God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modem Jihad by Charles Allen,
Little, Brown £20
/n the 19th century, an ultra-conservative form of Islam grew within two generations from an obscure desert cult into the focus of an international guerrilla war between the world's greatest superpower and a poorly equipped but fanatical band of rebels in Afghanistan. Historians love to make comparisons, of course, but one cannot fault the echoes subtly amplified here by Charles Allen.
Wahhabism originated in the Nejd, a region of Arabia so barren that the Arabs have a saying: "Nothing good comes from Nejd."
It was the birthplace of Mohammed al Wahhab, a holy man who rejected Mohammed's "greater jihad" — the moral struggle — in favour of his earlier "lesser jihad" — the armed struggle. Along with his political ally Mohammed Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty, Wahhab and his followers spread their creed across Arabia at the end of the 18th century.
But what many naively thought an Islamic Reformation was, in fact, the violent reaction of a culture in retreat. The new creed held that those who did not follow Islam to the most pedantic levels were unworthy of life, and, like the Nazis, with whom Wahhabists share so much, it was moral to kill such "kaffirs". And the new cult was indeed handicapped by its wide definition of "unbeliever": visiting the graves of holy men, celebrating Mohammed's birthday, or even just shaving were all grounds for merciless slaughter, as well as the usual puritanical targets of dancing, music and tobacco. Their raiding bands desecrated sacred shrines across the Arab world but went too far in 1804, when they occupied Mecca. Denied their pilgrimage tax, the lethargic Ottomans were finally moved to act, and the brief Wahhabi Empire was put to the sword with brutal violence.
But just as recruits to 'Afghanistan's Soviet war helped to spread jihad worldwide, pilgrims from India in the 1820s were infected with the new ideal. The subcontinent, formerly a Muslim empire but now under
foreign rule, proved a perfect breeding ground for Wahhabism's mixture of youthful rebellion and conservatism. It was among the Radians of the northwest frontier, a race of pious warriors with a strong code of hospitality, that "the Fanatic Camp" was to base itself, on the same soil that bin Laden now occupies.
As with today's version, the ideology inspired an insane level of bravery: the assassin of Colonel Frederick Mackeson died "glorying in his deed of blood", while those sentenced to death after the 1857 mutiny astonished visitors to their cells with their joy in embracing death. But they were up against an opposition intoxicated with their own faith, a very rugged Victorian Protestant Evangelicalism, characterised by men such as Ross Mangles. who carried a comrade on his back for five miles while pursued by the rebel army. The fields of Delhi were fertilised with the graves of British Christians who died with total faith in their God and their Queen. Despite losing many men in 1857 and afterwards, the British won.
While the latter days of the Raj were marked by Muslim withdrawal from public life, in Arabia a Wahhabi dynasty had come to power after the Great War. With the decline of the European empires, the rise of pan-Arab nationalism and a broader Third World anti-western movement. Wahhabism's time had come, taking the place of Fascism and Communism as the third great enemy of the West.
It would need the Saudi Arabian oil bonanza. the coming to power of an Islamist dictator in Pakistan. and the Soviet Union's illfated invasion of Afghanistan to bring Pathans and Arabs together for a new jihad against the "Nazareens", as the Pathans once called their Christian rulers.
Thanks to several billion dollars worth of Saudi funding, today there are over 15m (mainly orphaned) young men educated in Wahhabi-dominated schools in Pakistan, men who have been totally indoctrinated into a school of thought that views the unbeliever's life as worthless.
The fight is far from over.