The New York Times has published another in its "Secrets of the Kingdom" series on Saudi Arabia, this time delving into the Saudi monarchy's complicated political/religious pact with Wahhabi Islam.
The ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam has had quite a widespread impact on global Islam, and by extension, the non-Muslim world -- as I've noted here before.
This installment of the intermittent series -- which I've touted previously -- offers up no real secrets to those who pay serious attention to the Middle East. Still, the piece and the series in general -- a package of in-depth backgrounders picking apart different aspects of Saudi domestic policy and external influences -- strikes me as akin to a public service.
It's a highly readable primer for the uninitiated, and a detailed reminder for those of us who think we know something about the Saudi leadership's duplicitous ways. While not written by religion journalists, the series provides material every religion journalist should know.
Just how pervasive has the Saudi influence been? Here's a block from the new Times piece addressing this:
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.
The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. 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.
Not to minimize their severity, but the stoning of alleged adulterers and murdering those deemed apostates are of direct concern primarily to the Muslim world. Global terrorism encouraged by Wahhabi beliefs, of course, is the West's main concern.
Here's some of what the Times piece says about that:
... [F]or 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. “There’s only so much dehumanizing of the other that you can be exposed to -- and exposed to as the word of God -- without becoming susceptible to recruitment,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who tracks Saudi influence.
Exhibit A may be Saudi Arabia itself, which produced not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001; sent more suicide bombers than any other country to Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State, 2,500, than any country other than Tunisia.
The Globalist, a daily web magazine based in Washington and publishing in English, French and German, that includes some astute coverage of religion as it surveys globalization's impact on politics, economics and culture, also took a recent (if less in depth than the The Times series) look at Saudi Wahhabism.
The analysis piece focused on Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation shot-through (in more ways than one) with Wahhabi extremism.
The writer noted that, "In Pakistan, the Saudis were at the birth of violent groups that served their geopolitical purposes, many of which are theoretically banned but continue to operate openly with Saudi and government support."
Both The Times and The Globalist note how Wahhabi fervor has come back to bite Saudi Arabia on its derrière. Bin Laden was not the first and certainly hasn't been the last radical Islamist angry at the Saudi monarchy for its relationships with the West. As a result, terror attacks in Saudi Arabia are not uncommon.
Will there be a time when the kingdom's leaders finally feel secure enough -- or just become fed up -- to act against their own threatening religious establishment? My guess: probably not any time soon.
So bone up, colleagues. Read in full what The Times and The Globalist have to say on the subject. Learn all you can about the Saudi rulers and their Faustian bargain with the austere Wahhabi faith.
And while you're at it, you might remember the following the next time you're waiting for an Uber ride.
Seems Saudi Arabia's main sovereign investment fund has a $3.5 billion -- yes, billion -- stake in Uber. But don't hold your breath waiting for Silicon Valley's highest valued privately held company to hire women drivers in Saudi Arabia.