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The irony of Saudi Arabia opening centre to fight extremism

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Reflecting on U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia last month, and his announcement of a new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, liberal Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in Ynetnews that “it was one of the unfortunate moments of the war on radicalization. It seems the gap between words and reality has never been bigger.”

Yemini pointed out the irony that, whether we’re talking about the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL), it is Saudi Arabia itself that has been fostering the radicalization of these groups through its massive financial support of radical madrassas, imams and mosques throughout the Arab and Muslim world. This radicalization results from the Saudi’s endorsement of an intolerant, puritanical Wahhabi version of (fundamentalist) Salafist Sunni Islam, which propagates – in the minds of some adherents – ideas of global jihad.

And although the destructive forces unleashed by the Saudis are coming back to bite them as some elements of these movements begin to challenge the Saudi monarchy, the West can’t count on the Saudis to stop supporting these radical movements.

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Indeed, their influence is spreading. Saudi funding is not confined to the Arab and Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. Saudi money has caused increased Islamic radicalization in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. And although it has been a rare example of a Muslim country with a democratically elected government, its political freedoms are now being threatened by Wahhabists.

Yemini also warned about what’s happening in the West. He noted that Great Britain “established centres for Islamic studies in a bid to make the Muslim students more moderate. Saudi Arabia offered to help. It transferred 233 million pounds ($403 million) to these centres in eight leading universities. Prof. Anthony Glees published a study revealing the grim outcome: more radicalization among those young students.”

Yemini claimed that the same is happening in the United States. He didn’t mention Canada, but Saudi funding of private schools exists here, as well.

Wahhabi ideology inculcates intolerance of Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims and even certain Sunnis deemed insufficiently pure. Indeed, the vast majority of the victims of Al Qaeda, ISIL and other Sunni terrorist groups are Sunnis themselves.

The promotion of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab and Muslim world is particularly vile and toxic, and features a wide array of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. But this has not prevented the Saudis from establishing close back-channel relations with Israel, as a counter to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The need for Israeli intelligence on Iran surpasses any and all negative views about Jews.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is perennially listed by the U.S. State Department as the greatest sponsor of international terrorism in the world.

Mohammed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, in yet another addition to the Middle East’s miasma of smoke and mirrors, published an op-ed in the New York Times in late May, denouncing the recent U.S.-Saudi arms deal as a blow to peace and regional stability.

Almost farcically, Zarif decried the “region’s despots” for “stamp(ing) out peaceful dissent” and spreading “terrorism and militant extremism.” Zarif singled out the Saudis’ “global export of Wahhabism … wreaking havoc from Karachi to Manchester.”

Ignoring the glaring fact that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei heads one of the world’s most repressive, terrorist-supporting regimes, Zarif argued that Shia Iran (a country that, unlike Saudi Arabia, explicitly calls for the annihilation of Israel), cares only about promoting democracy and the peaceful resolution of conflict, just as, he claimed (apparently with a straight face), his country is trying to do in Syria.

Both Sunni and Shia extremists are dangerous. Iran recently decided to renew funding for Hamas, whose officials have co-ordinated their activities with Hezbollah and Iran’s own Quds Force in Lebanon – a case of Sunni and Shia co-operation.

Whitewashing and mythologizing Iran’s role, as Zarif did in the Times, provides a sad – and unintentionally comic – twist to a very sorry state of affairs. 


Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.

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