Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters’

“One day you find oil, and the world is coming to you,” Professor Ahmed said. “God has given you the ability to take your version of Islam to the world.”

In 1964, when King Faisal ascended the throne, he embraced the obligation of spreading Islam. A modernizer in many respects, with close ties to the West, he nonetheless could not overhaul the Wahhabi doctrine that became the face of Saudi generosity in many countries. Over the next four decades, in non-Muslim-majority countries alone, Saudi Arabia would build 1,359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges and 2,000 schools. Saudi money helped finance 16 American mosques; four in Canada; and others in London, Madrid, Brussels and Geneva, according to a report in an official Saudi weekly, Ain al-Yaqeen. The total spending, including supplying or training imams and teachers, was “many billions” of Saudi riyals (at a rate of about four to a dollar), the report said.

Saudi religious teaching had particular force because it came from the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the land of Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. When Saudi imams arrived in Muslim countries in Asia or Africa, or in Muslim communities in Europe or the Americas, wearing traditional Arabian robes, speaking the language of the Quran — and carrying a generous checkbook — they had automatic credibility.

As the 20th century progressed and people of different nationalities and faiths mixed routinely, the puritanical, exclusionary nature of Wahhab’s teachings would become more and more dysfunctional. But the Saudi government would find it extraordinarily difficult to shed or soften its ideology, especially after the landmark year of 1979.

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The Iranian revolution in early 1979 brought to power a radical Shiite government, symbolically challenging Saudi Arabia, the leader of Sunnism, for leadership of global Islam. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Tehran that year, the Iranian revolution brought to power a radical Shiite government, symbolically challenging Saudi Arabia, the leader of Sunnism, for leadership of global Islam. The declaration of an Islamic Republic escalated the competition between the two major branches of Islam, spurring the Saudis to redouble their efforts to counter Iran and spread Wahhabism around the world.

Then, in a stunning strike, a band of 500 Saudi extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks, publicly calling Saudi rulers puppets of the West and traitors to true Islam. The rebels were defeated, but leading clerics agreed to back the government only after assurances of support for a crackdown on immodest ways in the kingdom and a more aggressive export of Wahhabism abroad.

Finally, at year’s end, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and seized power to prop up a Communist government. It soon faced an insurgent movement of mujahedeen, or holy warriors battling for Islam, which drew fighters from around the world for a decade-long battle to expel the occupiers.

Throughout the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and the United States worked together to finance the mujahedeen in this great Afghan war, which would revive the notion of noble armed jihad for Muslims worldwide. President Ronald Reagan famously welcomed to the Oval Office a delegation of bearded “Afghan freedom fighters” whose social and theological views were hardly distinguishable from those later embraced by the Taliban.

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Saudi Arabia and the United States worked together to support the mujahedeen, the Afghan fighters whose representatives met President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office in 1983, in their fight against the Soviet occupation. Credit White House

In fact, the United States spent $ 50 million from 1986 to 1992 on what was called a “jihad literacy” project — printing books for Afghan children and adults to encourage violence against non-Muslim “infidels” like Soviet troops. A first-grade language textbook for Pashto speakers, for example, according to a study by Dana Burde, an associate professor at New York University, used “Mujahid,” or fighter of jihad, as the illustration: “My brother is a Mujahid. Afghan Muslims are Mujahedeen. I do jihad together with them. Doing jihad against infidels is our duty.”

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The United States spent millions printing textbooks for Afghan children and adults that encouraged violence against non-Muslim “infidels” like Soviet troops, as in this excerpt from a book for Pashto-speaking first graders. Credit From Dana Burde, Schools for Conflict or for Peace in Afghanistan

Pressure After 9/11

One day in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Robert W. Jordan, the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was driving in the kingdom with the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. The prince pointed to a mosque and said, “I just fired the imam there.” The man’s preaching had been too militant, he said.

Mr. Jordan, a Texas lawyer, said that after the Qaeda attacks, he had stepped up pressure on the Saudi government over its spread of extremism. “I told them: ‘What you teach in your schools and preach in your mosques now is not an internal matter. It affects our national security,’” he said.

