- January 3, 2007
- 12 minutes read
Dr. DeLong-Bas: MB Is Not Jihadist or Extremist Movement
On December 21, 2006, the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an interview with Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas, who taught this year in the Department of Theology at Boston College and in the Department of Near East and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.In the interview, she said that Wahhabism is not extremism and that the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyed Qutb have nothing to do with jihadism. Dr. DeLong-Bas also indicated that there may be a Western conspiracy against the Arab and Islamic world, and said that she knows of no evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.
In 2004, DeLong-Bas published her doctoral dissertation in book form under the title Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. This book, published by the Oxford University Press, has been highly recommended by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.
According to the book’s jacket, “Ibn al-Wahhab was not the godfather of contemporary terrorist movements. Rather, he was a voice of reform, reflecting mainstream eighteenth-century Islamic thought. His vision of Islamic society was based upon monotheism in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were to enjoy peaceful co-existence and cooperative commercial treaty relations.”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas is a contributor to The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, The Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, and The Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.
The following are excerpts from the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat interview:
“The Extremists in Saudi Arabia are a Mixture of a Number of Elements, and Their Extremism Does Not Stem From the Islamic Religion”
Q: “To begin with, why did you choose to discuss Sheikh Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab in your doctoral dissertation?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “We hear a lot of talk in the U.S. about ’Wahabbi Islam’ and ’the Wahhabis,’ but only in a negative way that depicts them as extremist terrorists and gunmen. [Even] before 9/11, Americans would speak about everyone who opposed the positions of the American government – whether we talk of Chechnya, Indonesia, or Palestine – as ’Wahhabis.’ This was the main reason I chose to discuss Sheikh Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab, because I had a strong desire to know the meaning of the term ’Wahhabi Islam’, and I could not find a single book that talked about Wahhabism and its meaning. This is why I though that it may be the right time to [write] a historical study about Sheikh [Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab] and about Wahhabism…”
Q: “Who do you think were the influences on the extremists in Saudi Arabia?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “The extremists in Saudi Arabia are a mixture of a number of elements, and their extremism does not stem from the Islamic religion, as some think. The issue is more complicated than that. The political conditions in the Islamic world, like the Palestinian issue, which has lasted 60 years, [the issue of] Iraq, and the American government’s tying [the hands of] the U.N. [and preventing it] from adopting any resolution against Israel, have definitely added to the Muslim youth’s state of frustration, which then pushes them to – as they understand it – help their brothers do away with the aggression against them, in the various Islamic countries… [This is happening] at a time in which all political options have been closed off. That is why I believe that religion has nothing to do with this. The activities of the [Islamist] groups stems from the escalation of the crises in the region, which causes this frustration which ultimately leads to nothing but armed operations…”
“I Saw a Lot of Tolerance” in Sheikh Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab’s Books
Q: “There are Muslims – whether ordinary people, intellectuals or even clerics – who criticize some aspects of Wahhabism as being extremist, and some believe that Wahhabi preaching contributed to instilling the tendency to religious extremism. What do you say about this?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “In my reading in Sheikh Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab’s books and his interpretation of the principles of faith, I saw a lot of tolerance and civilized [thinking], much more than is applied today. The important thing now is to examine [the views of] his students and see whether or not they are faithful to what he said and taught…”
Q: “There are those who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood’s writings and agenda in Egypt of being the principle source from which the extremist in Saudi Arabia have taken [their views], and of being the cause for the start of religious extremism. Do you agree with this opinion?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “Hassan Al-Bana was not a jihadist or an extremist. The only thing he sought was how to be a true Muslim in everything one does and says. Al-Bana in no way called for any revolutions, nor did he order the assassination of Gamal ’Abd Al-Nasser – something of which he has been accused in the past.
