Wahhabism vs. Islamism

Lee Smith has a piece in Slate entitled, “Stop Scapegoating the Saudis – Maybe they’re not responsible for everything that ails Islam” in which he draws an interesting distinction:

Muhammad bin abd-el Wahhab, the 18th-century cleric after whom the movement is named, was just one in a series of influential Muslim thinkers who believed that the true path lay in following only the primary sources of Islam—the Quran, the example of the prophet Muhammad, his companions, and their immediate successors. First was Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, a 9th-century Baghdad-born scholar who was so influential he gave his name to one of the four schools of Sunni Islam. Then there was Ibn Taimiya, a 14th-century Syrian jurist who said that it was acceptable to kill a Muslim leader whose rule was bad for the nation.

This was a very important innovation, which the 20th-century Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb turned into a general principle. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took the implication seriously and dealt roughly with the Islamists. Most didn’t suffer the fate of Qutb, executed in 1966, but many Islamists were jailed and others exiled. Some wound up in Saudi Arabia. Since, during part of that time, Nasser was fighting a proxy war with the Saudis in Yemen, he must’ve taken great pleasure that Qutbists were busily publicizing their new ideas in the kingdom, notions like perpetual jihad and death to infidel Muslim leaders.

So, Wahhabism and Qutb-style jihadism issue from the same basic fundamentalist idea, but they differ in a very important way. Insofar as it conjoins the religious establishment with the state, Wahhabism represents an accommodation with political power and a means of exercising it within existing institutions. Islamism is a radical critique of all institutions, in the Muslim world and outside it. The domestic insurgents who’ve attacked the kingdom in the last year are only Wahhabis in name; their program is Qutbist.

In a sense, the Saudis passed on to the rest of the world what the Egyptians handed off to them. It’s ridiculous to scapegoat either for what is a much wider problem in the Arab world, and one, moreover, that’s not going to be solved with a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Playing the Arab world blame game only serves the interests of Arab regimes, not the United States’ and not those of Arab citizens.

Maybe I’m not getting it, but it seems a distinction without meaning. Essentially, the difference between murderous religious zealouts governed by extractionist secular dictators–while heavily constrained by the mullahs– and murderous religious zealouts governed by extractionist mullahs. I suppose the former is slightly preferable to the latter, but hardly something to get excited about.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I thought there was something off about that article, but it hadn’t quite settled.

    Thanks for clearing that up.