Combating extremism: Saudi Arabia must act, not just talk

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. (Reuters pic)

By Moaz Nair

I refer to Gharawi Mohammed’s response to my piece dated Aug 15, “Why Saudi Arabia is not qualified to lead an anti-terrorism centre”.

I appreciate that the Saudi crown prince is working hard to spread moderate thought and eliminate extremism in the region. This means that immoderate thought and extremism really does exist in some Muslim societies, and this has to be reined in.

The House of Saud has maintained its politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect since the proclamation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Wahhabi teachings are the official, state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism, or Salafism, is an idiosyncratic Islamic doctrine on monotheism, which brands other Muslims as practising shirk (idolatry or polytheism).

Strict and literal interpretations of the Quran and hadith from the seventh-century perspective have made this school of thought rather extreme in the eyes of moderate Muslims. The majority of Muslims in Malaysia, on the other hand, are the moderate Ahlus-Sunnah. Peaceful Malaysia is not ready to accept extremist ideologies of any kind.

Disunity in Muslim communities

Islamic scholars, including those from the Al-Azhar University, have denounced Wahhabism which has been labelled as “a source of global terrorism”, inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State (IS), and accused of causing disunity in Muslim communities by labelling Muslims who disagree with the Wahhabi definition of monotheism as apostates (takfiri) and justifying their killing.

Regrettably, with the help of funding from Saudi petroleum dollars, the movement has crept into the psyche of extremist groups as early as the 1970s and now has worldwide influence.

The US State Department estimates that over the past four decades, Saudi Arabia has invested more than US$10 billion in bodies disguised as “charitable” foundations in many countries in an attempt to replace mainstream Sunni Islam with the intolerant Wahhabism.

My contention is that Malaysia should stay away from extremists, Saudi Wahabbism and its influence on Malaysian soil. Saudi Arabia should not be given a free pass to expand its regional influence and increase its sway over other Muslim countries by disseminating its inflexible position on Islam.

Since the Sept 11 attacks, staged mainly by Saudi-born hijackers, Saudi Arabia has come to realise that the chickens have come home to roost. Just after the Sept 11 incident, there was a series of attacks by Al-Qaeda and IS against the kingdom. Saudi Arabia then woke from its slumber and began to be more serious about extremists.

In fact, Saudi Arabia’s fight against terrorism was only in response to intense pressure from the US following the Sept 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Even then, Saudi Arabia’s cooperation has thus far been peripheral and a little sluggish.

Billions spent spreading Wahhabism

According to reports by US intelligence, financial support for terrorism from Saudis “remains a threat to the kingdom itself and the international community”. Saudi Arabia has discredited its own image by continuing to spend billions of dollars spreading Wahhabism, its ultra-conservative brand of Islam, which in turn inspired IS, Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists.

It was reported that this was done through a network of clerics, imams, madrasas and mosques in countries all over the world including Indonesia and Pakistan. The symptoms have spread to many other Muslim countries and groups in Muslim-minority nations. If unrestrained, this will gradually seep onto Malaysian soil as there are some Wahabbi and IS sympathisers in the country, including some foreign-born preachers masquerading as experts in Islam.

Too dependent on the Wahhabi clerics for acceptance and in order to stay in power, the royal family of Saudi had been dawdling in reforming a religious school of thought (Wahabbism) which teaches that non-believers and wayward Muslims should be shunned or fought if they reject its strict doctrines. In fact, experts who have pored over the Saudi school curriculum have reported that some Saudi school texts seem to make a virtue of hating others.

Foulest of all, the Saudis have funded dubious schools and organisations throughout the Islamic world. Many of these establishments have been used as breeding grounds for anti-secularist indoctrination. The schools, for example, not only indoctrinate students in an infectious and extreme form of Islam, they also teach them to abominate secular Western values.

They are taught that the West is the centre of infidel power in the world and the enemy of Islam. Adherents of these schools were the main recruits for terror network as well as other extremist groups.

Of note are the copious numbers of extremist madrasas funded by the Saudis operating in Pakistan and many other Muslim countries. As reported, the Saudis have been the primary financial supporters of Afghanistan’s detestable Taliban movement since at least 1996. They have also channelled funds to other groups that have committed terrorist acts in other parts of the Middle East.

