What was Saudi Arabia's role in the rise of ISIS?
Posted September 8, 2016
Saudi Arabian leaders are "both the arsonists and the firefighters" in the global war on terror, according to a recent article from The New York Times.
The country's unique brand of Islam, which it has spread throughout the world, encourages violence against nonbelievers, the author explains. And yet, in recent years, Saudi policy has shifted to encourage interfaith understanding and tolerance.
"Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States' own actions among them?" reporter Scott Shane asks.
He spoke with three dozen experts on Islam and foreign policy, trying to piece together whether it's fair to blame Saudi Arabia for the rise of the Islamic State.
"The idea has become commonplace: that Saudi Arabia's export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism," he wrote.
Many scholars agree with this assessment, noting that Wahhabism primes young people for extremism.
"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 the Defense of Democracies, to The Times.
Saudi Arabia is on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's list of "Countries of Particular Concern," and USCIRF leaders are skeptical of the country's attempts to improve its religious freedom record.
"Saudi Arabia remains uniquely repressive in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam," USCRIF noted in its 2016 annual report.
But some scholars question the temptation to pin a huge problem on a single source.
"Americans like to have someone to blame — a person, a political party or country," said Robert S. Ford, a former United States ambassador to Syria and Algeria, to The Times. "But it's a lot more complicated than that."
Ford and others believe religious teachings are only one piece of the puzzle, pointing to other factors like internet propaganda and U.S. military missions in the Middle East.
Their argument is bolstered by a recent Associated Press exploration of leaked Islamic State documents that showed most ISIS recruits are unfamiliar with Shariah law, a core practice of conservative Islam.
"These documents … showed that 70 percent of recruits had just a 'basic' knowledge of Shariah, while 24 percent had an 'intermediate' knowledge and 5 percent 'advanced,'" Business Insider reported.
An additional problem with arguing that Saudi Arabia's policies and religious practices fueled terrorism is that government leaders have been working to reduce extremism for about 15 years, The Times reported. They've paid for new school textbooks and punished faith leaders who called for violence.
However, Wahhabism is a powerful influence and counterterrorism efforts could quickly be overwhelmed by tradition, the article noted.
"Old habits sometimes prove difficult to suppress," Shane wrote.
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