- Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond by Simon Ross Valentine
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which involved a number of Saudi nationals, books on the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia have proliferated.1 While most writers stress the foundational role of the 18th century scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, they vary in their conceptualization of this form as Wahhabism, Wahhabiyya, Salafism, the Hanbali school, or simply Islam. Many critics and opponents prefer the term “Wahhabism,” considering it an extreme and intolerant sect. Simon Ross Valentine, who had previously written on the Ahmadiyya reform group with its center in South Asia,2 has sought to investigate whether the negative portrayals of Wahhabism are true. Like other European researchers, he first entered the Kingdom as a language teacher and travelled throughout the country. His book, Force and Fanaticism, is the product of almost three years of living and working in the Kingdom and extensive reading.
Interspersed with personal memories from his stays in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Valentine’s book characterizes Wahhabism, tells its history beginning with Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and analyzes its influence in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. A first chapter on “Defining Wahhabism” describes it as “the most rigid and intolerant of Muslim sects” (p. 26). [End Page 160] Wahhabis, according to Valentine, consider only their understanding of Islam as true, see Saudi Arabia as “the sole Islamic country” (p. 21), and coerce others into their beliefs. Two subsequent chapters on the birth and growth of Wahhabism precede others that focus on Wahhabi beliefs and their enforcement as well as Wahhabism’s relationships with women, the judiciary, the Saudi monarchy and other faiths. In a chapter entitled “Exporting Radicalism,” Valentine also describes Wahhabi influence in South Asia, Africa and Europe. This chapter finds “considerable similarities between Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia” and the practices of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (p. 254). In his conclusion, the author confirms widespread views of Wahhabism, stating, “Wahhabi intolerance and extremism are indisputable, observable facts” (p. 261). Despite much opposition by Shi‘a and human rights organizations, Valentine predicts change in the Kingdom to happen only gradually, “by evolution rather than revolution” (p. 269).
Readers hoping for a deeper understanding of Islam in Saudi Arabia might be disappointed by Valentine’s confirmation of stereotypes of Wahhabism as intolerant, aggressive and coercive. Yet, although Force and Fanaticism is not original in its main argument, it still gives a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of Wahhabi Islam and its influence on public life in Saudi Arabia. The author’s mix of analyses and anecdotes makes for an interesting and easy read. By including the words of a great variety of conversation partners in Saudi Arabia, he provides unique windows into Saudi society. He gives an authentic sense of the fear of God and the authorities, the treatment of women, and the apparent love for the late King ‘Abdullah among many people in the Kingdom.
Like other accounts of Wahhabism, Valentine’s book remains centered on Saudi Arabia. Had he paid more attention to Qatar in particular, his account of this form of Islam would arguably have been more nuanced, positive and innovative. The author mentions Saudi Arabia’s neighbor a few times and suggests on two pages of his conclusion that Qatar’s “milder form of Wahhabism” and “greater tolerance” could serve as an example for change in the Kingdom (pp. 264–65). While this suggestion is valuable and gives hope, it raises further questions on how and why the forms of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Qatar differ. Valentine states the absence of a religious police in Qatar as a “reason” for “relative tolerance,” but this is arguably more a symptom than a cause. That the legitimacy of the Qatari monarchy depends less on clerics, as Valentine mentions, is a more plausible explanation, but would have required more elaboration. If the kingdom’s Wahhabi regime exported radicalism, why did the Qatari state...