“Often the West ties together Sayyed Qutb’s books and the ideology of jihad, and this is not true. Sayyed Qutb employed philosophical investigation [to distinguish] between evil and good in the world, and his book Fi Zilal Al-Koran [’In the Shade of the Koran’] was one of the first books that [went beyond] what was said in previous interpretations of the Koran, and tried to interpret the Koran in a way that is understood and relevant to our times…”
Q: “Do you agree with those who [claim] that Sheikh ’Abd Al-Wahhab tied together religion and politics?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “Not at all. Sheikh Muhammad Ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhab had no political motives. His efforts were limited exclusively to religious da’wa.”
Q: “How do you interpret the rise to power of Islamic groups in a number of Islamic countries like Egypt, Palestine and Somalia, and do you believe that the rise in their popularity stems from the recent political circumstances?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “The first reason [for the rise in their popularity] is their effectiveness, and the second is the citizens’ grievances against the existing governments and their demonstrations against those governments, [which stem from the fact that] those governments ignored the people’s concerns. [In addition, even though] the U.S. made an effort to implement democracy in the Middle East – efforts that did not rise to the level of what Hamas has achieved, for example – we need to give them more time. Also, I believe that the Islamic groups have clearly demonstrated their agendas in their political and reformist activities in the fields of medical care and education…”
Q: “Do you think then that the political Islamic groups have more credibility than others?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “Yes. That is the case, and this is because they are well familiar with the concerns of the people and their needs…”
Q: “Did your writings convince the opponents of Sheikh Muhammad bin ’Abd Al-Wahhab and the relevant [political] circles in the U.S.?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “Some were convinced. Others still persist in their point of view, but it was the response of academics in the university which captivated me the most. Those who have had the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia and stay and work there, and who have [understanding] of the Middle East, showed great interest in what I said. On the other hand, there are academics who have a particular political agenda. Some of them tried to criticize the substance of the research and to say that it was not academic. At the end of the day, my book provided a new opening for debate about an important issue, and I hope that my book will help to answer the questions I raised.”
Q: “In your opinion, why do you think that Al-Azhar at first refused to [allow] the publication and distribution of your book in Egypt, even though it later allowed it?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “I think that the title of the book, Wahhabi Islam, made them think that perhaps it was hostile to Islam and defamed religious figures. Afterwards, Al-Azhar justified its refusal on the grounds that the book touched on sensitive issues.”
“I Do Not Want to Believe in the Existence of This Sort of [a Conspiracy Against the Arab and Muslim World], Even Though… the Intervention in All the Affairs of the Arab Region Raises a Number of Concerns”
Q: “This is your second visit to Saudi Arabia. Are you on vacation, or do you plan to write another book on Saudi Arabia?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “I came to Saudi Arabia for both reasons. I am here with my husband and my two sons because I want them to get to know Saudi Arabia so they can see for themselves that everything that is said about Saudi Arabia in the U.S. is inaccurate. On the professional side, I am currently writing a book that deals with the clash of civilizations and discusses ’the jihad for the spirit of Islam in the contemporary Saudi state’…”
Q: “What about Osama bin Laden – do you think that he was behind 9/11?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “I think that the Western media and the world have given Osama bin Laden more weight [than he has in reality] and exaggerated in depicting the danger he poses. Likewise, I do not find any evidence that would make me agree that Osama bin Laden was behind the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. All we heard from him was praise and acclaim for those who carried out the operation.”
Q: “Do you believe in the danger posed by the expansion of the Al-Qaeda organization into other areas?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “I believe that this may be possible in the event of war breaking out in Iran, in which case we will see [Al-Qaeda’s] presence there.”
Q: “Many intellectuals in the Arab and Islamic world are preoccupied with discussing the question of a Western conspiracy [targeting] the Arab and Islamic societies. Do you believe in this ’conspiratorial’ point of view of everything that goes on in the region?”
Dr. Natana DeLong-Bas: “There is enough evidence to indicate the possibility of the existence of such a conspiracy, according to those who endorse this theory. As for me, I do not want to believe in the existence of this sort of thing, even though what is happening nowadays – the intervention in all the affairs of the Arab region – raises a number of concerns.