How Saudi money is promoting religious extremism
By Alexander Posner
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the escalation of Boko Haram violence in Nigeria, and the challenges posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Western world has rekindled the ongoing debate about the roots of religious extremism.
The contours of this discourse are familiar. Yet one clear cause of Islamic terrorism has been glaringly absent from the public debate—the export of extremist ideology from donors in the Gulf States, especially in Saudi Arabia. This factor, perhaps as much as any other, has opened the door for violent extremism to thrive.
Consider what has happened in Pakistan over the last few decades. In 1980, approximately 800 madrassas, or religious schools, operated within the country. Today that number has surged to about 20,000. Of these, some say an estimated 20 percent are teaching young children to hate. “Children [at radical madrassas] are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy,” observed Bryan Hunt, the United States’ then consul general to Lahore, in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2009. They are exposed to an ideology that, when applied in practice, can morph into violent extremism.
While only a minority of the madrassas preach radical ideology, the majority—according to State Department estimates—use Saudi textbooks that often promote anti-Semitic and anti-Christian perspectives. “Jews are referred to as children of apes and pigs, and Christians are sometimes included in these descriptions as well,” said Hannah Rosenthal, a former State Department official who oversaw the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. “These textbooks often encourage students to hate.”
This metamorphosis of Pakistani schools has produced an unusual phenomenon: a younger generation that is more religiously radical than their parents or grandparents. But this shift in Pakistani religious thought actually mirrors the ideological shifts occurring across the Arab world, in parts of East and West Africa, and as far as Southeast Asia. And in almost all of these cases, the schools and mosques fueling religious extremism have relied on foreign funding.
So where exactly is this money coming from? Who is driving this shift in religious thinking?
At the center of the story is a network of well-financed religious charities based in Saudi Arabia. Since 1979, these private charities have spent tens of billions of dollars funding the spread of Wahabbism, the country’s ultra-conservative brand of Islam. With Saudi dollars, Islamic leaders who support this controversial ideology have built mosques, recruited Imams, and invested heavily in schools that teach Wahhabism.
Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times, did not mince words. Wahhabism is “the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic and anti-women version” of the Islamic faith,“ he wrote. “It’s a very short step from Wahhabi Islam to the violent jihadism practiced by the Islamic State, or ISIS.”
Others have been just as critical.
“There’s no question that there has been a virus that has spread throughout the Muslim world, a virus of ultra-orthodox puritanism,” explained Muslim scholar Reza Aslan in a January interview on Meet the Press. “There’s also no question what the source of this virus is — whether we’re talking about Boko Haram, or ISIS, or al-Qaida, or the Taliban. All of them have as their source Wahhabism, or the state religion of Saudi Arabia.”
Some, however, take issue with this characterization of Wahhabism. Frank Griffel, a professor of Religious Studies at Yale, acknowledged that Wahhabism is “anti-pluralistic” and “very intolerant,” but disputed the idea that it has greatly influenced the growth of ISIS. “ISIS has its own story which generates out of the civil war both in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Although there is influence in this case from Wahhabism, I would say that the majority of what ISIS actually tries to do is independent of Wahhabism.”
However, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, disagrees. ISIS’ ideology “is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” he said in an article published by The New York Times. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”
Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the Financial Times, also highlighted the links between ISIS and Wahhabism. “Some of the features of ISIS ideology, such as its hatred of Shia Muslims and application of strict punishments such as limb amputations, are shared with the purist Salafi thought that defines Saudi Wahhabism,” they noted. “ISIS has explicitly referenced early Wahhabi teachers, such as Mohammed ibn Abdulwahhab, to justify its destruction of Shia shrines and Christian churches as it cuts a swath through Iraq and Syria. Thousands of Saudi nationals have been recruited to its ranks.”
Wahhabism first emerged in 18th century from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a scholar who believed Muslims had erred in their adherence to the faith. He called for a literalist interpretation of the Quran and for a renewed commitment to Islam. He supported labeling non-Wahhabi Muslims as apostates, or traitors of the faith, and using violence to confront them.
In 1744, al-Wahhab forged an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the Saud dynasty and the first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah. Together, they committed themselves to purifying Islam, purging it of heretical beliefs, and spreading the doctrine of Wahhabism. This partnership proved to be one for the ages. The House of Saud preserved this politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect and, following Saudi Arabia’s founding in 1932, declared it the official state religion.
