The spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which is accusing Qatar of supporting Islamist extremism and terrorism, remains perplexing. Perplexing not because Qatar is innocent — it has sponsored and hosted far too many jihadists for anyone to plausibly claim otherwise — but because it is the Saudis who are objecting to the funding of extremism. Qatar should be called out, but preferably by those who haven’t spent quite so much time and money advancing extremism themselves.
To be clear, it is not that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been directly funding terrorist organizations, and certainly not in Western countries. What has been happening for many years now, however, is that a set of beliefs has been advanced from Saudi Arabia that is, by any standard, extremist. The Wahhabi-Salafi belief system is one of religious supremacism, in which the very notion of man-made law, let alone democratic government, is derided.
These beliefs create a worldview that is illiberal, intolerant and hostile to the West and promote a mind-set that makes adherents far more susceptible to the rhetoric of violent Islamist groups and preachers. So, even as several leading European governments have sought to promote tolerance and gender equality, there has been a relentless flow into their countries of funding for the promotion of intolerance and the incitement of hatred.
Through the provision of generous scholarships and stipends, a generation of Muslim religious figures traveled from Western countries to Saudi Arabia to be trained in the Wahhabi ideology at institutions like the Islamic University of Medina. Among its alumni is Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, who has preached in British mosques, promoting holy war and the killing of gay men and apostates. Similarly, Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, who attended Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, has advocated the extermination of unbelievers.
Saudi clerics, too, have visited the West to bring the same message. They include the cleric Muhammad al-Arifi, who has said that “Muslims have no life without jihad” and who has been linked to a number of Islamic State recruits from Britain.
The distribution of extremist texts and literature has been another way that Wahhabi attitudes have spread in Muslim communities in Britain and Europe. Many of the worst of the books available in British mosques were published by agencies that have been traced to Saudi Arabia. Particularly alarming was a 2010 report by the BBC that some 5,000 children in Britain were being taught from the official Saudi school curriculum, with textbooks that showed how to chop off the hands of thieves. These books are so extreme that in 2014 they were adopted as school textbooks by the Islamic State.
Facing such extensive Saudi financial support for Islamic literalism and extremely conservative practices, progressive and moderate Muslim voices in Western countries are often drowned out in their communities and places of worship. Fledgling progressive circles trying to develop a more liberal approach to Islamic scriptures can never hope to match the support the Wahhabi-Salafi vision of the religion has received.
The Saudis insist they have not been supporting extremism, but these protestations of innocence are difficult to take seriously given the names of some of the institutions involved, such as the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va. Apologists for the kingdom sometimes argue that there is a distinction between what private Saudi institutions do and what the government does. Yet the notion that major institutions based in the gulf states could operate for decades without the blessing of their authoritarian rulers is hardly plausible.
Last December, a leaked report from the German intelligence agencies concluded that charitable foundations linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait had been funding extremist Salafist groups and activities in Germany for years. The investigation reportedly uncovered a “long-running strategy to exert influence.” The World Assembly of Muslim Youth, which has links with the Saudi royal family, is one of the most prominent institutions accused of funding extremism, but the German investigation also named the Saudi-based Muslim World League, as well as the Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage Society.
This effort to change the character and temperament of Islamic belief in the West has profound implications for the integration of Muslim communities in European societies. In recent years, there have been signs that Muslim communities with origins in the Asian subcontinent have begun to adopt the far more hard-line practices of Arabian Islam. According to purported diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011, American officials visiting Britain in 2007 noted that a predominantly Indian Gujarati community in Leicester was, under the influence of Wahhabism, becoming “the most conservative Islamic population” they had seen anywhere in Europe.
The question of integration and community cohesion is weighing on the minds of European leaders. Many European leaders have echoed the declaration of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in her 2010 Potsdam speech, that multiculturalism in Germany had failed. In December, the British government published a major review that sounded an alarm about how a growing failure to integrate among some minority communities is fueling inequality and, in particular, hurting women.
The more this Saudi version of Islam is advanced in Europe, the more such isolation and exclusion will become entrenched. Perhaps the European country that has taken this issue most seriously is Austria. In 2015, Vienna enacted legislation that blocked the foreign funding of mosques and imams. Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, was candid about the objective: The government wanted to stop certain Muslim countries from exerting financial influence, to “give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values.”
The funding of extremism in the West is by no means an exclusively Saudi phenomenon. Qatar and Iran have played decisive parts, too. The international spotlight on Qatar’s financing of extremism and terrorism is long overdue, but it should not distract from the Saudis’ own spreading of hateful and bigoted beliefs. Given the ever-present threat of Islamist terrorism, Western governments must keep asking their Saudi allies tough questions about their support for this poisonous ideology.
Tom Wilson is a fellow at the Center for the Response to Radicalization and Terrorism and the Center for the New Middle East at the Henry Jackson Society.