FMC Blog: Free Speech Zone

Understanding Saudi Arabia, is it a Friend or Foe?

By Kamal Nawash

Since it was discovered that 15 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis, every aspect of Saudi Arabia has come under scrutiny by members of the U.S. government, advocacy organizations and members of the media. Ironically, the increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia has not brought America any closer to understanding Saudi Arabia.

The confusion about Saudi Arabia is in part due to the credibility of the parties who have made irreconcilable conclusions about whether Saudi Arabia is an ally in the war on terror. On one hand, President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz have argued that Saudi Arabia is a strong ally in the war on terror and a great friend to the United States. On the other hand, certain members of congress, various think tanks and other non-profit organizations have argued passionately that Saudi Arabia is no friend of the United States and a major supporter of extremist ideologies and groups.

Most recently a Washington Post article written by Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House revealed language from Saudi text books that encourage an ideology of hatred towards Christians, Jews and Muslims who don't follow the Saudi version of Islam (Wahabism). Nina Shea argued that the disturbing material found in Select Saudi text books "are shaping the views of the next generation of Saudis and Muslims world wide. Unchanged, they will only harden and deepen hatred, intolerance and violence toward other faiths ad cultures."

So is the Saudi Arabian government a friend of the United States or does Saudi Arabia propagate hate and intolerance among American Muslims and Muslims world wide? The answer to both of these questions is yes. The Saudi Arabian government is a great friend to the United States and at the same time many in Saudi Arabia, including some who receive government funding propagate hate and intolerance against anyone who does not share their Wahabi inspired ideology. The answers to both these questions may seem inconsistent and counter intuitive but these seemingly inconsistent answers reflect the complexity of modern day Saudi Arabia.

By now everyone has heard of the historic compact between the Saudi Royal Family and the fanatical Wahabi religious establishment. According to this agreement, the Saudi Royal family deals exclusively with matters of state while the Wahabi religious establishment deals with issues of morality which includes substantial control over the education system and the substantive interpretation of Islam. It is this division of power that produces the two faces of Saudi Arabia.

As mentioned earlier, the Saudi government is a great friend to the United States. Their assistance in the first and second Gulf war was indispensable to the United States military. For the last 30 years they have implemented policies that supplied cheap energy to the United States and the rest of the world. They support the U.S. dollar by accepting only dollars for their oil and they have underwritten American debt by investing in U.S. government bonds. They also strengthen the U.S. economy by investing billions in the U.S. private sector.

For many, it may come as a surprise to hear that the Saudi Royal family is for the most part progressive and if they had their way Saudi Arabia would be a much more tolerant country today. However, to become more tolerant and progressive, Saudi Arabia requires strong leadership that has not existed in that country for the last 30 years.

For most of the 20th century, the Saudi royal family was substantially stronger than the Wahabi religious establishment. However, due to shortsighted policies and a lack of leadership from the Saudi government, the Wahabi religious establishment has gained substantial influence in Saudi Arabia. Over the last 30 years, radical Wahabis have become restless and unsatisfied with Saudi Arabia's historical division of power. In response to the Wahabi's increasingly assertive demands, the Saudi government adopted a policy of appeasement. The decision to appease the Wahabis has resulted in the legislation of internal social policy that is based on the most extreme common denominator. As is clear, Saudi Arabia's policy of appeasement has backfired and has resulted in the propagation of a wicked, backward, violent and intolerant interpretation of Islam the likes of which the Muslim world has not experienced in 1400 years of history.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has become a victim of terrorism with several bombings that killed hundreds of people. In response to terrorism on its own soil, the Saudi government has finally declared war on terrorism. It now appears that the Saudi government realizes that the status quo cannot continue and are taking baby steps to reform their policies by organizing tough police actions and ideologically challenging the terrorists' theological justification for violence. The Free Muslims Coalition regularly monitors Saudi TV and while we have witnessed intolerant rhetoric by radical Wahabi religious figures, we have also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of religious and government figures who aggressively advocate tolerance, respect for other religions and attempt to discredit the ideology that leads to extremism and terrorism.

Nevertheless, while we recognize that the Saudi Arabian government has taken steps to fight extremism and terrorism, it is not yet doing enough. Last year, the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism criticized the Saudi Islamic Academy, a Saudi funded elementary school in Virginia, for using textbooks that taught first grade students that Christianity and Judaism are false religions. We were particularly outraged by that text book because it was published after Saudi Arabia vetted its curriculum for intolerant material. Despite our harsh criticism of Saudi practices, we recognize that they are sincerely trying to reform. However, for the sake of long term stability, Saudi Arabia feels that change must be gradual. Truth be told, we recognize the enormous challenges the Saudi government has in correcting more than 30 years of unconditional appeasement.

In the mean time, neither the United States nor any other country has to wait on Saudi Arabia to figure out how to reform 30 years of shortsighted policies. The Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism makes the following recommendations to protect the United States and American Muslims from the propagation of intolerant material from radical elements in Saudi Arabia:

1. THAT U.S government officials reach an unofficial secret agreement with the Saudi government so that neither the Saudi government nor individual Saudis may build Islamic schools or mosques in the United States.
2. THAT the Saudi government immediately stop the distributing of religious books to American Muslims and American Muslim institutions.
3. THAT The Saudi government terminate the payment of salaries for Imams and other religious figures in the United States.
4. THAT the Saudi government prevent Saudi charities and religious organizations from sending books, building mosques, schools or paying the salaries of Imams in the United States or otherwise operate in the United States.
5. THAT the United States impress upon other nations to implement the steps mentioned above.

In conclusion, the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism believes that the building of mosques, Islamic schools and production of religious books must be financed exclusively by American Muslims. By funding their own religious institutions, American Muslims can better protect themselves from the influences of radical groups from abroad.

Moreover, the Free Muslims Coalition believes that placing unofficial pressure on Saudi Arabia is in the best interest of the Saudi government. The last few years has shown that the Saudi government takes tough action only if their security is in jeopardy or they can justify tough action by referring to the pressure they are receiving from the rest of the world.

Posted May 23, 2006 by Kamal Nawash