For decades, the Nordic countries’ collaboration with Saudi Arabia has triggered fierce criticism from an ethical standpoint. The recent nomination of 31-year-old Muhammad bin Salman, who is known for his hawkish behavior, as Saudi Crown Prince and potential heir to the throne, has once again stirred fears of the Saudis sponsoring hardline Islam.
Peaceful Nordic countries have for years had no qualms about cooperating with (or even selling weapons to) the Gulf states, which they themselves view as dictatorships. However, the Saudi sponsorship of hardline Islam has recently triggered concern across Scandinavia.
In fierce competition with its regional archenemy, Shia-dominated Iran, the Saudis have used enormous resources to spread their influence across the globe. Not least through generous contributions to the building of mosques around the world, the education of imams and the spread of the only form of Islam the Arab country allows, namely the ultra-conservative Wahhabism.
The exact amount of money the Saudi kingdom and their allies have used to promote Wahhabism is a subject of debate. King Fahd (1921-2005) had built no fewer than 210 Islamic centers financed entirely or partly by Saudi Arabia, 1,500 mosques and 202 schools to offer Muslim education in Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia.
James M. Dorsey of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the University of Würzburg, who is considered one of the world’s leading experts in Saudi Arabia, has repeatedly drawn attention to Saudis’ incessant promotion of hardline Islam, which he called a Frankenstein monster. Saudi Arabia has spent about $100 billion in the last 50 years in the most comprehensive diplomatic campaigns the world has ever seen, which bolstered the stance of ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.
In Sweden, the Saudis have funded the Gothenburg Mosque and have contributed to the construction of other mosques and Islamic centers across the country.
The fact that some of the mosques are affected by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar is problematic. In addition to Malmö, there are Gävle, Gothenburg, Haninge and Karlstad, to name a few, where money from the Gulf states has been used. It is bizarre that dictatorships are allowed to build new shiny mosques in Sweden.
Saudi Arabia and its royal family have been actively spreading their interpretation of Islam since the 1970s, though, among others, the MWL (Muslim World League) and the WANY (World Assembly of Muslim Youth), as well as mosque construction and imam education. Björkenwall and Ungerson called for a government investigation to criminalize the spread of militant Wahhabism and Salafism as an important part of national efforts against extremism and jihadi propaganda.
Earlier this year, former Norwegian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Carl Schiøtz Wibye expressed concern about Saudis’ oil-funded propaganda of Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is a cult built on fanatical fantasies of a power-hungry desert preacher in the 1700s, and it permitted the execution of apostates, which included proponents of different interpretations of Islam, followers of other religions and non-believers. Coincidentally, this is where Daesh and other Islamist terrorists happen to stand.
In recent years, the Saudi funding has raised fears of contributing to Islamist radicalization and facilitating the recruitment of jihadism. According to reports from German intelligence services, growing sums from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait ended up financing German Salafists.
A British report on the financing of jihadist groups in Britain ordered by former Prime Minister David Cameron was also said to have pointed at Saudi Arabia, yet according to the Interior Ministry is unlikely to ever be published due to its sensitive nature.
Earlier this year, both Norway and Sweden came under fire for allegedly voting yes to allow Saudi Arabia, arguably the world’s biggest abuser of women’s rights, to the UN Commission for the Status of Women, despite Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström previously calling Saudi Arabia “medieval.” Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights was like making an arsonist into the town fire chief!
During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe in May, Trump inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI) in Riyadh — an endeavor that its appointed secretary-general, Nasir Al-Biqami of Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, described as the fruit of collaboration between Muslim countries that believe in the importance of combating terrorism.
However admirable a goal from the point of view of the West, this initiative has little chance of success, given the repressive regimes involved and the extremist worldview of the individuals who will be funded to promote it.
Partnerships with repressive regimes may in some cases exacerbate rather than solve the problem for us. Gradual reform is exactly the right approach, but will we see pushing Sisi of Egypt (with whom he is friendly), or Erdogan of Turkey, or the Bahrainis, for gradual reform?
This is quite wrong. The Sunni royal family’s oppression of the country’s Shia majority is in fact creating a breeding ground for radicalism and opening a door for Iranian subversion. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism. All around the world, Saudi money is being used to suppress indigenous forms of Islam. Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach that local and moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version, the Saudi Wahhabi version. But that version of Islam treats unbelievers with contempt and often hatred, oppresses women, and opposes democracy.
The new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology seems to be the logical extension of Obama’s efforts in the same area. In February 2015, the United States hosted a summit on combating violent extremism, which produced follow-up regional meetings to tackle various aspects of this phenomenon. It may have amounted to little more than extended speechifying.
Even on Iran, which Trump identified as the source of extremism and instability in the Middle East, the White House issued waivers on May 17 regarding Iranian sanctions, in keeping with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The only way, therefore, that the GCCEI can become more than simply another heavily-funded, failed organization — and contribute credibly to the war on global extremism and terror — is for its member states to engage in genuine introspection and undertake serious study of the roots of radicalism.
The GCCEI needs to examine, among other things, the way in which its patron, Saudi Arabia, has participated in, if not spearheaded, the very extremism that it is claiming now to combat: the connection between Wahhabism and terrorism; the hostility of its regime to democracy; the abuse of human rights; and the suppression of moderate interpretations of Islam.
The other Muslim/Arab states taking part in the initiative, too, must address the possible correlation between their regimes’ repression, humiliation and torture of their people and the adoption of violence on the part of individuals. Only after acknowledging and scrutinizing these questions can internal reform take place.
Is the GCCEI interested, willing or able to undertake such measures, or will it serve as an arena for Saudi propaganda and short-sighted state-security work? The latter is more likely, for a number of reasons.
First, Muslim/Arab leaders have come to learn, from past experience, that much of the White House’s approach to the Middle East begins and ends with lip service. Second, when Trump stated that fighting extremism and terrorism transcends every other consideration, he was, in effect, giving them unwritten permission to continue cracking down on their citizens.
Third, GCCEI — called Etidal (moderation) in Arabic — will be managed by a board of 12 directors appointed every five years, and the number of directors from each member state will be based on that country’s financial contribution to the center. In other words, the center will be ruled by — and further the interests of — wealthy absolute monarchies.
Finally, GCCEI research on how terrorist groups function, coupled with innovative monitoring techniques that the center develops, will provide additional fodder to the arsenals employed by member states not only to tackle terrorism committed by groups they oppose, but to enhance the political stronghold of their regimes.