The foremost foreign funder of extremism

Saudi Arabia’s influence on Pakistan abounds. Today, Pakistan’s culpability is nearly as great as Saudi Arabia’s. Without vigorous support from the government in Islamabad, the Taliban could never have come to power in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities have helped fund these “soldiers of fortune” and equip them with ammunitions since the mid-1990s when the Taliban was just an inconsequential offshoot in Afghanistan’s civil war.

The Saudis are now creating more extremists with their ruthless war in Yemen. Thank God, Malaysia has pulled out its military forces involved in this tribal, intra-religious and territorial conflict.

According to a British think tank, as reported in 2017, Saudi Arabia is the “foremost” foreign funder of Islamist extremism in the UK.

The Henry Jackson Society claimed that overseas funding primarily from the governments and private charities of Gulf countries had a growing linkage to violence and the blitzkrieg attempts to destabilise the societal fabric of the UK and other Western countries.

The report estimated that the Saudi government and charities had spent an estimated US$4 billion exporting Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, worldwide in 2015, up from US$2 billion in 2007. In 2015, there were 110 mosques in the UK practising Salafism and Wahhabism compared to 68 in 2007. The money is primarily routed through mosques and Islamic schools in Britain.

The report also mentioned that Wahhabism has flourished through the training of British Muslim religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, as well as the use of Saudi textbooks in a number of the UK’s independent Islamic schools.

Regrettably, despite knowing that Saudi Arabia is largely to blame, the UK has publicly reinforced its economic and security ties to the country. Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s major security cohorts in the Middle East, raking in US$4.2 billion in weapons deals since March 2015.

The UK has persistently defended its relationship with Saudi Arabia, even in the face of criticism over the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in the ruthless war in Yemen. Perhaps to the UK, money talks more than national security. Malaysians may not want this to happen to their country.

Saudi has been known for fighting, while funding, extremists

Saudi Arabia has always been ambivalent when it comes to anti-terrorist activities. Saudi Arabia and a few Gulf countries implemented a blockade against Qatar in 2017 amid allegations that Saudi Arabia was the primary culprit in its support for extremist activities. Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbours decided to punish Qatar, apparently for nurturing and funding Islamist terrorism. But then Saudi Arabia itself has been accused by the Arab states, Turkey and Iran, of endorsing extremism.

The support for extremists, for instance, has backfired on Saudi Arabia. Qatar has long been accused of channelling money to the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential political network in the region. The Brotherhood has officially renounced violence. Yet Saudi Arabia, whose royal rulers fear Islamist populism, still brands it a terrorist outfit for fear that their positions as rulers will be at stake with the democratisation of the kingdom.

Qatar has also supported radicals in Syria – like the Qaeda offshoot Al Nusra – and groups in Libya and other Arab nations. Nonetheless, the Saudis have long aided competing rebel groups in those countries, including extremists. This has become a really endless and convoluted tribal war affair in the region.

Malaysia does not need this kind of religious influence or indoctrination in the guise of establishing an anti-terrorism centre. Malaysia also should not take sides when it involves Saudi Arabia’s multifarious roles among Muslim nations which have reached an irredeemable new level of impediment.

Willingness of Saudi and its cohorts to actually combat terrorism is doubtful

As yet, the disposition of Saudi Arabia and its cohorts the world over to actually rein in terrorism is implausible. Some of these countries appear to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. That concern is especially grave with respect to Saudi Arabia and countries on its list of friends and ideological influences.

Saudi Arabia should defund terrorist organisations and the extremist “schools” that provide them with recruits and influence. This also means severing ties with terrorist movements such as the Taliban and other extremist groups nestling in some Muslim countries with the help of their petrol dollars.

As I brought to light in my article, “Mohammad Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is now calling for a review of the school curriculum in the kingdom and a review of the books of hadith and the literal understanding of some of the verses in the Quran, which were revealed in the seventh century. He said they should not be interpreted in the context of the past era and circumstances but rather the present.”

It’s now time for Saudi Arabia to prove by its deeds, not just its words, that it is serious about contributing to the crusade against international extremists and terrorism.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.