The September 22, 2001 issue of the British weekly magazine The Spectator is filled with insightful articles about the recent terrorist attacks. Most important, its articles explain the background of the conflict in a way that no American publication has so far managed to do.
The cover story is “Ground Zero and the Saudi Connection” by Stephen Schwartz, who explains who these terrorists are and where they came from. He writes, “For Westerners, it seems natural to look for answers in the distant past, beginning with the Crusades. But if you ask educated, pious, traditional but forward-looking Muslims what has driven their umma, or global community, in this direction, many of them will answer you with one word: Wahhabism.” This sect emerged two centuries ago in Arabia. Schwartz points out that it is violent, intolerant and fanatical. It is also the official theology of the Gulf States and a powerful part of Saudi religious culture.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-92), the founder of the sect, was near where Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia is today. It was from this area that Mohammed himself predicted that trouble, heresy and discord would come. From the beginning Wahhabism has been associated with the mass murder of all who opposed it.
Schwartz goes on to say, “bin Laden is a Wahhabi. So are the suicide bombers in Israel. So are his Egyptian allies, who exulted as they stabbed foreign tourists to death at Luxor not many years ago, bathing in blood up to their elbows and emitting blasphemous cries of ecstasy. So are the Algerian Islamist terrorists whose contribution to the purification of the world consisted of murdering people for such sins as running a movie projector or reading secular newspapers. So are the Taliban-style guerrillas in Kashmir who murder Hindus?”
He makes the point, which is not beyond dispute, that about 80% of mosques in the US are under the control of Wahhabi imams. This estimate was made by the Sufi leader Hisham al- Kabbani. Wahhabism is subsidized by Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis are our allies, at least to an extent, they pay for the spreading of Wahhabi ideology “everywhere Muslims are to be found.
“One major question is never asked in American discussions of Arab terrorism: what is the role of Saudi Arabia?” The question cannot be asked because American companies depend too much on the continued flow of Saudi oil, while American politicians have become too cozy with the Saudi rulers.
“It is the most significant question Americans should be asking themselves today. If we get rid of bin Laden, who do we then have to deal with? The answer was eloquently put by Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, and author of an authoritative volume on Islamic extremism in Pakistan, when he said: ‘If the US wants to do something about radical Islam, it has to deal with Saudi Arabia. The “rogue states” [Iraq, Libya, etc.] are less important in the radicalization of Islam than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the single most important cause and supporter of radicalization, ideologization, and the general fanaticization of Islam.
“In fact, the pilots in the terror attack were all Saudis, citizens of the Gulf states, Egyptian or Algerian. Two are reported to have been the sons of the former second secretary of the Saudi embassy in Washington. It is hard to escape the fact of the Saudi connection. However, the degree to which it extends to the Saudi government, if at all, is unknown.
“The American government does not want to face the fact that while we have sold the Saudis weapons for years and considered them our allies, they now refuse to let us use the bases we established within their borders, specifically in case this kind of situation should arise, so you are not likely to see this information in the U.S. press. That’s why the world wide web is so important, because there is censorship everywhere, sometimes in the name of patriotism or because a government or administration does not want to admit its past mistakes. But while we’re being told that Iraq and Afghanistan are our enemies, we should remember the Saudis and that old Western saying: With friends like these, who needs enemies”
A second article, “Death in the Khyber?” by Philip Hensher, tells of past conflicts in Afghanistan. Most Americans know about the Russian debacle there; and that we aided the Afghan “freedom fighters,” and in so doing helped create the organization that has become Osama bin Laden’s al Quaeda. But how many of us know that the British were defeated there a hundred years before the Russians attacked?
Hensler writes, “External forces have intervened several times in Afghanistan over the years, and each time have met with disaster. The Russian forces in the 1980s were brought to their knees by Afghan resistance, the lessons the British so painfully learned a century and a half before quite forgotten. Once more, those lessons seem to have vanished from the minds of Western leaders.
“In the 1830s, Afghanistan was almost unknown to the west. Travelers reported that it was a mountainous place full of ferocious tribes that were engaged in ceaseless war. It’s leader was Dost Mohammed, a ruthless and intelligent man. Dost Mohammed accepted the gifts and friendship of the British before revealing himself to be opposed to their policy.” He tells how Dost Mohammed played the Russians against the British until the British were able to force the Russians to withdraw from the area.
“In recent days, to return to the contemporary parallel, it has been proposed that in the event of a Western invasion of Afghanistan the long-deposed king, Zahir, should be summoned from his quarter-century exile in Rome and placed at the head of the nation. When the British invaded in 1839, the Zahir role was fulfilled by another deposed monarch, Shah Shujah-ul-mulk. As in the case of Zahir, the British assumed, without having any evidence either way, that their puppet ruler would command the instant support of the Afghan populace. However, they did not consider how unpopular a ruler will be who has been imposed by an invading and alien force. Dost Mohammed had fled by that time and surrendered to the British in November 1840. They gratefully installed him in a palace in India, where he remained, biding his time.
“The British acted the same way they always have, in all the lands they’ve conquered. They introduced Western ideas and culture, assuming they would be seen by the population as more sophisticated, and thus superior, to their own. But peace didn’t last. A mob, commanded by Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar, surrounded the house of one of the ruling generals and killed him, then turned on the British occupying forces. The British tried to negotiate, but Akbar continued the killing, forcing the British army to leave.
“In the dead of the Afghan winter, on January 6, 1842, the British Army of the Indus numbering some 16,500 men, began its retreat.
“It became the most terrible disaster in the history of British arms. The retreat lasted five days and, throughout, Akbar and his forces bore down on the British, killing without mercy. The appalling onslaught by the Afghans, armed with their primitive, brutal muskets, the jezails, combined with the fierce cold of the mountain winter, destroyed the entire British force.
“Of the 16,500 men who began that retreat, the number who reached the British fort at Jalalabad five days later was exactly ONE. Apart from a group of hostages taken by Akbar who were later released, he was the only survivor of the whole army, one of the most magnificent the world had ever seen. The British marched on Kabul and burned down its central market. Dost Mohammed was returned to his throne.
“What must be absolutely plain to anyone who knows anything of the history of Western engagement with Afghanistan: The three terrible wars that the British fought there, or the doomed attempts of the Russians to subdue the country, is that any talk of a clean, swift operation is wildly, baselessly extravagant.”
We live in a world that has just gotten up and brushed itself off after a long Cold War with Russia, during which we did many reprehensible things in the name of democracy. We supported cruel dictators, as long as they were anti-Soviet, and, through the CIA, aided in the destabilization of many countries. Maybe these actions were necessary (only future historians who look back upon this time will be able to judge that clearly). But due to our government’s embarrassment and even shame, we may not hear the truth from our own writers, so it’s important that we continue to turn to those in other countries, who may be more willing to speak the truth.
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