By Patricia Lee Sharpe
If the documents recently made public on Wikileaks are authentic, and they appear to be, then Saudi Arabia seems to be doing a more ambitious job of public diplomacy than the U.S., its originator and once thoroughly competent practitioner. There’s a major difference, a troubling difference, however. The U.S. didn’t fool around with religion. The Saudis do. They are playing with the most sensitive, most explosive political dynamite available these days: Islamic sectarianism. They’re even meddling in Kerala, one of the most peaceable, prosperous states in India. Anyone who knows anything about the history of South Asia—e.g. the slaughter during Partition—notes this with trepidation.
Actually, the fact that Saudi Arabia is sponsoring missionaries to promote its brand of Islam throughout the world is not news to anyone who’s been following the history of religion in India, pre and post independence. Before oil was discovered, Saudi Arabia was poor, but already there were “barefoot” mullahs pushing Wahabism in Northern India, where Sufism (heresy to Wahabis and other modern salafists, including the violent sort) had already become a major form of Islam.
But India hasn’t been the only target for Wahabi missionaries. I saw evidence of Wahabi influence all around me when I was BPAO in Medan, Indonesia, in the 1980s. Visiting madrassas there, I saw teachers clad in traditional arab dress, long white gown, desert sheik headdress. New mosques weren’t being built in the local fashion, like pagodas. No. Arab money was building cubistic little mosques whose prototypes I’d seen earlier in Kuwait. Because I thought it a shame that a tolerant version of the faith was being subverted by a harsher one, I reported all this back then. No one was interested.
Washington's Blind Eye
Oddly enough, official Washington has also shown little interest in following up on the many hints of money trails from royalty-connected, Saudi moneybags to fanatical sects seeking to impose Wahabism (or worse, including its I.S.I.S. descendent) on the rest of the Muslim world. Long dependent on Saudi oil (though no more) the U.S. developed a habit of looking the other way when it came to violations of human rights within Saudi Arabia. As for the funding of terrorism by Saudi citizens, many of whom are wealthy enough to take on the role of bankrolling jihad when it would have been been impolitic for the monarchy itself to do so, the U.S. government was more interested in cutting off support to Hamas and Hezbollah, as if the U.S. were no more than an arm of the Israeli government. Instead of outing major terror-supporters, the U.S. has jailed petty contributors to charities which political innocents might well have believed to be wholly committed to humanitarian causes.
We are perhaps sadder now, but not much wiser. Have we really taken in the fact that Wahabism is a precursor to Al Qaeda and to the various even more violent sects that are succeeding it—and which, irony of ironies, might end up by toppling our “good” friends in Riyadh? The royal family and its fabulously wealthy inner circle have a life style that is pretty close to decadent. So serious blowback is possible. Meanwhile, these “friends” who are also the financers of a violent new Caliphate, have operated under the implied stamp of U.S. approval, while the U.S., ironically, is trying to counter an extraordinarily successful I.S.I.S.
A Two-Faced Ally
Yes. Pretending to be a U.S. ally and a buffer against Iran for Israel, official Saudi Arabia has watched benignly as money has flowed from Riyadh to violent extremist jihadis. Islam, like Christianity, is a universalist religion. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about the goal of uniting all in reverence for the one God, Islamist version, but I.S.I.S. methods are reprehensible, and most Muslims are no more eager than Westerners to submit to Islamist intolerance and misogyny. Wearied of corruption and incompetent leadership, however, they are susceptible to calls for a more just, more moral society. American Christians are susceptible to similar blandishments from equally narrow-minded Christian preachers.
The Not So Scary Iran Agreement
The U.S. Congress has sixty days to vote the recently signed accord with Iran up or down. One conservative argument against this fiercely-negotiated, multi-lateral agreement (now U.N. approved) is that ending sanctions will free Iran to spend more money on supporting Shia-sympathetic forces outside Iran, thus further threatening an already vulnerable Israel. Others fear that Iran seeks to become a regional super power, which it obviously should be. A strong Iran happily respected within the world system is surely more desirable than a not inconsequential Iran acting out because it’s been prevented from taking its proper place in the spectrum of world power.
And think of this: if Israel ended its occupation of the West bank, Iran wouldn't need to support Hamas, a Sunni group that is now being challenged by Islamists who make Hamas seem like a pussy cat. Time marches on. I tend to agree with Israeli thinkers who argue that even a nuclear-armed Iran would not threaten Israel’s existence, since a guaranteed return strike from Israel would destroy Iran as well. It’s the old familiar M.A.D. story. As many observers have noted, Iran’s leaders have behaved rationally despite their dramatic rhetoric.
In short, it’s quite possible that the U.S. has more to fear from Saudi Arabia’s missionary activities than from going whole hog and normalizing relations with Iran. But that’s for the future. Now Congress must act. It can support the President—or sabotage the nuclear agreement. Israel will lobby hard to undermine it for various reasons, among them the fact that it provides safeguards for “only” ten or fifteen years, or a bit more, depending on the clause. But no human agreement works for ever, whether or not it is still “officially” in effect. Another perspective also makes sense: ten years allows plenty of time for positive developments.
And maybe we should also be asking why Saudi Arabia is not working to create a more peaceful world instead of stirring up sectarian animosity. Perhaps this relationship, too, needs to be renegotiated. A little more distance would seem to be in order.