Monday 19 March 2018

Saudi: as terror strikes, a decades-old controversy revives

Weeks after a visit from US ­president Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia is in the spotlight again, amid renewed concerns over its promotion of a rigid strain of ­Islam

Arms deal: Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud sign a trade agreement at the Saudi Royal Court last month. AFP/Getty Images
Arms deal: Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud sign a trade agreement at the Saudi Royal Court last month. AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May with King Salman last December.

Mary Fitzgerald

Driving across post-war Sierra Leone several years ago, I was struck by the number of villages where there was one place of worship - typically a simple mud-walled building - used by both Christians and Muslims. This, locals told me, had been the case for some time, an example of multi-faith co-existence in a country that has long been religiously diverse (Sierra Leone's brutal civil war did not have a religious component).

But cropping up across the landscape were dazzling white mosques, all of them named after King Fahd, the leader of Saudi Arabia until his death in 2005, and clearly built with Saudi funding. The kind of mosque where you are more likely to find Saudi-printed literature denouncing your Christian neighbour. I have seen King Fahd mosques and schools across Africa but also in many other countries from Pakistan to Kosovo. In each case, I heard similar concerns from local Muslims that the interpretation of Islam peddled in such Saudi-funded establishments was undermining more tolerant indigenous Islamic traditions and encouraging extremism.

A 'sensitive' report

With Isil claiming responsibility for attacks across the world from Manchester to Kabul, London and Tehran to name just the most recent examples, a decades-long debate over Saudi influence on contemporary Islam has sharpened.

Theresa May with King Salman last December.
Theresa May with King Salman last December.

Many are asking how much the kingdom's export of its particularly rigid strain of Islam - often referred to as Wahhabism, though the term is considered pejorative by Saudis - has contributed to terrorism in the form of Isil and other groups.

British prime minister Theresa May is under pressure to allow the publication of a government report into the funding of extremist groups operating in the UK which is understood to focus on the role of Saudi Arabia, criticised by other European leaders as a revenue source for such groups.

Commissioned by May's predecessor David Cameron in 2015, the report was supposed to be published by early 2016 - but a Home Office source admitted last month it may never see the light of day due to its "sensitive" content.

The weapons factor

A key element of the British-Saudi bilateral relationship is the business of weapons, with the kingdom long being one of the UK arms industry's biggest customers. Recent sales amount to over £3.5bn (€4bn). On his trip to Saudi Arabia last month, US president Donald Trump claimed to have clinched billions worth of trade agreements, including a $100bn (€89bn) arms deal.

But Trump's visit to Riyadh - and the regional summit he attended there - also highlighted concerns in Saudi Arabia that the question of what inspired and continues to inspire Isil increasingly points in the kingdom's own direction.

When the Saudis talked with Trump about countering violent extremism, trying to burnish their own credentials, many Muslims quipped that perhaps they should begin at home.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and its rulers take pride in their title of "custodians" of the two holiest mosques located in Mecca and Medina. But many Muslims resent that the kingdom's oil wealth has allowed it undue influence over Islam as it is practised across the world today, helping spread its austere expression of the faith through a network of thousands of mosques, schools and charities.

An undue influence?

This has been augmented by expatriate workers, many from South Asia but also from across the Middle East, who spend years in the kingdom only to return home with Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism which then seeps into their own societies. During one visit I made to Saudi Arabia, my Pakistani driver told me how appalled he was to witness his first execution in Riyadh just after he arrived some years before. "This is not the Islam I grew up with but the problem is this Saudi mentality is spreading including in my home country," he said.

Holding ultra-conservative views is one thing, engaging in violent extremism is another. The factors that help feed Islamist terrorism in different parts of the world are complex and many, including localised grievances and injustices; the use of propaganda, particularly online, by groups like Isil; and the heavy hand of repressive regimes.

Saudi curbs on terrorism

Some of the most influential ideologues of modern-day jihadism have little or no connection with Saudi Arabia. In fact many detest its ruling family - particularly for their close relationship with the US - and encourage attacks on the kingdom while accepting funding from private Saudi donors.

Knocked sideways by a string of domestic al-Qaeda attacks that began in 2003, the Saudi authorities took measures to curb such terrorist financing and cooperate more with Western intelligence agencies. Thousands of homegrown militants have been rounded up since, including the al-Qaeda gunman who shot dead Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers when he was on assignment with the BBC in Riyadh in 2004. The killer was executed last year. When I visited the kingdom, I met officials who were overseeing a much vaunted de-radicalisation programme with mixed results: several participants later drifted back into militancy.

Though the Saudi authorities protest that they too have been victims of terrorism, many Muslims blame the harsh Saudi brand of Sunni Islam, which not only denigrates other faiths including Christianity and Judaism but also Shia Muslims and other Muslim sects, for creating a mindset that makes some more susceptible to the messaging of Isil and other jihadist groups.

The founder and leader of al-Qaeda - Osama bin Laden - was Saudi, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers that carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Of all the would-be suicide bombers that flocked to Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, more came from Saudi than any other country. Thousands of Saudis have joined Isil as it rampaged across northern Syria and Iraq in recent years. I recall hearing a Saudi official tell a regional conference that he was concerned about popular support for Isil in the kingdom, acknowledging that there were parallels between state-sanctioned orthodoxy and that embraced by the group. In fact, Isil used official Saudi textbooks in schools it controlled in Syria and Iraq until it was able to publish its own books in 2015. A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca has admitted, with regret, that Isil "draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, our own principles".

An old debate

In Libya, however, the forces that have driven Isil from its stronghold of Sirte and other redoubts include religious hardliners who follow a Saudi scholar who has denounced Isil as deviants and heretics. These ultra-conservatives cleave to the belief - key to Saudi orthodoxy - that one must obey the ruler, a tenet that is anathema to many militants.

The debate over how much Saudi Arabia is to blame for the rise of violent extremism in its many manifestations is not new. The prickly question of where ultra-conservatism such as that espoused - and exported - by Saudi Arabia ends and extremism that births violence begins will continue to prompt heated discussions among Muslims.

Farah Pandith, a former American official who visited 80 countries as the State Department's first special representative to Muslim communities, has called for the US to do more to curb Saudi influence.

"In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence," she wrote in the New York Times in 2015. She said Washington 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."

With Trump in the White House wanting to do more business with Saudi Arabia, there is little chance of that happening soon.

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