Heresy and History - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Heresy and History

The war on terror will be won only when Islam’s Wahabi heresy is defeated — by orthodox Islam. Europe’s own religious history shows why. From the latest American Spectator.

HAZILY, AMERICAN ELITES PERCEIVE that modern terrorism has something to do with the Wahabi sect of the Arabian Peninsula. But they lump that sect with “radical” or “fundamentalist” Islam, and throw up their hands over whether terrorism is a natural consequence of Muslim fervor or not. In fact, anti-Western terrorism results from a war within Islam that is more serious for Muslims than for the rest of us, because the Wahabis’ ideas imply irreconcilable enmity against other Muslims first, and then against others. Western elites, religiously challenged as they are, don’t understand the mixture of threat and temptation that the Wahabis pose to the Muslim world because they do not know how analogous Christian heresies have roiled Western civilization.

Between the 11th and the 17th centuries, Europe suffered arguably more from heresies than from plagues. In Islam as well, heresy has arisen out of moral outrage and matured into murderous political enterprises. The history of Christian and Muslim heresies teaches the combination of sword and sermon that is necessary to defeat them.

In the debates surrounding the great religions, charges and countercharges of heresy are motivated as often by secular motives as by religious differences. However, violence tends to follow only when religious differences become the basis of political quarrels. The wars in the 16th and 17th centuries between what came to be known as Catholics and Protestants turned on theological points that had coexisted peaceably until they were taken up by rivals for power. The wars between what became known as Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the 18th century were strictly about power. The theological differences came later. Some religious differences, however, necessarily imply political violence. These are the ones that concern us.

Some ideas necessarily are political, and necessarily matrices of mass murder. Hence, statements such as Thomas Jefferson’s that whether my neighbor believes that there is one God, many gods, or no god at all neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, are applicable only to Jefferson’s peculiar circumstances. If one’s neighbor were a Thuggee, an adept of the Hindu sect that worships Kali, the goddess of death, by killing as many people as possible, one might work for his conversion to Unitarianism. Even those Americans most virulent against the Ten Commandments would be compelled to guard their pockets, legs, and more against neighbors whose commandments commanded them to reverse the Ten: Thou shall kill, steal, swear falsely, take thy neighbor’s wife, etc.

Murderous heresies arise as revolutionary movements. They take one, or more, of the faith’s central tenets and twist it into a warrant for overthrowing the norms and practices first of the ordinary faithful, then of mankind. This kind of heresy sets itself apart by entitling the heretics to do whatever they want. The premise of the University of Chicago’s 1988 “Fundamentalism” project — that there is danger in the tendency of many people around the world to adhere to the fundamentals of their faiths — does not apply. What drives “fundamentalists” is the tendency to affirm orthodoxy. Fundamentalism binds the fundamentalist. By contrast, the heretics we are concerned with slip the bounds of orthodoxy and endow themselves with boundless, revolutionary discretion. For them, indulging their wrath, or indeed any of their passions, is the path to holiness.

Such heresies tend to strike Faustian bargains with rulers or would-be rulers. By these bargains, the politicians (who are as likely to use the heresy only as a tool as to believe in it) gain the heretics’ support, the claim to absolute moral legitimacy vis-à-vis their other followers, plus leverage against their neighbors — all in exchange for providing the heresy a base for war with the rest of the world. Sooner or later, however, the heresy makes more enemies than the host regime can handle, and the war ends with the destruction of both the heresy and the regime.


“BE YE PERFECT, AS my father in heaven is perfect.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Ye are not of this world.” Teachings such as these, as well as the struggle between good and evil, are part of the bedrock of Christianity. The Book of Daniel is a legitimate part of the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation a legitimate part of the New. Yet all these have been points of departure for horrid heresies. Why?

The poverty of some is always a ready pretext for indicting others. Always is it possible for one to claim that his alienation from the world, his enmity toward it, is the authoritative sign of a divine call to a death struggle to transform earth into heaven. And in fact, the Western world never lacks people who, in the name of God, point to the imperfections of others as warrant for their own claims to perfection, power, privilege, and the undoing of their enemies.

The movements had names such as Cathars, Free Spirits, Bogomils, Albigensians, Anabaptists, Ranters, Joachites. They arose in varied circumstances. But their ideas and practices followed a pattern: Denunciation of obvious inequities, proclamation of a unique divine message that absolute purity and purification would bring absolute remedy, establishment of a totalitarian regime within the movement. Then the movement’s alliance with some regime, or its capture of power somewhere, led to terror against internal dissent, war with outsiders, and eventually the destruction of the movement.

