Back in the many-days-ago, immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims divided over the question of who should lead the “Umma” (the Faithful). Should it be some prominent person who enjoyed wide deference among Arabs or should it be a blood relative? The prominent (and rich) men who argued that one of them should lead tended to be “late adopters” of Islam. This opened them to the suspicion that they were what the Nazis would call “March violets”—opportunists who joined the movement once it came to power. The men who thought that a blood relative should lead tended to be, well, blood relatives, but also essentially lower-ranking figures committed to tribal loyalties. Islam divided between those who supported an eminent figure (Sunnis, the vast majority) and those who favored a blood relative (Shi’ites, a minority overall, but the clear majority in Iran and Iraq). The two sects of Islam did battle for hundreds of year. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran espouses the cause of the Shi’ites, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia espouses the cause of the Sunnis.

For many years, the United States fostered warm relations with Iran. Then came the Iranian Islamist Revolution of 1979. The Americans shifted their support to Sunni rulers, like the kings of Saudi Arabia, but also to more “secular” Arab leaders like Saddam Hussein.[1] This makes it sound like the US is backing “moderate” Islam against “radical” Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Saudis have their own brand of religious radicalism, Wahhabism.

Wahhabism began in the 18th Century as a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam. The founder, sheik Abdul-Wahhab, forged an alliance with the leader of the Saud family, an alliance sealed by the alliance of their children. Almost two centuries later, the Saud family completed the conquest of Arabia. Later, still, it became a major oil exporter. The oil wealth led to a loosening of the strict moral standards that had run in parallel with the rise of the Sauds. In 1979, Wahhabist enthusiasts administered a very public rebuke to the nation’s leadership by seizing the Great Mosque in Mecca. Taking the message to heart, the Saudi leadership changed course. Saudi Arabia has long tried to spread Wahhabism while checking the spread of Shi’ite doctrines.[2] Saudi money pays for mosques, schools, and cultural centers abbroad.

In failed or failing states like Pakistan and Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, Saudi-funded religious schools (“madrasas”) offered the only schools available to children in border regions and in refugee camps. The Wahhabist doctrines spread to many boys who would later take arms as part of the Taliban. The schools continue to teach studetns drawn from Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In exchange for this largesse for the cause, Wahhabist militants operate only outside Saudi Arabia. The “Arab Afghans” who went to fight the Soviet Union were Wahhabists. Others went to fight in Bosnia or in Chechnya. Most of the 9/11 plane hijackers were Wahhabists.[3] The Nigerian group Boko Haram grew out of Saudi-funded efforts to counter the spread of Sufism in the Sahel. ISIS can be seen as an extension of Wahhabism. Certainly, the Saudis have shown no interest in fighting it in Syria and Iraq, even as their planes pound Shi’ites in Yemen.

In short, victory over Iranian-backed Islamism might just reveal a greater danger still. Little in either the media or government pronouncements is preparing Americans for that shock.

[1] Clients of Iran had a hand in bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut, so it isn’t like this was done at the whim of the oil companies. Regardless of the last sermon in the New York Times.

[2] “Exporting radical Islam,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 11.

[3] A portion of the 9/11 Commission’s report that deals with Saudi involvement remains classified.

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