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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington - The Dangers Of Cultural Transfer

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabia's efforts to promote its brand of Islam abroad have had the unexpected consequence of producing exactly the kind of radical Islamist politics that the kingdom opposes.

This outcome calls attention to the difficulties inherent in the transfer of ideas from where they have emerged and evolved to other places where conditions are fundamentally different.

That is the argument of Moscow State University Islamic specialist Aleksandr Ignatenko in the current issue of Stockholm's "Central Asia and the Caucasus." In a study of the ways in which Western support for the anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan helped to create the conditions for the rise of the Taliban movement there, Ignatenko focuses on the special Saudi role in this process.

"Only Wahhabism was suitable for the distribution of the Saudi model beyond the borders of the kingdom," he writes. "But -- and here is the key aspect -- not that Wahhabism which had been ideologically, organizationally, and institutionally adapted to the modernizing Saudi Arabian state but pure Wahhabism from which" all those modifications were absent. And the result of that is the authoritarian Taliban movement and its recent attacks on Buddhist statues.

Wahhabism, of course, cannot be directly blamed for this. The original Wahhabis, who appeared in the eighteenth century as advocates of a purified Islam, did not call for such actions. Indeed, they opposed blood feuds and other kinds of violence that were common in the Arabic societies of that time.

As a result, Ignatenko says, a conservative monarchy unintentionally launched a campaign against communism which led to the rise of a radical Islamist opposition not at home but in Afghanistan and now elsewhere as well.

Ignatenko's argument is clearly incomplete. Obviously, other factors have played a role, including Soviet and Russian destruction of the cultural infrastructure of Afghanistan and other societies, because that destruction has cut young people off from the cultural values of their parents and thus rendered them available for mobilization by radical ideologues.

But his argument is nonetheless important both with regard to this particular case and more generally. Wahhabi ideas in their original form were and remain extremely radical in their demands for a return to the rules of the time of Mohammad. But as evolved and applied by the Saudi royal house, Wahhabism has played a deeply conservative role.

On the one hand, the traditions of the Saudi royal family have intermixed with Wahhabi dictums, taking the edge off of some of the most radical ones. And on the other hand, the enormous oil wealth of Saudi Arabia over the last two generations has transformed the understanding of Wahhabism by most residents of the kingdom into something the original Wahhabis would never have recognized.

But when the Saudis, as part of their effort to contain both communism and the spread of what they viewed as Islamic threats like the 1979 Iranian revolution and like the attack on the Mecca mosque by radicals in the same year, decided to try to export their ideology, Ignatenko argues, they exported its doctrine but were in no way able to export the context within which that doctrine had developed.

Consequently, the Saudi effort led people in Afghanistan and, Ignatenko argues, in Central Asia and the North Caucasus as well, back to "pure" Wahhabism, a fundamentalist approach to Islam so at odds with its current Saudi version that many observers have been reluctant to label this ideology Wahhabism at all. They have been aided in this by the fact that followers of this movement don't call themselves Wahhabis.

The situation the Saudis now find themselves in, as the unintended sponsors of movements they do not want to support, is one that other governments and groups routinely find themselves in as well. Ideas and institutions developed in one society inevitably involve far more than the bare-bones descriptions of them that are offered to other countries as models.

These ideas and institutions are embedded in an entire culture and history, and when efforts are made to transfer them to countries with radically different cultures and histories, the result is seldom what either the exporters or importers of those ideas and institutions had expected. Western efforts to promote democracy and human rights, for example, have spread freedom most of the time but sometimes generated an unanticipated nationalist reaction.

Most of the time, the diffusion of such ideas and institutions leads to a kind of compromise between what the exports intend and what the importers had experienced up to now. Often that creates problems with both sides becoming dissatisfied with the results.

But the experience of Saudi promotion of its ideological foundation abroad shows that in such transactions another and more explosive outcome is possible. When groups accept the ideological principles being exported but do not have the same context, these groups may become radicalized, hostile, and dangerous in ways that the original exporter never intended and clearly opposes.

Sometimes exporting ideas and institutions developed in one country to another is worth these risks, but the Saudi experience is a reminder that such efforts must be undertaken with caution lest they have consequences no one wants.