that is being aggressively exported by Saudi Arabia as the single biggest cause of extremism in the region," Ignatius wrote recently in The Malaysian Insider.
Ignatius, who served in London, Beijing and Washington and other world posts, spoke with Aleteia Tuesday about the worldwide threat posed by Wahhabism and what can be done about it.
Over the past year, a group calling itself the Islamic State has grabbed headlines for its swift takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria and its brutal treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims. Is their brutality an indictment of the religion of Islam, as many in the West might argue?
I don’t see it’s an indictment of Islam per se but of a very narrow, fundamental and extremist interpretation of Islam that has come to be known as Wahhabism, sometimes referred to as Wahhabi-Salafism.
Wahhabi Islam, the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a truly virulent interpretation of Islam that breeds contempt, hatred, intolerance and suspicion of other faiths, other cultures and systems of government. It is a worldview that’s premised upon an existential struggle between Islam and the rest of the world, and there’s no room for compromise or accommodation. Wahhabis insist that only Islam—and a very narrow interpretation of it at that—is valid, and there’s no room for anything else. Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Islam, called it a fanatically destructive form of Islam. And that’s what it is. Admiral James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, said that Wahhabism represents “an extraordinarily serious ideological threat, a totalitarian movement masquerading as a religion.”
To my mind, it is this ideology that underpins so much of the Islamic extremism that you see in the world today, and it is this that is principally responsible for the hate and violence against Christians, Jews and others, and I might add, against other Muslims as well, who do not share the same ideology. Don’t forget that more Muslims have been slaughtered by groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban than anyone else. And many Muslims across the world are rightly horrified by this narrow interpretation, an interpretation that they argue is very much against the essence of their own faith.
In your article, you write about the “exporting” of Wahhabi ideology to Malaysia. Who is behind this move?
I think it’s abundantly clear that the Wahhabi ideology is funded, supported and exported principally by Saudi Arabia. It has been estimated that since 1975, the Saudis have invested at least $100 billion in their Wahhabi adventure. I’ve come across some statements by scholars who put the figure as high as $200 billion. It’s not just being exported to Malaysia but all over the world. Some reports suggest that, for example, 80% of the religious schools in Pakistan, which provided many recruits for the Taliban and other jihadi groups, are supported and funded by Saudi Arabia.