The Changing Form of Jihad in Wahhabi Islam

Monday, January 5, 2009: 11:20 AM
Murray Hill Suite A (Hilton New York)
David Commins , Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA
This paper traces one strand in the genealogy of contemporary jihadi Islam by examining how the Wahhabi doctrine of jihad has served as both a prop for and a call for rebellion against the Saudi dynasty.  >From the creation of the alliance between the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the Saudi chief Muhammad ibn Saud in 1745 until 1929, Wahhabi jihad doctrine justified Saudi expansion.  In recent years, Saudi dissidents have wielded that same doctrine to justify rebellion against the Saudi dynasty.  The path from dynastic prop to subversive rhetoric took place in the wake of the consolidation of the Saudi state.  In the second half of the twentieth century, the discursive setting for Wahhabi doctrine underwent two major shifts.  First, the imperatives of state-building and economic development led Saudi rulers to open the kingdom to millions of foreign workers, many of them Muslim Brothers from Egypt who worked in educational institutions where they propagated politicized notions of Islam.  Second, Saudi foreign policy promoted Wahhabi doctrine in the Muslim world to combat Arab nationalist and socialist influences.  The Wahhabi establishment thus lost control over religious discourse inside and outside the kingdom.  In the 1990s, Saudi religious revolutionaries framed their call to overthrow the dynasty in terms of Wahhabi categories, turning what had long served as a legitimizing discourse for the House of Saud into a rhetorical battering ram.  The lesson to draw from the Wahhabi-Saudi case is the flexibility of discourse on jihad in the context of shifting political currents.
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