Despite its rise to prominence in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism initially remained on the fringes of the Arab world. Its adherents were a very small minority within the country and accounted for only a few percentage points of the global Muslim population. In fact, Wahhabism would have likely remained a footnote in history were it not for one thing: oil.
Starting the 1970s, Wahhabism underwent explosive growth. Religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, armed with virtually unlimited wealth from the country’s vast oil resources, initiated a campaign to spread Wahhabism throughout the Arab world. A collection of private Wahhabi charities—some affiliated with the religious affairs military in the government—began to form, and built what is today a vast global network.
“Saudi Arabia exports oil and extremism, roughly in equal quantity,” explained Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist and social activist who many considered Pakistan’s leading intellectual. “Saudi money, sometimes hidden and sometimes overt, lies behind countless Islamic charities, madrassas, and jihadist groups active around the world.”
This secretive transfer of wealth often occurs during the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. As millions of Muslims congregate for five days of prayer, religious leaders from around the world use their visits to solicit funds from Wahhabi charities. They return home, as Hoodbhoy explained, with “suitcases of cash.” And while much of this money is used for purely benevolent purposes, a sizeable portion ends up financing extremist organizations.
A 2009 State Department memo, made public by Wikileaks, described the Wahhabi network in the following terms: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide…Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban…and other terrorist groups.”
Over the last 30 years, these Saudi charities have spent more than $100 billion dollars facilitating the spread of Wahhabism. This avalanche of money has made its way into mosques and madrassas in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia, and has introduced Wahhabism into regions where it did not previously exist, weakening moderate Islam in the process.
Gulf funding, in other words, has helped to produce one of the most consequential religious shifts in the recent history of the Islamic world. What would have otherwise been a fringe strain of Islam has instead been thrust into the mainstream. Wahhabism has provided the framework for extremist thinking to thrive and for terrorism to spread worldwide.
These religious shifts in context must be put in context. The overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim’s are obviously peaceful global citizens who sharply condemn violent extremism. Adherents of Wahhabism remain a small fraction of the total Muslim population, and most of those who embrace Wahhabism are not violent terrorists.
However, among Islamic extremists, Wahhabism—and the ideas derived from it—is frequently cited as a strong source of inspiration. ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban all embrace aspects of Wahhabism—directly or indirectly—as part of their ideological provenance, and they recruit new members from Wahhabi-inspired mosques and madrassas.
And while Islamic terrorists represent only a sliver of the Muslim population, their violent acts capture a disproportionate share of the world’s attention. When militant extremism becomes a prominent global force, political discourse and religious pluralism suffer.
The religious charities in Saudi Arabia have played and continue to play a central role in exacerbating these problems. And as long as they continue to bankroll Wahhabism’s spread, the politicization of Islam and the use of violence by extremist groups will remain a global challenge.
The West has neglected to confront the Wahhabi-export machine, in large part due to oil. Saudi Arabia has the largest petroleum reserves in the world. It extracts more oil every day than any other country on earth, and ships a large portion of its production to the United States. While the U.S. has inched closer to energy independence, Saudi Arabia’s continued influence over oil markets has preserved America’s deference to its power.
At the same time, the Saudi Arabian government is a prized customer of the U.S.’s defense industry. In 2010, Saudi Arabia announced a $60 billion arms deal with the United States that included 84 fighter jets, 132 Blackhawk helicopters, and upgrades to over 70 military planes. The largest arms sale in U.S. history, the deal benefitted manufacturers in 44 states and helped to support over 77,000 American jobs. This narrative of job growth, coupled with the lobbying power of the defense industry, has helped protect Saudi Arabia’s reputation in Washington D.C.
However, the Saudi government does not depend on its oil reserves and military spending to remain in the good graces of the United States. It also oversees one of the largest lobbying apparatuses of any foreign government in the world. Saudi Arabian donors funnel money into influential nonprofit organizations, including think tanks, charitable organizations, and American universities.
The Atlantic Council, the Clinton Foundation, the Middle East Policy Council, and the Middle East Institute all receive funding from Saudi Arabian donors. American academic intuitions, including the Middle East Studies Departments at Harvard, Cornell, Duke, Princeton, Berkeley, and Georgetown, have also received generous donations from Saudi benefactors; in 2005, for example, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave Harvard and Georgetown $20 million apiece.