Here is a brief sampler. In the 11th century, after Pope Gregory VII fought worldliness in the Church, and Pope Urban II proclaimed the Crusade to conquer the Holy Land, countless self-appointed Propheta preached a gospel of redemption: The poor, because of their purity, were to take the lead in the destruction of God’s enemies. Those who followed these calls set about destroying Jews in Europe as well as bishops and clergy who got in their way, before streaming eastward to fall upon Eastern Christians. A small minority ever got to fight the Muslims. This was not lost on nobles, some of whom harnessed this frenzy, and one of whom made himself its king, living in luxury and feared by all.

The subsequent would-be Crusaders, fewer and fewer of whom expended less and less effort actually to get to the Holy Land, slaughtered Europe’s rich because they were rich, expecting thereafter to live in plenty. In 1251 an eloquent Hungarian preached a crusade exclusively of the pure and poor. He surrounded himself with an armed guard, lived in luxury, and wreaked destruction on northern French and German towns — the clergy, the rich, the Jews.

Other Propheta preached the same gospel unconnected to the Crusades, and followed the same pattern: having purified themselves by their opposition to the impure, they would then partake freely of their spoils. The leader would be revered, even unto drinking his bath water.

The popular side of these movements was summed up in a German book at the beginning of the 16th century. God had sent a message to a corrupt world: only the elect would escape his harsh judgment, on condition that they purify the earth. The clergy, the Jews, and others must be slaughtered for their sins. “Only the [former] victims will be spared.” There would be “one shepherd, one sheepfold, one faith.” But this ends up not being Christianity at all, because the god is the Germanic Thor. Not only is this book and the behavior of its followers reminiscent of Nazis, but Nazism’s chief ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, devoted a chapter of his Myth of the Twentieth Century to it.

The pattern repeated itself on more sophisticated levels. The flagellant movement involved Propheta who led masses of people on processions in which they would purify themselves and the world by whipping their bodies. But of course, once pure, most of these flagellants would start purifying the world by murdering the usual suspects while themselves enjoying the spoils. Their leaders became the terrorist chieftains of their day. “Everything is pure to the pure,” became the motto.

At a higher level yet, the movement was characterized by the Free Spirits — educated people who believed that two principles vied for control of the world, that by their own efforts or intellectual insight, their oneness in substance with God, combined with the fact that most people did not understand that oneness, made them incapable of sin. To prove that they had really purified themselves, they must do what is forbidden to the run of mankind. Hence, for example, their promiscuity was grim business. Such thoughts filtered down to the masses through clergy and nobles who were willing to use them to cement a following in revolutionary situations. Typically the major slaughters associated with events such as the Parisian Jacquerie of 1358, the Flanders revolt of 1323, and the English Peasants’ revolt of 1381 involved one kind or another of Free Spirits. The 1208-1229 war between the southern French nobility and much of the rest of Christendom was about little else.

WHILE THE BLOODTHIRSTY preaching of Thomas Muntzer did not bring about the German Peasants’ war of 1525 all by itself, Muntzer was its only leader. The core of his “party” were intellectuals like himself. “Now at them, at them, and at them!” Muntzer urged the peasants as they happily ravaged the land. Muntzer’s heresy united orthodox Christians of all persuasions against him. He and his army of 3,000 were crushed. But Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Marxist textbooks around the world celebrated him.

The only book Benito Mussolini ever wrote praised the burnt heretic, Jan Hus, as a precursor of secular, nationalistic socialism. Hus was more than that, but Mussolini was only interested in his revolutionary element.

In 1533-35 the Anabaptist sect took over the German city of Munster. Its leaders, including a Dutchman, Jan Bockelson, proclaimed the usual message of purification — knowledge that this was the last of three ages that would end in the destruction of a sinful world, with the exception of the elect. They filled the city with people drawn by the twin promises of loot and salvation, cleansed the churches of books and ornaments, despoiled the rich, enforced polygamy on the women who could not flee, established a reign of terror, and made war on the outside — only to be crushed by it.

When the princes of the affected areas realized that they too would be involved in the heresy’s endless wars they decided to become defenders of orthodoxy and join to destroy the heresy’s host regime. That destruction, however, had to be accomplished in a manner that discredited both regime and ideas. This always involved humiliating as well as killing the leaders.

The princes who captured Munster’s Bockelson exhibited him as a dancing bear, tortured him, and hauled his body in a cage to the top of the cathedral. The cage remained there for centuries. Just as important, orthodox preachers explained the heretics’ errors far and wide. Thus the destruction of the Albigensians was due as much to St. Dominic’s preaching as to the armies of Christendom. Finally, for such preaching to be effective, it had to be accompanied by efforts on the part of church and nobility to address some of the legitimate accusations made against them. Hence the end of the age of religious heresies in Europe came when the Reformed churches — followed by the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent — emphasized austere living.


