Like Islam itself, Wahhabism began in the bleak and austere Arabian desert. Following in the Prophet's footsteps, the religious scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 - 92) brooked no compromise in matters of doctrine. His stern interpretations of Islamic law and his penchant for advocating attacks on those "infidels" and "polytheists" who disagreed with his views caused several community leaders to eject him; finally, he found a ready audience in the powerful Saud family. By 1806 the Sauds had captured the holy city of Mecca: to this day they remain rulers of Saudi Arabia and staunch adherents to Wahhab's interpretation of the Q'uran.
In modern Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to drive: a woman who wishes to leave the country must first receive permission from her husband or, if unmarried, her father. The Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, a religious police squad, enforces the mandatory dress code for women. In May 2003, the Commerce Ministry joined forces with the religious police to clamp down on local factories that made abayas (the formless black cloaks which are required wear for Saudi women in public places) that officials considered risqué. The garments were reportedly becoming popular in some Saudi cities. Authorities were empowered to confiscate and destroy the new abayas and take "punitive measures" against their owners.
Those who are caught drinking alcohol can be punished by flogging; thieves can have their hands amputated while murderers and political criminals are often beheaded in grisly public ceremonies. All demonstration of religious faith inconsistent with the state-sponsored Wahhabism are outlawed. The distribution of Bibles is banned. Many Christians have been imprisoned or deported for practicing their faith, and any Saudi who converts from Islam to any other religion can be punished with death as an apostate. Shi'ites, who make up approximately 6% of Saudi Arabia's citizenry, are frequently persecuted and denounced by Sunni clerics and scholars as "infidels" and "traitors to Muhammed." On January 9, 2002, Ismaili cleric and tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Turki al-Sa'ab said to a Wall Street Journal reporter: "We love our country, but we believe that the government is making a mistake against us." For this quote he was arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment and flogging.
While you might think that this kind of government would lead to widespread resentment and calls for freedom, many Saudis resent their government because they feel it is not following Islam closely enough. Over fifty percent of Saudi Arabia's population is under 15, and unemployment among Saudi citizens is over 30%. Most of the skilled jobs in the oil-rich kingdom are filled by foreign workers, as the Saudi educational system is able to produce enough engineers and skilled laborers. This has resulted in many idle and disaffected youths looking for a cause, and finding it in jihad. The presence of U.S. military bases on the same soil which houses Mecca and Medina led a wealthy Saudi named Osama Bin-Laden to direct the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York. This remains a remains a point of contention throughout Saudi Arabia; the ruling House of Saud is seen by many Saudis as infidels in league with the decadent west.
Historically, this version of fundamentalist Islam was not particularly popular outside the Arabian peninsula. Many Moslems outside the region were pleased to leave Islam's holiest shrines in the care of the devout Wahhabis, but they felt no particular need to emulate their prohibitions against smoking, silk, the decoration of mosques and minarets, or the veneration of saints. As Saudi Arabia has grown wealthy on oil, it has also exported its vision of Islam. Saudi money has funded Wahhabi schools and mosques throughout the Islamic world: they have sent books, clerics and supplies to Bosnia, Chechnya, Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, among other places. They have also been accused of supporting terrorism, although after September 11 the Saudis have begun distancing themselves from groups like Hamas. Still, missionary fervor is strong in Saudi Arabia, as is growing resentment against the United States and the "Decadent West."
Despite their best efforts, the U.S. government has been unable to overlook the various ties between the Royal House of Saud and Islamic terrorist movements throughout the world. This has led to serious strains in what had been a solid relationship, and to equally serious public relations efforts on the part of the Saudis. Still, we are not likely to turn our backs on the House of Saud just yet. We are well aware that their downfall will lead to an even more intransigent and radical government, which would likely be even more blatant about supporting terror and which would gain control over the largest known oil reserves in the world.