Khalid Alnaji, a registered operative of the Saudi government, sits on the board of the American Petroleum Institution. And former U.S. Senator Norman Coleman, who oversees the American Action Network (an influential SuperPAC) and the Congressional Leadership Network, has signed on as a paid lobbyist of the Saudi Arabian government.
This money and influence have paid enormous dividends. In 2012, for example, the U.S. State Department examined the content of Saudi Arabian textbooks and their global distribution. While the completed report praised Saudi Arabia for some modifications to their textbooks, it ultimately concluded that Saudi Arabia had failed to rid its teaching materials of racist and religiously divisive content. When the State Department attempted to publish the report, the White House intervened, citing the delicacy of U.S.-Saudi relations. As one newspaper headline later read, “U.S. Keeps Saudi Arabia’s Worst Secret.”
The disparaging content of Saudi textbooks has been well known for years. In 2006, Freedom House, through its Center for Religious Freedom, released a highly critical report about the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia. The study, overseen by a handful of prominent scholars and policymakers—including R. James Woolsey, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency—concluded that Saudi textbooks “propagate an ideology of hate toward the ‘unbeliever,’ which includes Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others.”
The report explained that Saudi textbooks, which are used in religious schools around the world, “promote an ideology of hatred that teaches bigotry and deplores tolerance.”
“Saudi Arabia,” the report concluded, has “sowed enmity against the West.”
Unfortunately, these textbooks remain in regular use by Muslim students around the world. Even ISIS, according to The New York Times, circulates Saudi textbooks in the schools it controls. Nonetheless, the United States has failed to hold the Saudi government accountable and to prevent the indoctrination of these young children.
The January passing of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has nudged the country into the global spotlight and ignited a debate about U.S.-Saudi relations. Most notably, many commentators have criticized the U.S.’s praise for King Abdullah, especially considering his failure to tame Wahhabism or grant equal rights to women.
In sharing his condolences, President Obama praised King Abdullah’s “perspective” and “courage of convictions.” He highlighted their “genuine and warm friendship” and the “closeness and strength of the partnership” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The President even cut short a historic trip to India to fly across the world in time for King Abdullah’s funeral.
Other Western leaders issued similar statements. British Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted the King’s “commitment to peace” and thanked him for “strengthening understanding between faiths.” The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey held an essay contest to honor Abdullah and his legacy. Most dazzling of all, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde praised the late king as “a strong advocate of women.” Considering that Saudi Arabia bans women from driving or leaving the house without a male companion, it is hard to take such a statement seriously.
This is not to say King Abdullah deserves all the blame. To a large extent, he inherited a deeply entrenched system that asserts its own authority. But on the other hand, his attempts at reform were tepid and did little to dent the Wahhabi-export machine. He bowed to his country’s religious establishment and left the private charities to operate largely unchecked.
In truth, the western world’s praise for King Abdullah represents the larger contradictions at play. Despite the United States’ firm commitment to battling extremism and containing terrorist threats, it has failed to address one of the clearest causes of these problems. Despite its losses from 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has ignored the facts and failed to address the problem of extremist charities in Saudi Arabia and the funds they distribute around the world.
Ultimately, the issue of combatting violent extremism is highly complex. Widespread poverty, weak political institutions, and the scars of American military action all contribute—in varying degrees—to extremism in the Arab world and elsewhere. But, at the same time, there are obvious steps we can take to combat violent extremism. One step is to challenge the spread of Wahhabism, financed by Saudi Arabian charities, which contributes to the radicalization of young Muslims.
To say with certainty what taming the Wahhabi-export machine would do is near impossible, but consider the possibilities: Muslim extremists, deprived of their ideological core, might fall increasingly out of favor and struggle to recruit new members. The U.S., facing a diminished terrorist threat, might be able to scale back its military operations. And the West’s often-misguided perception of Islam might slowly fade, opening the door to a new era of religious pluralism.
This is the world we can live in if the international community is willing to confront the Wahhabi-funding network. If political leaders can close the spigot of money from the Gulf—particularly from Saudi Arabia, we can help bring an end to the post-9/11 chapter and open the way for a new, more hopeful future.
Alex Posner ’18 is in Morse College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.