Paul Vallely, one of the more thoughtful commentators on British Muslim life, has written a background piece called “Wahhabism: A deadly scripture” in response to all the botheration over King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s recent state visit to Britain and the release of a recent report on hate literature found in mosques (which I haven’t yet read), probably timed to coincide with his visit, which lays a large part of the blame for this literature on the influence of Wahhabism in the UK. However I would like to clarify a few matters in Vallely’s piece that don’t exactly reflect my current view. This is a matter of interpretation and inference rather than willful misquoting or anything pernicious like that (as Vallely is one of the straight journalists.) Vallely is quoting from an old piece I referred him to, the heart of which was written straight after 9/11, although it was only published four years later. Such is the pace of academic publishing. So for the record:
1. A lot of Saudi funding was pretty benign: it went into infrastructural projects. They rarely looked to control mosques they funded or part-funded. They funded the mosques of preferred sectarian allies. They also funded the mosques of sectarian rivals too, including Sufi mosques in the UK. After 9/11 a lot of this funding has dried up due to internal and external political pressures.
2. More pertinent in my view at the time was, and still is, the impact in the UK of Salafi preachers trained in Saudi Arabia and their mass investment in the dissemination of Salafi teaching through publishing and the internet. This had a negative impact at the time because of the promotion of religious exclusivism and intolerance.
3. Yet British Salafis were among the first to combat the takfiri jihadis and, as I’ve written before, that needs to be recognised.
4. It might be inferred from one quote from me that I think textual literalism opens up the possibility of terrorism. I don’t believe that. But theological intolerance is another matter.
5. As Vallely’s piece rightly argues, mixing up conservative law-abiding Muslims with the few genuinely violent extremists is a big mistake that many are prone to. Of course some ultra-conservative values have implications for cultural integration, but this is an issue that needs to be calmly considered. Preaching hatred and intolerance is no small matter, but neither is the wish of some to forcibly assimilate religious conservatives to secular progressive values. Finding the right balance between preserving diversity and promoting tolerance and solidarity firstly in law and secondly in public culture is essential.
6. As I’ve written before, Wahhabi and Islamist bashing has become a viable career option, and blanket stereotypes can have serious consequences for these people’s basic rights. We need to reach out and work with British Salafis, one reason why I supported the recent Sunni unity pledge. It’s awful to see this kind of material reposted on a website of the execrable BNP for their own pernicious reasons.
7. I used to be comfortable with the use of the term “Wahhabism” but have subsequently changed my mind. There is the self-designation as “Salafi”, but various strands need to be distinguished. Of course that self-designation is contested: most Muslims see the Salaf as comprising the first three generations of the Muhammadan umma, those who come after are the khalaf. But, more in the sociological sense, the term “Salafi” can be used. But there are caveats. The nineteenth century liberal reformers like Afghani and Abduh saw themselves as Salafis. They influenced the Islamist movements. From the sixties onwards this current has merged with “Wahhabism” properly speaking that originated with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This merged form was politicised and puritan and was spread globally with the windfall of oil revenues. There have been political differences since the 1990s after the First Gulf War, and global Salafism/Wahhabism has become very divided on political issues since then. Vallely’s article reflects these subtleties.
8. In Britain since 9/11, some Salafis have sought to move towards Hanbalism, explored the spiritual dimension of the faith, the resources for national belonging and identity and a recognition of our pluralist society and democratic context. Others are doing very serious work on civil liberties. All this should be recognised too.