By: Mark Bhaskar, Columnist
Photo Credit: Jakarta Post
The United States’ alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is one of the county’s longest-standing relationships in the Middle East, predating even that between the United States and Israel. Despite recent crises surrounding events such as the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni Civil War, the passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, and the internal Gulf Cooperation Council roe vis-à-vis Qatar, the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia remains strong due to shared concerns over Iran’s increasing influence as well as the growth of Islamic terror organizations that seek to target both the Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, President Donald Trump’s first foreign visit was to Riyadh, where some would say he enjoyed a better reception than during his subsequent trip to Brussels.[i]
However, continuing to partner with Saudi Arabia is dangerous for the United States, and, in the long run, stands to exacerbate the threat of Islamic extremism rather than abate it. For although the US-Saudi partnership seems vital in light of the joint Russo-Iranian bid for regional hegemony, the efforts by Saudi Arabia’s government to convert Sunni Muslims both abroad and within the Kingdom to their austere, violent version of Islam, referred to somewhat derogatively, albeit correctly, as “Wahhabism,” presents a clear threat to the United States and the global Muslim community. By seeking to indoctrinate Islamic youth, one of the fastest growing demographics in the world[ii], into this fundamentalist faith, the pool of candidates susceptible to joining Islamic terrorist organizations will increase and roll back the significant social progress of moderate Muslim-majority country governments.
The Saudi clerical establishment, called the ulema, believes and proselytizes what they believe to be “true Islam.” They and their followers are Salafists, members of the salafiyyah who try to emulate the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. While the specifics of this theological doctrine are beyond the scope of this article, it is vital for the United States to understand what these clerics teach regarding the perception of Americans and the wider Western world. This religion, advanced by the government of a “so-called” US ally, maintains that Americans, as well as all Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi Islam, are kuffar, meaning immoral, godless creatures guilty of spreading jahiliyyah, a culture of ignorance and materialism. To combat such “evil,” all followers of “true Islam” are called to engage in jihad fisabilillah, violence against non-believers. To the Saudi ulema, Americans are guilty of taghut, polytheism that holds the mundane world over the sacred, the only remedy for which is conversion or death.[iii] To that end, Wahhabism places special emphasis on the passages of the Quran that permit violence in the advancement of Islam, particularly Surah 2:216 which states, “Fighting is ordained for you, even though you dislike it. But it may be that you dislike something while it is good for you, and it may be that you like something while it is bad for you. Allah knows, and you do not know.”[iv] Much like terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida, these clerics are content to ignore the historical context of these passages as well as downplay the Quranic texts that support peace and prevent forced conversion.[v] Resolving these doctrinal issues is an internal matter for the ummah, the Islamic community; however, it is crucial that American officials recognize two crucial concepts put forth by Wahhabism: (1) that America is evil and (2) that violence is an acceptable way to propagate a religion.
If this puritanical interpretation of Islam remained confined within Saudi Arabia, the security implications would be minor. However, the Saudi government’s radicalization efforts are a global initiative in which the KSA has invested over $87 billion since 1980.[vi] Nowhere are these investment returns more evident than in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Under Saudi tutelage, the ultra-conservative Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), has grown into a considerable force in Indonesian politics and threatens the moderate Nahlatul Ulama, a party formed in part to counter Saudi meddling.[vii] The FPI have learned well from their teachers at Saudi institutions, particularly the Medina Islamic University,[viii] and insist that they are moral guardians meant to enforce a fundamental and intolerant version of Islam, much like the Mutawa, the Saudi religious police. The FPI advocate for public corporal punishments, such as whipping, restricting women’s time in public, and holding rallies against the United States.[ix] This radicalization effort in Indonesia is just one example of Saudi Arabia’s intent on globalizing its bigoted perception of the world. Other efforts are underway in Pakistan, where Saudi Arabia supports and maintains nearly 24,000 madrassas that teach intolerance directly to children and young adults,[x] as well as in India, where the Saudis back the ultra-conservative and anti-American Deobandi movement. In Africa, the KSA provides aid to groups that destroy non-Islamic religious sites.[xi] This is not to mention Syria, wherein Saudi Arabia continues to support Salafi-Jihadist organizations both militarily and financially.[xii]
Farah Pandith, the first Special Representative of the United States to Muslim Communities during the Obama administration, said it best, “To stop extremist recruiting, we must get serious about destroying the ideological extremist narratives.”[xiii] Possible measures include working with moderate Muslim governments to deny Wahhabi expansion, which many Muslim-majority states, such as Turkey, do not want,[xiv] shutting down mosques with Saudi-funding at home and abroad, and tracking Saudi-trained imams working outside of the KSA. Though the threat of Iranian regional hegemony looms large in the minds of policymakers, it is important to remember that the state religions of both Iran and Saudi Arabia dehumanize Americans and that the governments of both countries are engaged in campaigns to undermine sovereign nations. A victory by either faction in their geopolitical struggle has negative repercussions for the United States.
