Saudi Arabia and IS: how misconceptions lead to disaster

Saudi Arabia and IS: how misconceptions lead to disaster
5 min read
27 Dec, 2015
Comment: False narratives about Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Islamic State group leads us away from truly understanding how extremism works and grows, says Sophia Akram.
The fundamentals of Islam can be shaped in many different ways [AFP]

Last month, Kamel Daouad described Saudi Arabia as a "white Daesh" in a New York Times article, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym. 

This relates to the similarities it their brutal forms of punishment, treatment of women, and attitude towards non-Muslims.

They are one and the same, Daouad said, it is just that one is better dressed and enjoys good with the West.

He further argues that it is Saudi Arabia's export of Wahhabism that has inspired Islamism and jihadi movements.

The link between Saudi Arabia and IS is becoming a popular comparison; but this seems to be another over-simplification the media has taken on a nuanced issue, without taking into account its contextual depth.

Such a link is a fallacy and detracts from the fact that IS is neither Islamic nor a state, two things that Saudi Arabia have managed to represent whether rightly or wrongly.

Whichever way we view it, the two falsely conflated institutions should be disentangled.

Reading the article words such as "Islamism" and "jihadism" are used generously. 

Ten to fifteen years ago these words would be unknown to the public, and might be adopted by just a few Oxbridge professors that have made political Islam their niche bread and butter.

Post-9/11, and the narrative drastically changed as Islam became the cult of interest.

"No it's not Islam, it's Islamism" many receptively pointed out when talking about some of the objectives of al-Qaeda and other "jihadi" groups.

Islamism, described as the politicisation of Islam and implementing it within society, has become a convenient divider between the moderate and the "extreme".

You could follow Islam without being an Islamist, but if you're an Islamist, are you "extreme"?

Fall of the caliph

Ever since the fall of the Caliphate, there have been repeated attempts by Eastern socities to reinstate it, and not always through armed struggle.

In fact its origins came through the ideas of 20th century academics such as Sayyid Qutb, a leading figurehead in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

You could follow Islam without being an Islamist, but if you're an Islamist, are you "extreme"?

It is Qutb's thinking - along with others like him, such as Maulana Mawdudi from Pakistan - that is thought to have inspired the modern radical Islamist groups.

Saudi's equation with Islamism is that it is an Islamic theocracy and therefore the religion is implemented to govern society.

However, its origins comes from an alliance between local chief Mohammed ibn Saud and a hardline religious teacher, Mohammed ibn al Wahhab, who wanted to revert to a purer version of Islam and rid the religion of "innovations".

The ideology related to a conservative notion of Islam - strictly adoping fundamental principles, not lucid interpretation as what they though apparent in the spread of other branches of the religion.

This extended to everything - where the trouble lies is certain clergy's interpretation of its fundamentals.

However, the radical Islamism of today involving the "jihadis" of Western definitions, is not a realm for conservative Muslim alone. It is a port for any radical or revolutionary social movement that is taking exception to the status quo.

IS, along with other radical groups, clearly take a departure from Wahhabism.

Firstly, they are not all borne from Wahhabism but have associations with other sects like Shia Islam, Alawites and Deobandism. The common uniting factor is how they are borne from disenfranchisement and sectarianism however.


IS, along with other radical groups, clearly take a departure from Wahhabism.

Admittedly, Wahhabism's influence is not completely absent - it was a Wahhabi inspired former leader of al-Qaeda that went to support Afghanistan with the Mujahideen anti-Soviet resistance. Later he went on to create one of the vastest terrorist networks the world has ever seen.


IS came into being as an offshoot of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front.

However, the diversion from Wahhabism is clear in its apparent interpretation of sharia law. 

IS' excommunication of anyone that rejects its ideology, enslavement of women and ad hoc beheadings are a few examples of how the extremist group transgresses any form of state-instilled Islamic jurisprudence.

IS' creation, as with many other radical groups, is a culmination of a number of factors and events.

The Iraq war in 2003 was also a direct cause of IS' formation. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - hailed "caliph" by his followers - rose from the ashes of the Baathist-led army's destruction in the war.

It is also the Western empowerment of the Afghan "mujahideen" and other jihadi groups that gave them the power to form coherent paramilitary wings.

Bastardising the origins of IS, therefore, disregards a number of important factors that have been instrumental to its rise.

In addition, the essence of IS' strength cannot be forgotten, which comes not from its ideology but from its ability to mobilise unprecedented numbers to join its ranks.

This has been attributed to methods of modern communication that make the glamorisation of jihad more accessible.

While research highlights this process as deeply complex, it also uniformly points to a dearth in knowledge on Islam.

Therefore, Islamic ideology has little to do with the strength of IS' military force and its recruits are often more attracted to salaries or gains from illegal behaviour.

The fact is also that Saudi is not seen as something to aspire to and only recently did IS declare war onSaudi Arabia.

Therefore, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no desire to be connected to IS and IS wishes to have no association with Saudi Arabia.

To exert the causal link so vehemently is ignorant and potentially damaging to understanding the true nature of the enemy.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East and Asia. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.