Relations between the rulers of Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi clerics that control its religious life, and the Wahhabi-inspired so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) have come under increasing scrutiny in the Arab world and globally.
Like many features of life in the Saudi kingdom, the links between Wahhabism and IS appear ambivalent but now increasingly discernible.
On 22 January in an interview with Middle East Broadcasting (MBC), which is operated from the Gulf state of Dubai, a leading Saudi-Wahhabi cleric declared that the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) followed the ideological principles of the official Saudi sect.
As reported by Middle East Eye, Adel Al-Kalbani, the former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the holiest site in Islam – appeared to justify IS atrocities, including beheadings, on the ground that IS and the Saudi Wahhabi clerics agreed to their legitimacy.
Al-Kalbani said, ‘We follow the same thought [as IS] but apply it in a refined way… They draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, from our own principles’.
He added, ‘We do not criticise the thought on which it (IS) is based’.
Al-Kalbani addressed the killing of journalists by IS, including Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
He said: ‘Their blood was shed according to salafifatwas (religious opinions), not outside the salafi framework.'
Saudi Wahhabi clerics and apologists for them frequently use the term ‘salafi’ to present themselves as emulators of the original companions and successors of Muhammad.
Al-Kalbani said in the MBC interview that Saudi Wahhabis and IS shared the same view of ‘apostates’ or renegades from Islam, calling for their execution.
BBC’s HardTalk programme on 3 February, interviewed General Mansour Al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior, about the Saudi connection with IS.
Al-Turki denied that the kingdom had ever funded terrorism, but admitted there had been ‘misuse of our financial system’.
The interior ministry spokesman insisted, ‘We did not fund any terrorist organisations. We did not fund any.’
He did say, however, that in recent times there had been abuse of the financial structure that existed ‘long before any terrorist organisation’.
According to Al-Turki, donations for alleviation of poverty were diverted to Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda.
To avoid further financial assistance being siphoned off to radical groups, the Saudi government now supervised all charitable activities: a measure that was increasingly resented by Saudi citizens, he added.
IS had carried out 15 terrorist actions inside the kingdom during 2015, killing 65 people, al-Turki said.
Both Saudi Wahhabi clerics and IS accuse Shia Muslims of ‘unbelief’ and therefore of apostasy.
In 2013, Al-Kalbani was barred from receiving a visa to the United Kingdom.
He was reported in the Daily Express to have visited London in 2008, as a guest of Lutfur Rahman, then the head of Tower Hamlets London Borough Council.
Rahman was elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, but he was removed from office later that year for election malfeasance.
When Al-Kalbani was prevented from coming to the UK in 2013, many observers speculated that the cause was his inflammatory rhetoric against Shia Muslims.
Al-Kalbani declared on Arab television that all Shia clerics were ‘unbelievers’.
Saudi authorities try to distance the kingdom from discussion of its doctrinal correlation with IS.
Yet Saudi Arabia is also known for discrimination against Shia Muslims.
Like the Saudi kingdom, IS has established morals patrols or ‘religious police’, and inflicted public beheadings on those it disfavours.
Still, the Saudi government has committed military support to the anti-IS campaign in Syria.
For its part, IS includes the Saudi regime under the rubric of ‘apostasy’.
Discussing IS on MBC last month, Al-Kalbani claimed that IS was a product of foreign powers ‘exploiting’ Wahhabi followers.
He said, ’Intelligence agencies and other countries might have [helped] ISIS [stet] to develop, providing them with weapons and ammunitions, and directing them.’
In 2010, Al-Kalbani was hailed as a liberal Wahhabi for denying that music was forbidden in Islam.
But he also said in 2014 that ‘ISIS [stet] is a true product of Wahhabism‘, and ‘we must deal with it with full transparency’.
It is unclear whether his identification of IS with Wahhabism is intended as a criticism of the ‘caliphate’.
More important, who finances whom is an uncomfortable question for the Saudi state.
Officially, it is illegal to propagandise, raise funds, or recruit for jihad inside Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi rulers are obviously more concerned about IS than they were, in the past, about al-Qaeda.
Dr Madawi al-Rasheed at King’s College, London equates jihadism with Saudi culture.
She writes in Dying for Faith ‘... jihadism is a cultural expression grounded in strong religious interpretation that is indigenous to Saudi Arabia. It is essential to consider the role played by the Saudi regime in creating a context that allows it to grow.
‘In many respects the violence of the jihadis represents a mirror reflecting the violence of the state and its official ulama.’
Until the monopoly over religious life in the kingdom is removed from the Wahhabi sect, more open-minded leaders will be trumped by their dangerous preachers.