[i] Greenwood, Max. “5 Takeaways from Trump’s First Overseas Trip as President.” The Hill, Capital Hill Publishing Corp., 28 May 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/335434-five-takeaways-from-trumps-first-overseas-trip-as-president.
[ii] Lipka, Michael, and Conrad Hackett. “Why Muslims Are the World’s Fastest-Growing Religious Group.” Pew Research Center, 6 Apr. 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/why-muslims-are-the-worlds-fastest-growing-religious-group/.
[iii] Valentine, Simon Ross. “Exporting Radicalism.” Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond, Hurst & Company, 2015, pp. 236–239.
[iv] Khan, Muhsin, and Muhammad Al-Hilali, translators. The Noble Quran. Kazi Publications, 1991.
[v] “Islamic Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Representation.” The Islamic Supreme Council of America, http://www.islamicsupremecouncil.org/understanding-islam/anti-extremism/7-islamic-radicalism-its-wahhabi-roots-and-current-representation.html.
[vi] Valentine, Simon Ross. “Exporting Radicalism.” Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond, Hurst & Company, 2015, pp 235.
[vii] Varagur, Krithika. “Indonesia’s Moderate Islam Is Slowly Crumbling.” Foreign Policy, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/14/indonesias-moderate-islam-is-slowly-crumbling/.
[viii] Varagur, Krithika. “Saudi Arabia Quietly Spreads Its Brand of Puritanical Islam in Indonesia.” VOA, 17 Jan. 2017, http://www.voanews.com/a/saudi-arabia-quietly-spreads-its-brand-of-puritanical-islam-in-indonesia-/3679287.html.
[ix] Hookway, James, and Warangkana Chomchuen. Hard-Line Muslim Groups Make Inroads in Indonesia. The Wall Street Journal, 13 Sept. 2017, http://www.wsj.com/video/hard-line-muslim-groups-make-inroads-in-indonesia/2FB71D5C-B0CD-448C-803C-5CFE856B881B.html.
[x] Pakistan Tehrik-E-Insaaf. “‘Tsunami of Money’ from Saudi Arabia Funding 24,000 Pakistan Madrassas.” The Economic Times, The Times Group, 30 Jan. 2016, http://www.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/tsunami-of-money-from-saudi-arabia-funding-24000-pakistan-madrassas/articleshow/50781972.cms.
[xi] Valentine, Simon Ross. “Exporting Radicalism.” Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond, Hurst & Company, 2015, pp. 247-253.
[xii] Ellison, Danielle. “Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Civil War.” The Foreign Policy Initiative, 15 Apr. 2016, http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/fpi-bulletin-saudi-arabia-and-syrian-civil-war.
[xiii] Pandith, Farah. “The World Needs a Long-Term Strategy for Defeating Extremism.” The New York Times, 8 Dec. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/12/08/is-saudi-arabia-a-unique-generator-of-extremism/the-world-needs-a-long-term-strategy-for-defeating-extremism.
[xiv] Shane, Scott. “Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters’.” The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-islam.html.