Arabism, Islamic history, media power, Syrian history, Western Colonisation

You Can take the Religion out of Politics but you Can’t take the Politics out of Religion

A very selective analysis

This may be a bit unfair but I’m writing the next couple of entries in conjunction with a critique of a BBC radio 4 programme, as it brought up many interesting points, that are begging to be expanded upon.The r4 programme on Wahabiizm was aired on Monday 10th February and put an interesting spin on the movement, as it began promisingly with an account of its principles; but degenerated into a very political and self-righteous perspective. The programme failed to explore the role of the European colonisers of the region at that time. I guess to give a voice to the two men, featured in the programme, who were modern-day Wahabiizt disciples, as well as the other commentators.

Britain and the Ottomans

I think it is fair to say, that for Britain, the Ottomans played a major role in their relationship with France, as they all battled for power in Arabia. Sir Reader Bullard describes how the French were extremely friendly with the Turkish during the late 18th century; much to the annoyance of Britain, who then enjoyed a close relationship with Russia. Russia was keen to expel the Ottomans and reinstate the Christian Byzantine state in Constantinople (now Istanbul); under its ambit. Empress Catherine (with some support from Britain), finally secured an interest in the internal affairs of Turkey, including a fairer deal for the Christian population. The  empress retained Russia’s interests in the Black sea and William Pitt the younger (by then the tory prime minister of Britain) became nervous.

Pitt and Charles James Fox, a whig (the party that metamorphosed into the liberal democrats), disagreed on policy and supported Turkey and Russia respectively. The power struggle that took place between British ministers was far more complex but suffice to say, the two political parties joined ranks eventually. Mainly because Britain allied with Russia and Turkey to prevent the French, under Napoleon, from invading Egypt.
Back to Arabia

This particular adventure is important to Arabic history in more ways than one, as Napoleon was thought to be heading for India. In response, Britain occupied Aden in South Yemen, where they remained for centuries. Sir reader tells the story of the Wahabiiz, in the early 19th century and their relationship with the pirates, who repeatedly attacked the East India company (founded in London) and the transporter of cotton, silk and opium, among other commodities. These actions are reminiscent of those of the modern-day Somalian pirates, just taking back what is rightfully theirs?

Pirateering or privateering?

Sir Reader also describes how harsh measures were taken by the British navy to combat piracy and how it produced naval surveys of the waterways, which harboured the pirates and how these surveys were extended to the whole of the Gulf. Reading between the lines, the Wahabiiz may have been considered a threat to Britain and its colonisation plans, in any event they were a force to contend with.

A note about the Yemen: it appears to be an important destination, in its role of securing trade routes and the spread of Islam, as everyone, Britain, France, the Wahabiiz, the Pasha family and even the neo- Sufis, made a beeline for it. I’ve heard its an interesting country, very mystical and of course, Britain is still interfering there.

Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahab
The r4 programme discussed the philosophy of Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahab, the founder of the movement; this will be discussed in the next entry (already underway). Natana Delong-Bas, an American academic, described how the movement became more aggressive after the death of al-Wahab.This is hardly surprising as the world and his wife appeared to lay claim to as much territory as possible. During the lifetime of al-Wahab, the movement had developed a political edge, as it was adopted by the family of Ibn Saud, who vowed to promote  al-Wahab’s teachings to neighbouring regions in Arabia. As is well known, this resulted eventually in the establishment of the state of Saudi Arabia.

You will remember from an earlier publication in this blog, that the Wahabiiz were driven out of Medina and Mecca and were defeated by the Pasha family. The main reason being, that they wished to establish a separate state in the Gulf, which opposed Ottoman rule. According to Peter Mansfield, in 1806, Amir Muhammed al-Saud occupied Mecca and had ”the public prayers held in his name instead of that of the Ottoman sultan”, a challenge and a half to the Ottoman empire, which was declining.

Of course the BBC, never missing a trick, when it comes to promoting sectarianism, focused on the sacking of Karbal and Najaf, Shia areas in Iraq. This action is said to have occurred because the Wahabiiz doctrine is opposed to the worship of idols, it has to be remembered too, that Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahab spent time studying theology in Basra, South Iraq and just for the record, a Shia area.


Whilst on the subject of Iraq, I can’t quite understand the animosity towards Arab nationalism, attributed to the Shia population, that appeared to provoke Britain’s intervention in that region in 1990. Kuwait and its cohort Saudi were hardly friends to the Shias and the question of majority rule is far more complex, than religious struggle.

Now the Shias are in charge in Iraq, are they representative of the total population? The inter marriage between Sunni and Shia was banned when Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq was deposed and life has certainly got harder as the infrastructure was destroyed. The governance of the country appears to be in the hands of a handful of oil barons and their families, a familiar story for the gulf, but not for modern-day Iraq surely.


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