“THERE IS NO GOD but God.” This is the core of Islam, and its glory. Affirming the oneness of God has been Islam’s gift to regions of the world where it displaced polytheism, while raising its converts to a higher plane of life. The Koran is adamant about monotheism: “Kill those who ascribe partners to God, wheresoever you find them.” But affirming monotheism is also the core of the Wahabi heresy.

Ibn Abdul Wahab, born around 1700 in a remote village in a remote region of Arabia, was early impressed with the central tenet of Islam, as well as with the deviations from it both of the Ottoman Empire’s sophisticates, who, in Abdul Wahab’s view, had adopted Christian ways, and of village simpletons who idolized shrines and trees. He wrote that Islam is “…above all a rejection of all gods except God, a refusal to allow others to share in that worship that is due to God alone (Shirk). Shirk is evil, no matter what the object, whether it be king or prophet or saint or tree or tomb.”

Wahab destroyed the tombs of the Prophet’s earliest disciples because they had become objects of veneration. Wahab declared ancient Islamic scholars “unbelievers” and “polytheists,” those who held not only to Shi’a Islam, but also to the Sufi spiritual tradition and Islamic law, and burned their books. His quest for purity alienated his village’s authorities, including his father.

One of the region’s tribes, however, found him useful against the others, and gave him shelter. That was the house of Saud. Wahab’s version of Islam became the official creed wherever the Saudi family ruled. The bargain was sealed by Wahab’s marriage to Ibn Saud’s daughter.

Dore Gold in Hatred’s Kingdom explains that “[T]ribal raiding could now be carried on as a religious cause. What had once been taken as tribal booty was now demanded as Zakat (the charitable payments required as one of the five pillars of Islam). Significantly, Wahab legitimized Jihad against fellow Muslims for the first time.” Killing those who would not accept his version of the faith (and Saudi sovereignty), as well as taking their possessions, was good.

Wahab’s teaching about Jews and Christians was of the same sort. Rather than respecting them as “people of the book,” as misguided followers of the One God, Wahab called them polytheists, “devil worshipers,” and sorcerers, to whom the biblical punishment of death was applicable. Hence Wahabism assured its combatants of the manifold blessings of Muslim martyrdom and set them to war with the entire world.

By the time Wahab died in 1791, the Saudi/Wahabi influence had reached the Persian Gulf. Oman and Bahrain paid tribute. By 1803 Mecca itself fell to the Wahabis, and parts of present-day Iraq a few years later. The Wahabis’ warfare involved exterminating men, women, and children. The Wahabis inflicted a historic massacre on the Iraqi city of Kerbala.

Between 1811 and 1818, however, the Ottoman Empire struck back. To Istanbul, Wahabism and the Saudi state were identical. The Ottomans, using French military equipment and greater manpower, defeated the Saudis, leveled their capital, and took the Saudi leader, Abdullah, prisoner. They humiliated him, tortured him, beheaded him, and threw his body to the dogs.

The Ottomans, however, failed to discredit Wahabism doctrinally. They did not teach orthodox Islam and insist that it be taught, much less did they live it. Nor were they vigilant when the heirs of Abdullah came back to re-establish the family’s power base, which of course included Wahabism. So it was that by the 1830s Wahabi jihads were taking place even in the Indian subcontinent. By 1912 Wahabi cells existed as far as central Asia.


THE CONTEMPORARY SAUDI STATE arose from Ibn Saud’s alliance with the British against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Ignorantly, the British believed the Saudis’ protestations that their hatred of the Ottomans for their Islamic impurity did not also imply enmity toward Christians. Besides, thought the Brits, what power could these or any Arabs wield against Her Majesty’s Empire? The British began to find out when, after the war, they watched impotently as the Saudi/Wahabi combination swept Britain’s Hashemite clients from the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike the Ottomans, the British were unable to mount even the military dimension much less the political and religious dimensions of the offense needed to defeat a heresy such as Wahabism.

The American policy-makers who took over stewardship of the region from Britain never understood the problem. The intelligence office of the oil company ARAMCO is said to have explained Wahabism as the Muslim equivalent of Unitarianism. Insofar as the U.S. government understood Wahabism it expected the power of the Saudi family to restrain its extremism.

That the Saudi family could mount a theological campaign against Wahabism is as inconceivable as its adopting the Spartan lifestyle that Wahabism preaches. Without the Wahabis, the Saudi royal family would not be lords of the peninsula, or of anything at all. No orthodox Muslim would accredit the Saudis’ lifestyles as Muslim. But somehow the otherwise ultra-strict Wahabis do. The notion that the Saudi royals could earn non-Islamic legitimacy as democratizers is fantasy. The Saudis are bonded to the tiger they ride.

