The real Muslim extremists

War on Terror: Saudi Arabia - Bin Laden and his gang are just the tentacles; the head lies

The hijackers responsible for the 11 September outrage were not illiterate, bearded fanatics from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were all educated, highly skilled, middle- class professionals. Of the 19 men involved, 13 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Their names are recognisable. The three al-Ghamdis are clearly from the kingdom's Hijaz province - the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Mohammad Atta, born in Egypt, travelled on a Saudi passport.

Regardless of whether Osama Bin Laden gave the order or not, it is indisputable that the bulk of his real cadres (as opposed to foot soldiers) are located in Egypt or Saudi Arabia - America's two principal allies in the region, barring Israel. In Saudi Arabia, support for Bin Laden is strong. He was a close friend of the Saudi intelligence boss Prince Turki Bin Faisal al-Saud, who was dismissed in August apparently because of his failure to curb attacks on US personnel in Riyadh. The real reason, however, was probably his refusal to take sides in the fierce faction fight to determine the succession after the death of the paralysed King Fahd. Both sides are aware that too close an alignment with the US could be explosive. That is why, despite its support for the US, the Saudi regime is not "allowing its bases to be used".

Normally, the Saudi kingdom receives little coverage in the western media. The ambassadors report to their respective chanceries that all is well, and that the continuity of the regime is not threatened. It requires the imprisonment of a US or British citizen, or a British nurse to be chucked out of a window, for attention to focus on the regime in Riyadh. Even less is known about the state religion, which is not an everyday version of Sunni or Shi'a Islam, but a peculiarly virulent, ultra-puritanical strain known as Wahhabism. This is the religion of the Saudi royal family, the state bureaucracy, the army, the air force and Bin Laden - the best-known Saudi citizen in the world, believed currently to reside in Afghanistan.

Sheikh Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the inspirer of this sect, was an 18th-century peasant who tired of tending date palms and grazing cattle and began to preach locally, calling for a return to the "pure" beliefs of the seventh century. He opposed the excessive veneration of the prophet Mohammad, denounced the worship of holy places and shrines, and stressed the "unity of one god". He also insisted on Islamic punishment beatings and more: adulterers should be stoned to death; thieves should have limbs amputated; criminals should be executed in public.

Religious leaders in the region objected when he began to practise what he preached, and the local chief in Uyayna asked him to leave. In 1744, Wahhab fled to Deraiya and won over its ruler, Mohammad Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty that today rules Saudi Arabia. Saud and his successors used Wahhab's revivalist fervour to inculcate a sense of proto-nationalism among the tribes fighting the Ottoman empire in what Wahhab called a jihad, or holy war. Two centuries later, they laid the foundations of what is now Saudi Arabia.

The discovery of liquid gold changed the region for ever. Fearful of competition from Britain, the US merged the petrochemical companies Esso, Texaco and Mobil to form the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). This link, established in 1933, was strengthened during the Second World War, when the US air-force base in Dhahran was deemed crucial to "the defence of the US". The Saudi monarch was paid millions of dollars to aid development in the kingdom. The regime was a despotism, but it was seen as an important bulwark against communism and nationalism in the region and, for that reason, the US chose to ignore what took place within its borders.

The entry of the US and the creation of the kingdom is brilliantly depicted in the fictional work of Abdelrahman Munif, the exiled Saudi novelist. I met him about ten years ago when he was on a rare trip to London, and he told me that "when the west looks at us, all it sees is oil and petrodollars. Saudi Arabia is still without a constitution, the people are deprived of all elementary rights, even the right to support the regime without asking for permission. Women, who own a large share of private wealth in the country, are treated like third-class citizens. A woman is not allowed to leave the country without a written permit from a male relative. Such a situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging." The desperate citizenry gave vent to their frustrations in a number of unsuccessful rebellions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Wahhabism remains the state religion of Saudi Arabia. During the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, Pakistani military intelligence requested the presence of a Saudi prince to lead the jihad. No volunteers were forthcoming, and Saudi leaders recommended the scion of a rich family close to the monarchy. Bin Laden was despatched to the Pakistan border and arrived in time to hear President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, turban on head, shout: "Allah is on your side."

The religious schools in Pakistan where the Taliban were created were funded by the Saudis, and Wahhabi influence was very strong. Last year, when the Taliban threatened to blow up the old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, there were appeals from the ancient seminaries of Qom in Iran and al-Azhar in Eygpt to desist on the grounds that Islam is tolerant. A Wahhabi delegation from Saudi Arabia advised the Taliban to execute the plan. They did. The Wahhabi insistence on a permanent jihad against all enemies, Muslim and non-Muslim, left a deep mark on the young boys who later took Kabul.

In those days, the attitude of the US was sympathetic. A Republican Party packed with Christian cults could hardly offer advice on this matter, and both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were keen to advertise their Christianity.

Just last year, the liberal and former expert on Pakistan for the State Department, Stephen P Cohen, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Some madrasas, or religious schools, are excellent." He admitted that "others are hotbeds for jihadi and radical Islamic movements", but these account for only about 12 per cent of the total. These, he said: "Need to be upgraded to offer their students a modern education." This indulgence is an accurate reflection of the official mood before 11 September.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the internal opposition in Saudi Arabia became dominated by religious groups. These core Wahhabis now saw the kingdom as degenerate because of the US connection. Others were depressed by the failure of Riyadh to defend the Palestinians.

The stationing of US troops in the country after the Gulf war prompted terrorist attacks on these soldiers and their bases. The people who ordered such attacks were Saudis, but Pakistani and Filipino immigrants were sometimes charged and executed in order to appease the US.

The expeditionary force being despatched to Pakistan to cut off the tentacles of the Wahhabi octopus may or may not succeed, but its head is safe and sound in Saudi Arabia, guarding the oil wells, growing new arms, and protected by US soldiers and the US air-force base in Dhahran. Washington's failure to disengage its vital interests from the fate of the Saudi monarchy could well lead to further blow-back. It should heed the warning first sounded by the secular tenth-century Arab poet Abu al-Ala al-Maarri:

And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek
Of wind is flying through the court of state:
"Here", it proclaims, "there dwelt a potentate,
Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak."

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State