By Tony Litwinko
On December 21st “Ending Saudi Extremism” was the subject of the inaugural Bustany-Kasem Friendship Forum, held in partnership with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and The Markaz at the Harmony Gold Theatre in Hollywood. Special guest Terence Ward, the American documentarian, writer and consultant, presented his latest book, The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally. His interlocutor was Ani Zonneveld, the founder of Muslims for Progressive Values and a key player in the new Alliance of Inclusive Muslims. (See video here.)
The real introduction to the program, however, was delivered by Kerri Kasem, the daughter of Casey Kasem, the famed DJ and radio personality, and long-time friend of Don Bustany, who is perhaps best known for his long-running public affairs program, “Middle East in Focus” on radio station KPFK (the two are pictured together below circa 1975). Kerri Kasem gave a short and relevant introduction, outlining the history of the conflict in Yemen and how the ousted president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had fled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in 2015 and enlisted the aid of the KSA, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries—including the United States—in making war upon the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, a conflict that has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
Kasem also had some excellent comments about the Israel/Palestinian conflict, the plight of refugees and immigrants throughout the world, and the “unfinished” struggle of the Arab Spring. Alfred Madain spoke very briefly on behalf of the Markaz and welcomed the audience.
Terence Ward and Ani Zonneveld were introduced by Alexander Besserman, the head of the LA World Affairs Council, whose introductions got to the heart of the matter with both speakers—Zonneveld comes from the perspective of an accepting and loving Islam, taking to heart the role of women in Islam, and Ward is one who speaks truth to power, representing those who feel that their Muslim faith has been high-jacked and placed under siege by D’awa Wahhabism. In private, Besserman confided, members of the Muslim community will tell you of the negative influence of Wahhabism, but they are silent in public. Why the silence? Money buys censorship, fearful editors and timorous politicians; money and oil have purchased influence and made inroads. And we in the west remain largely unaware.
This talk couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, three months into the controversy over the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, the Saudi journalist and writer for the Washington Post, on Oct. 2, 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Terence Ward’s book, written in the form of a personal memoir—an attempt to explicate the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, and to unravel their origins to his teenage niece and her school friends in Florence—is a compact volume written in plain language. The book is the result of his many years of living in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries.
The dialogue between the two speakers proved particularly informative: first, Ward presented a short history of the origins of Wahhabism, stressing that up until its emergence in the late 18th century, Mecca, the center of Islamic faith, had been a Sufi capital for a thousand years. He noted that Sufis take a position that Allah is a God of love, of chanting, music, and dance. But being part of Shia Islam, Sufism was seen by Ibn Wahhab—the theologian and founder of the Wahhabi doctrine in 1744—to be heretical, or haram. In fact, according to Wahhab, all believers of versions of Islam other than his were to be condemned, excommunicated, put to death, and their property seized or destroyed.
For proponents of this extreme ideology, history becomes irrelevant and its signposts can be demolished—witness the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria, or the Taliban’s wanton destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. (ISIS destroyed much of the Arch of Triumph ruins, left, in 2015.)
In one of her apposite comments, Ani Zonneveld pointed out that Wahhabism is not a “puritan” version of Islam but a distortion, especially of Islam’s inclusiveness.
In the ensuing dialogue between Ward and Zonneveld, the latter mentioned the “fear factor” that operates even among moderate Muslim speakers. Ward concurred, giving an Egyptian example: if a student speaks out publicly, the secret police (Mukhabarat) will break in the doors of his parents’ home within 24 hours. President Sisi cannot speak the truth because money has bought his silence.
Zonneveld, who was raised traditionally in Malaysia, spoke of how the majority Muslim population lords it over the 30% Chinese and 20% Indian minorities. Her own family no longer communicates with her because she has spoken out about how the Wahhabi versions of the Koran have interpolations that are not in the original text.
Terence Ward followed up by pointing out that there are more Muslims in in Malaysia than in the entire Middle East, but nonetheless Mohammed Bin Salman in 2012 was welcomed there by Muslim leaders as the “guardian of Mecca.” The KSA has only been in control of Mecca since 1924, but Muslims and non-Muslims both regard KSA as having been the rightful caretakers from the beginning.
Ward went on to say that Islamic publishing houses and media outlets are owned by the Saudis, and that the World Muslim League and Muslim charities have been financed by the Saudis and have been instrumental all over the world. He stressed that imams of many communities have been educated in Mecca. Before the appearance of Progressive Muslim influence in the UN, many human rights abuses had been tolerated, such as child marriages. The most powerful weapon for the Saudis, however, is in the issuing of quotas for the pilgrimage to Mecca. No longer can any Muslim travel there. Each country is given a quota—the more supportive of Wahhabism, the higher the quota.
Additionally, Ward pointed out that worship at the Kaaba (considered by many Islam’s most important mosque) took place over 1,000 years before the rise of Wahhabism 200 years ago, and prior to KSA’s control of Mecca nearly 100 years ago.
Wahhabism appears to abhor history. In Egypt, for instance, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is a big holiday, while in Saudi Arabia it is haram. KSA has destroyed countless historical sites, including the house of the Prophet’s wife Khadija in Mecca, which has been built over by a public men’s toilet. There is even talk of destroying the cave in which Muhammad received the words of the Koran.
Both the UK and the US have played an unfortunate role in allowing this to go on, giving a green light to Saudi Arabia, tolerating their bankrolling of Islamic State actors and other groups, as well as Saudi backing of the Taliban.
In an insightful anecdote, both Ward and Zonneveld pointed out that in Malaysia, puppet shadow shows are a cultural treasure, but they are condemned by Wahhabism, even though the spread of Islam in Malaysia itself was facilitated by the puppet shows.
In his book, Ward quoted Fareed Zakaria’s insistence that it is not Iran but Saudi Arabia that is the world’s primary sponsor of terrorism, through the funding of thousands of madrasas and mosques that preach Wahhabi extremism.
During the Q & A following the discussion, a man who identified himself as a Christian—the brother of the most decorated chaplain in the Vietnam War, he noted—said that he had lived in Saudi Arabia for 41 years and had just returned the night before. He declared that Terence Ward’s picture of KSA was false. Ward replied that all the sports cars and rock bands being brought to the country could not counteract the Wahhabi exports. Why has the west sat idly by while Wahhabism has become weaponized? Would the gentleman like to see KSA receive nuclear capability?
Another questioner feared that the loss of Saudi oil would be catastrophic, to which Ward replied that at the recent United Nations climate change conference, only three countries—Russia, USA, and KSA—vetoed the final proposal, showing that they did not support efforts to fight the effects of climate change with alternative energy options.
Zonneveld ended the presentation with wonderful quotes from the poets Hafez and Rumi, and referred to Mohammed’s favorite prayer, about light and illumination.