Whereas in Londonistan, in France, or in America’s streets and prisons, Wahabism is an irritant, in the Islamic world it is one of the two main challenges to ordinary life (the other being the corrupt, Western-imported, secular, nationalistic socialism, against which Wahabism rages). From the northern edges of black Africa, to Bosnia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the eastern islands of the Philippines, estimates of the percentage of the new mosques and schools financed to Wahabi specifications vary from a third to three-fourths. No other form of Islam enjoys anything like the flood of money that comes from Saudi sources, and almost none has developed a violent cadre to back up its demands. For any Sunni Muslim, life has to look richer, safer, more purposeful, on the Wahabi side.


ANY FAITH’S HERESIES ARE first of all problems for that faith, and only then for others. Co-religionists are the heresy’s first targets, and the only ones with the combination of knowledge, incentive, and legitimacy to deal with it. Only Christians can understand enough about what is and is not proper to Christianity. If they fail to define what it means, the heretics will do the defining.

The same goes for Muslims. It would have been impossible for the Ottoman Empire — at the height of its power in the early 16th century — to play a role in defeating the Anabaptist heresies that roiled Germany. By the same token, today the notion that secularist Americans might teach Muslims right and wrong about Islam is silly.

Nevertheless, just as the Muslim world was not entirely irrelevant to the struggles of medieval Christianity, today’s West willy-nilly has some influence on intramural Muslim struggles. Medieval Muslims, after all, gave orthodox Christianity a big, indirect hand by defeating the Crusades. If medieval Muslims had let the Christian heretics succeed against them, the heretics might have used their newfound prestige to defeat their main enemy in Europe.

In our time, however, Western civilization has not given that kind of indirect support to Muslim orthodoxy against the Wahabi heresy. On the contrary: rather than giving the Wahabis defeats, the West has given them victories that have strengthened the movement’s hand immeasurably in its decisive intramural battles. In sum, the West has let the Wahabis set up bases outside the reach of their Muslim enemies, has let its terrorism run rampant, and has safeguarded its main base, Saudi Arabia, from the natural consequences of its rulers’ Faustian bargain.

More than shielding the Saudi regime, Americans enabled it to spread Wahabism to a heretofore unimaginable extent when, in 1973, they agreed to give Saudi Arabia the power to set the world price of oil. The Saudi royals’ money, we must not forget, is theirs only because America’s best and brightest think it proper to assign property rights to persons who contribute nothing to the product. In the end, the Wahabi heresy intimidates Muslims around the world because it is fueled by U.S. money directed to them through Saudi Arabia by American judgment, the validity of which is not self-evident.

The Wahabis attract other Muslims as well as threaten them. Successful anti-Western terrorism has been its main instrument of that attraction. Weak governments cannot possibly take sides against a sect whose exploits excite their peoples’ atavistic pride more than they do. Indeed, in our time, some orthodox Muslims have forgotten how deep is the Wahabis’ hatred for them and rather take pride every time a Wahabi-inspired terrorist act humiliates and cows the West on behalf of Muslim causes. When Westerners react to Wahabi terrorist acts by indicting ordinary, traditional Muslim practices — veils, sexual customs — they make it even more difficult for orthodox Muslims to go after the heretics.

Also, the Wahabis attract all rulers of Muslim peoples who live un-Muslim lives because, just as medieval Christian heretics supported their hierarchs’ outrageous lives, they buy secular support by selling religious legitimacy. Hence Wahabi support for outrageously corrupt Saudis. The glaring case is Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — an atheist, theologically speaking the personification of everything Wahabism lives to destroy — who persecuted Islam to the limit of his power, but who nevertheless managed to make himself the leader of an Islam increasingly redefined as violent anti-Westernism. The Wahabis held their nose and supported him too.

This heresy can be defeated only after the destruction of Saudi rule — preferably by other Muslims. The Saudis’ Wahabism makes them the natural enemies of all the world’s orthodox Muslims, especially Shi’ites. Iran, the great power of Shi’a Islam, is Wahabism’s main enemy. America’s elites, however, have supported the Saudis against the Iranians because they understand only the categories of “moderate vs. fundamentalist” and see neither Shi’ites nor Wahabis, neither orthodoxy nor heresy.

In short, violent heretics are winning their war with Islamic orthodoxy. The religion is being redefined. Hijacked. That is due in part to the support the heretics enjoy, nonetheless powerful for being indirect, from the West in general and America in particular. The point of all this is that even the best and brightest of officials need to know what they are about and, with that, do no harm.

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