After years of encouraging and financing a harsh Islam in support of the anti-Soviet jihad, the United States had reversed course — gradually during the 1990s and then dramatically after the Sept. 11 attacks. But in pressuring Saudi Arabia, American officials would tread lightly, acutely aware of American dependence on Saudi oil and intelligence cooperation. Saudi reform would move at an excruciatingly slow pace.

OPEN Document

Document: State Dept. Study on Saudi Textbooks

Twelve years after Sept. 11, after years of quiet American complaints about Saudi teachings, a State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, completed a study of official Saudi textbooks. It reported some progress in cutting back on bigoted and violent content but found that plenty of objectionable material remained. Officials never released the 2013 study, for fear of angering the Saudis. The New York Times obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Seventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most, the report found, among dozens of passages it found troubling. Tenth graders learned that Muslims who abandoned Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they did not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.” Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagated views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights, not to say downright quirky — advocating, for instance, execution for sorcerers and warning against the dangers of the Rotary Club and the Lions Club. (The groups’ intent, said a 10th-grade textbook, “is to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”)

The textbooks, or other Saudi teaching materials with similar content, had been distributed in scores of countries, the study found. Textbook reform has continued since the 2013 study, and Saudi officials say they are trying to replace older books distributed overseas.

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Excerpts from Saudi textbooks with critical comments from a 2013 study, commissioned by the State Department, that was never released for fear of angering the Saudis. The New York Times obtained the study under the Freedom of Information Act.

But as the study noted, the schoolbooks were only a modest part of the Saudis’ lavishly funded global export of Wahhabism. In many places, the study said, the largess includes “a Saudi-funded school with a Wahhabist faculty (educated in a Saudi-funded Wahhabist University), attached to a mosque with a Wahhabist imam, and ultimately controlled by an international Wahhabist educational body.”

This ideological steamroller has landed in diverse places where Muslims of different sects had spent centuries learning to accommodate one another. Sayyed Shah, a Pakistani journalist working on a doctorate in the United States, described the devastating effect on his town, not far from the Afghan border, of the arrival some years ago of a young Pakistani preacher trained in a Saudi-funded seminary.

Village residents had long held a mélange of Muslim beliefs, he said. “We were Sunni, but our culture, our traditions were a mixture of Shia and Barelvi and Deobandi,” Mr. Shah said, referring to Muslim sects. His family would visit the large Barelvi shrine, and watch their Shiite neighbors as they lashed themselves in a public religious ritual. “We wouldn’t do that ourselves, but we’d hand out sweets and water,” he said.

The new preacher, he said, denounced the Barelvi and Shiite beliefs as false and heretical, dividing the community and setting off years of bitter argument. By 2010, Mr. Shah said, “everything had changed.” Women who had used shawls to cover their hair and face began wearing full burqas. Militants began attacking kiosks where merchants sold secular music CDs. Twice, terrorists used explosives to try to destroy the village’s locally famous shrine.

Now, Mr. Shah said, families are divided; his cousin, he said, “just wants Saudi religion.” He said an entire generation had been “indoctrinated” with a rigid, unforgiving creed.

“It’s so difficult these days,” he said. “Initially we were on a single path. We just had economic problems, but we were culturally sound.”

He added, “But now it’s very difficult, because some people want Saudi culture to be our culture, and others are opposing that.”

C. Christine Fair, a specialist on Pakistan at Georgetown University, said Mr. Shah’s account was credible. But like many scholars describing the Saudi impact on religion, she said that militancy in Pakistan also had local causes. While Saudi money and teaching have unquestionably been “accelerants,” Pakistan’s sectarian troubles and jihadist violence have deep roots dating to the country’s origins in the partition of India in 1947.

“The idea that without the Saudis Pakistan would be Switzerland is ridiculous,” she said.

