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Analysts: Saudi Arabia's Clerics Inspire Islamic Extremism

FILE - Religious flags, photographs and tributes to victims of a suicide bombing of a Shi'ite mosque are displayed at a cemetery in al-Qudeeh, Saudi Arabia, May 30, 2015.

A new Saudi Arabian-led Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism could be part of the solution in Syria, but analysts say Riyadh will have to first overcome its ambivalence toward Islamic extremism.

Marri Janeka, assistant director of the Middle East Peace and Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said Riyadh could be the key to organizing the Syrian opposition and helping end the war in Syria.

"To be sure, Saudi Arabia is a driver of radicalism, but can also be an important and influential agent of change," Janeka told VOA via email.

But other analysts suspect the new regional grouping is growing out of a number of Riyadh's political desires, not just fighting groups like al-Qaida and IS.

"It is partly the impulsivity and enthusiasm of the new defense minister (Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz), partly PR, partly an attempt to turn money into political power to boost Saudi influence over its regional partners, and also partly to genuinely combat terrorism," said David Weinberg, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Dual strategy

Saudi Arabia has been a key ally and provided crucial intelligence to Washington in the battle against al-Qaida, said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA currently with Brookings Institution.

FILE - People examine the debris after a suicide bomb attack at the Imam Ali mosque in the village of al-Qadeeh in the eastern province of Gatif, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2015.
FILE - People examine the debris after a suicide bomb attack at the Imam Ali mosque in the village of al-Qadeeh in the eastern province of Gatif, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2015.

But, Riedel added, at the same time "it is a fact that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exported over the last several decades a brand of Islam, that is, to be charitable, intolerant, if not worse."

"That intolerance," Riedel recently told a panel hosted by the Jamestown Foundation, "has helped build the infrastructure in which al-Qaida and ISIS have been able to recruit so many."

Saudi Arabia embraces Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that the kingdom's religious leaders proselytize at home and abroad.

With Sunnis forming the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, the message is resonating, but with negative consequences.

Sectarian hate

"Anti-Shia theological terms of abuse regularly pop up in statements attributing responsibility for terrorism attacks," Weinberg said.

"When that same language is publicly used by prominent clerics in the kingdom, it is not surprising to see it also get used by terrorist groups," he told VOA.

Kamel Daoud, an Algerian author and analyst, recently wrote in The New York Times that the Saudi form of Wahhabism is "the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on."

"Saudi Arabia is a Daesh that has made it," Daoud said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State group.

IS militants in Iraq and Syria, who are largely Sunni, have executed and brutally murdered thousands of Shi'ites, Yazidis, and even Sunnis who do not recognize their radical messianic interpretation of Islam.

A recent study by Brookings showed Saudi Arabia as the top location of Twitter users supporting IS in 2015.
You will find more statistics at Statista.


Some say Daoud's conclusion is overly harsh. But echoes of his criticism flashed across social media last week under the Twitter hashtag #SueMeSaudi.

The tweets compared the human rights record of Saudi Arabia with that of IS, showing that both impose stoning to death for adultery, amputation for stealing, beheading for apostasy, and flogging or death for homosexuality.

The hashtag appeared after a Saudi Justice Ministry source reportedly threatened to sue a Twitter user who had compared Saudi Arabia's decision to sentence Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for "spreading atheism and disrespecting the Prophet" to beheadings by IS for the same charges.

The bargain

Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, agrees with Janeka that Riyadh is extremely important in resolving the issue of ideological support for terrorism.

But Jordan told VOA that the Saudi political leadership has struck a Faustian bargain with its religious clerics in order to stay in power.

"A lot of where the extremism comes from is not directly from the government, or the royal family, but through the well-funded religious establishment that the royal family relies on for legitimacy," Jordan said.

The Saudis also see Shi'ite Iran as their primary regional threat, a factor that has pushed the battle against extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to a back burner for Riyadh.

"It is completely consumed in fighting Iran's influence through various proxy wars that they view as a greater threat than IS," Jordan explained.

Problem or solution?

Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday its new Islamic military alliance of 34 countries, with an operations center in Riyadh to coordinate military operations.

The alliance includes regional powers Turkey and Egypt. It notably leaves out Iran.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter welcomed the Saudi decision.

"It appears it is very much aligned with something that we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL by Sunni Arab countries."

But Weinberg cautioned that Saudi Arabia's history of multilateral groupings to combat terrorism has had disappointing records.

The Gulf Cooperation Council and, more recently, the Arab joint force to combat Islamic extremists and Iran-backed groups both got bogged down in national differences over who the enemy is.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.