By Adriana Carranca
January 18, 2015
Like Muslims at prayer, attention turns to Mecca when experts try to explain the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the phenomenon of global jihad. Not because it is the birthplace of Islam, but as the point of origin of a strict interpretation of Sunnism disseminated by Saudi Arabia, in a strategic design against Shia Iran, and which has inspired terrorist groups around the world, such as the Islamic State.
The monarchy of King Abdullah – and, more recently, Qatar – would have invested, since the 1970s, about US$3 billion a year, according to estimates from different sources, to finance the training and export of sheikhs and the construction of religious schools (madrasas), universities, Islamic centers, mosques, foundations and missionary institutions around the world to spread Wahhabism, the most radical and harshly orthodox strand of Islam, that rejects reformist ideas.
They funded the production, printing and distribution of doctrinal literature in various languages, to control something like 1 billion Muslims who live outside the Arab world, in a total of 1.6 billion.
Generations of Muslims – and converts – from the U.S. to Asia came under the influence of what Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism, describes as a "perversion of the pluralistic Islam practiced by most Muslims," sectarian and intolerant, he said, not only against Christianity and Judaism, but against other strands of Islam such as Shi'ism, Sufism and even the more moderate Sunnis. That doctrine laid the basis for development of today's fundamentalism and extremism.
The connection of the Saudi kingdom with groups like al-Qaida is known to the West. Tracing the links to terrorist networks responsible for the deadliest attacks in decades – 15 of the 19 terrorists of September 11 were Saudis - pointed to Riyadh…
"Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba), and other terrorist groups," the then-Secretary of State of the U.S., Hillary Clinton, affirmed in a 2009 diplomatic telegram intercepted by Wiki leaks.
Pressed by the U.S. and now threatened by what his family helped create – Al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which are pledged to overthrow the Saudi regime – King Abdullah began promoting reforms to reduce the flow of money and, more recently, announced measures that show an attempt to move away from extremists.
Last year, Saudi Arabia gave $100 million to the UN anti-terror program and put the Islamic State and other groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, on a list of terrorists.
But the influence of Wahhabism, fed for decades by Saudi Arabia, continues to resonate in mosques and madrasas around the world – and along the supply lines of combat groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia, and Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Its fighters have roots in preaching networks funded by Saudi Arabia.
Some of the funding would come from the Zakat (tax) to be paid by all Saudis, amounting to 2.5% of their assets, to charities, some of them banned by the U.S. But much more went under the radar of the anti-terrorism authorities because it financed only religious institutions or schools.
In June 2013, a European Parliament report pointed out the involvement of Wahhabi-Salafi organizations outside the Middle East in the "support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world."
James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, described Saudi Wahhabism as the "soil in which al-Qaida and its sister organizations are flourishing."
The oil boom in the 1970s facilitated the cultural offensive. There is no survey of how many madrasas, mosques and Islamic centers were funded by Saudi Arabia around the world. But the Saudi campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan gives evidence of its size. The number of madrasas in the border regions jumped from 1,000 to 8,000 after the Soviet invasion in 1978, as the Saudis fought alongside the U.S.
The Saudi combat against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan was not motivated by a friendly relationship with the U.S. or sympathy with capitalism against communism, but by an attempt on the part of Riyadh to expand its regional influence against the growing power of Shia Iran.
The Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, which put the ayatollahs in power, encouraged the Saudis to further spread Wahhabism against the Shia threat. The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, tried to inspire a new Muslim revivalism and supported Shia groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. "Saudi Arabia is not a theocracy, but governed by the royal family, which has an alliance with the clergy. Iran formed a theocracy such as they envisioned. Then the Saudis began promoting a massive missionary effort to spread Wahhabism in the world as a form of domination," says Schwartz. "In a survey I did after September 11, I found that Saudi Arabia had put at least $2 trillion into this campaign [over two decades]. Aggressive missionary work (Dawah) is one of the characteristics of Wahhabism."
Saudi Arabia concentrated efforts in defense of the oppressed Muslims around the world, to gain support for their Wahhabi goal – later, this message would become the focal point of bin Laden's propaganda, as Karen Armstrong, author Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, wrote recently in the New Statesman.
"Islam is growing in the wrong way and with the wrong message, mainly due to the spread of Saudi Wahhabism, a mistaken interpretation of Islam, because it ignores contemporary studies that help understand the teachings of the prophet," Sheikh Abdel Ghani al-Hindi, a spokesman for the imams of the University of Al-Azhar in Egypt, considered the intellectual center of Islam, declared in an interview with O Estado. "Islam faces the problem of 'Saudisation' of countries like Pakistan, Indonesia ... Their understanding of Islam is fundamentalist."
Leaders, and especially the student union, at Al-Azhar had in the past supported groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Hindi said that the university is not a religious or political but an academic institution. "We teach all forms of Islam, scientifically. But we cannot compete with Saudi Arabia. Islamic centers around the world have been attracted by Saudi petrodollars," he says.
"Qatar and Saudi Arabia have ignited a time bomb by financing the global spread of radical Islam," The Telegraph in London paraphrased General Jonathan Shaw, the former commander of British forces in Iraq. He pointed to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as mainly responsible for the growth of Islamic extremism that inspires the terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which he said, as also paraphrased by the British newspaper, "can only be defeated by political and ideological means. Western air strikes in Iraq and Syria will, in his view, achieve nothing except temporary tactical success."
"Institutions built by the Saudis were handed over to administration by governments or the Muslim communities, but still follow Wahhabism, even here in the U.S.," says Schwartz. Some call themselves "Salafis," but according to Schwartz, have no relation to the Salafi reform movement that arose in Egypt during the 19th century, and was more moderate. "The Wahhabis call themselves Salafis in reference to the first generations of Muslims, the pious forerunners. There is no reformist feature in them. "
Although Riyadh has promoted reforms, even if cautiously, in recent years, human rights violations occurring in the cradle of Islam and legitimized by the Saudi Wahhabis include beheading of individuals condemned by the Riyadh dictatorship – 2,000 since 1985, according to Amnesty International – that end up inspiring and motivating followers of this school, such as the Islamic State, to do the same.
"But of course, we cannot say that every Wahhabi is as extremist as the Islamic State. This group created something new, more extreme than we saw before. It's the new Wahhabi ultra fundamentalism," [Schwartz concluded.]
Aids to Understanding
Wahhabism emerged in the 1700s in a village in Najd, in the Arabian desert, on the initiative of a young scholar named Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. Convinced that Islam had been corrupted and weakened by the Ottoman Empire, he advocated a return to the roots – the original texts – of religion as a way to regain power and prestige, rejecting the Muslim culture that had flourished, and which in his view had harmed Islam, in previous centuries.
"Wahhabism opposes everything that came after the prophet. And they believe that other religions or trends in Islam they consider unacceptable should disappear. It is the most radical form of Sunni Islam," Stephen Schwartz told O Estado.
When the Islamic empire began to crumble in the 18th century, revival flourished in the Muslim world and encouraged the spread of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab's doctrine. He established an alliance with the House of Sa'ud, from which the Saudi royal family descends, and who have used religion as a cover to increase their political power. The alliance between the monarchy and Wahhabism has been maintained through the centuries.
[Translated and edited by Center for Islamic Pluralism. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of O Estado de S. Paulo on January 18, 2015, accessible here.]