Donald M. Bishop, "Quotable: Scott Shane on 'Saudi Arabia’s export of a rigid strain of Islam',” publicdiplomacycouncil.org
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Sunday, September 11th 2016
“Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.”
This was just one conclusion of a long and extensive New York Times report by reporter Scott Shane. With summaries of reports on Wahhabism, Saudi religious influence, past U.S. actions that may have contributed to the rise of Islamism, Saudi textbooks, and support for mosques and religious schools around the world, this report is worth reading in full.
Subhead: Critics see Saudi Arabia’s export of a rigid strain of Islam as contributing to terrorism, but the kingdom’s influence depends greatly on local conditions.
Author: Scott Shane
Source: The New York Times
Date: August 25, 2016
- In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.
- Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counterterrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.
- Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said.
- Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.
- There is a broad consensus that the Saudi ideological juggernaut has disrupted local Islamic traditions in dozens of countries — the result of lavish spending on religious outreach for half a century, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. The result has been amplified by guest workers, many from South Asia, who spend years in Saudi Arabia and bring Saudi ways home with them.
- In many countries, Wahhabist preaching has encouraged a harshly judgmental religion, contributing to majority support in some polls in Egypt, Pakistan and other countries for stoning for adultery and execution for anyone trying to leave Islam.
- And for a small minority in many countries, the exclusionary Saudi version of Sunni Islam, with its denigration of Jews and Christians, as well as of Muslims of Shiite, Sufi and other traditions, may have made some people vulnerable to the lure of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups.
- A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani declared with regret in a television interview in January that the Islamic State leaders “draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, our own principles.”
- Small details of Saudi practice can cause outsize trouble. For at least two decades, the kingdom has distributed an English translation of the Quran that in the first surah, or chapter, adds parenthetical references to Jews and Christians in addressing Allah: “those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the editor in chief of the new Study Quran, an annotated English version, said the additions were “a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition.”
- One American former official who has begun to speak out is Ms. [Farah] Pandith, the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide. From 2009 to 2014, she visited Muslims in 80 countries and concluded that Saudi influence was pernicious and universal. “In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence,” shewrote in The New York Times last year. She said the United States should “disrupt the training of extremist imams,” “reject free Saudi textbooks and translations that are filled with hate,” and “prevent the Saudis from demolishing local Muslim religious and cultural sites that are evidence of the diversity of Islam.”
- Yet some scholars on Islam and extremism, including experts on radicalization in many countries, push back against the notion that Saudi Arabia bears predominant responsibility for the current wave of extremism and jihadist violence.
- They point to multiple sources for the rise and spread of Islamist terrorism, including repressive secular governments in the Middle East, local injustices and divisions, the hijacking of the internet for terrorist propaganda, and American interventions in the Muslim world from the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq.
- A major tenet of official Saudi Islamic teaching is obedience to rulers — hardly a precept that encourages terrorism intended to break nations. Many Saudi and Saudi-trained clerics are quietist, characterized by a devotion to scripture and prayer and a shunning of politics, let alone political violence.
- And especially since 2003, when Qaeda attacks in the kingdom awoke the monarchy to the danger it faced from militancy, Saudi Arabia has acted more aggressively to curtail preachers who call for violence, cut off terrorist financing and cooperate with Western intelligence to foil terrorist plots.
- From 2004 to 2012, 3,500 imams were fired for refusing to renounce extremist views, and another 20,000 went through retraining, according to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs — though the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed skepticism that the training was really “instilling tolerance.”
- An American scholar with long experience in Saudi Arabia — who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his ability to travel to the kingdom for research — said he believed that Saudi influence had often been exaggerated in American political discourse. But he compared it to climate change. Just as a one-degree increase in temperature can ultimately result in drastic effects around the globe, with glaciers melting and species dying off, so Saudi teaching is playing out in many countries in ways that are hard to predict and difficult to trace but often profound, the scholar said.
- Saudi proselytizing can result in a “recalibrating of the religious center of gravity” for young people, the scholar said, which makes it “easier for them to swallow or make sense of the ISIS religious narrative when it does arrive. It doesn’t seem quite as foreign as it might have, had that Saudi religious influence not been there.”
- . . . in 1938 . . . American prospectors discovered the largest oil reserves on earth in Saudi Arabia. Oil revenue generated by the Arabian-American Oil Company, or Aramco, created fabulous wealth. But it also froze in place a rigid social and economic system and gave the conservative religious establishment an extravagant budget for the export of its severe strain of Islam.
- 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 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.
- 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.”
- 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. [Link to the study.] 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.
- . . . like many scholars describing the Saudi impact on religion, [C. Christine Fair, a specialist on Pakistan at Georgetown University] 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.
- 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.
- 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.