Elusive Saudi Links

That is the disputed question, of course: how the world would be different without decades of Saudi-funded shaping of Islam. Though there is a widespread belief that Saudi influence has contributed to the growth of terrorism, it is rare to find a direct case of cause and effect. For example, in Brussels, the Grand Mosque was built with Saudi money and staffed with Saudi imams. In 2012, according to Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, one Saudi preacher was removed after Belgian complaints that he was a “true Salafi” who did not accept other schools of Islam. And Brussels’ immigrant neighborhoods, notably Molenbeek, have long been the home of storefront mosques teaching hard-line Salafi views.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November and in Brussels in March were tied to an Islamic State cell in Belgium, the Saudi history was the subject of several news media reports. Yet it was difficult to find any direct link between the bombers and the Saudi legacy in the Belgian capital.

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A wounded man at the airport in Brussels after an attack by jihadists in March. There appears to be no direct link between the bombers and the Saudi legacy in the Belgian capital. Credit Ketevan Kardava/Associated Press

Several suspects had petty criminal backgrounds; their knowledge of Islam was described by friends as superficial; they did not appear to be regulars at any mosque. Though the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blasts, resentment of the treatment of North African immigrant families in Belgium and exposure to Islamic State propaganda, in person or via the internet and social media, appeared to be the major factors motivating the attacks.

If there was a Saudi connection, it was highly indirect, perhaps playing out over a generation or longer. Hind Fraihi, a Moroccan-Belgian journalist who went underground in the Brussels immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek in 2005 and wrote a book about it, met Saudi-trained imams and found lots of extremist literature written in Saudi Arabia that encouraged “polarization, the sentiment of us against them, the glorification of jihad.”

The recent attackers, Ms. Fraihi said, were motivated by “lots of factors — economic frustration, racism, a generation that feels it has no future.” But Saudi teaching, she said, “is part of the cocktail.”

Without the Saudi presence over the decades, might a more progressive and accommodating Islam, reflecting immigrants’ Moroccan roots, have taken hold in Brussels? Would young Muslims raised in Belgium have been less susceptible to the stark, violent call of the Islamic State? Conceivably, but the case is impossible to prove.

Or consider an utterly different cultural milieu — the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. The Saudis have sent money for mosque-building, books and teachers for decades, said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.

“Over time,” said Ms. Jones, who has visited or lived in Indonesia since the 1970s, the Saudi influence “has contributed to a more conservative, more intolerant atmosphere.” (President Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy, has remarked on the same phenomenon.) She said she believed money from private Saudi donors and foundations was behind campaigns in Indonesia against Shiite and Ahmadi Islam, considered heretical by Wahhabi teaching. Some well-known Indonesian religious vigilantes are Saudi-educated, she said.

But when Ms. Jones studied the approximately 1,000 people arrested in Indonesia on terrorism charges since 2002, she found only a few — “literally four or five” — with ties to Wahhabi or Salafi institutions. When it comes to violence, she concluded, the Saudi connection is “mostly a red herring.”

In fact, she said, there is a gulf between Indonesian jihadists and Indonesian Salafis who look to Saudi or Yemeni scholars for guidance. The jihadists accuse the Salafis of failing to act on their convictions; the Salafis scorn the jihadists as extremists.

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During his reign from 1964 to 1975, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, pictured here in May 1968, embraced the duty of spreading Islam around the world. Credit Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

Whatever the global effects of decades of Saudi proselytizing, it is under greater scrutiny than ever, from outside and inside the kingdom. Saudi leaders’ ideological reform efforts, encompassing textbooks and preaching, amount to a tacit recognition that its religious exports have sometimes backfired. And the kingdom has stepped up an aggressive public relations campaign in the West, hiring American publicists to counter critical news media reports and fashion a reformist image for Saudi leaders.

But neither the publicists nor their clients can renounce the strain of Islam on which the Saudi state was built, and old habits sometimes prove difficult to suppress. A prominent cleric, Saad bin Nasser al-Shethri, had been stripped of a leadership position by the previous king, Abdullah, for condemning coeducation. King Salman restored Mr. Shethri to the job last year, not long after the cleric had joined the chorus of official voices criticizing the Islamic State. But Mr. Shethri’s reasoning for denouncing the Islamic State suggested the difficulty of change. The group was, he said, “more infidel than Jews and Christians.”

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