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Extremism is Not Representative of Islam
Former US President George W. Bush repeatedly noted that acts of terrorism and human rights abuses perpetrated by a small minority of extremists are not representative of the vast majority of Muslims. He stated:
"Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America."
"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."
"The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them."
"Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. But ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for, and hate the freedom of the Czech Republic. And therefore, we must work together to defend ourselves.”
"Americans understand we fight not a religion; ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith. Ours is a campaign against evil."
"I've made it clear...that the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It's a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people."(1)
Extremism as a Political Tool
Modern Islamic extremism should NOT be viewed as representative of Muslims generally. During the twentieth and twenty-first century, fundamentalist Islamic extremism has been weaponized and spread by political actors. The Public Broadcasting Service’ Frontline featured a brief modern history of Islamic terrorism, arising largely from radicals co-opting Islamic teaching as a rallying cry for political movements.(2)
Many terrorists and other extremists have nonetheless cited religious motivations for their conduct. One may argue that these individuals are deluded, that understanding of Islam is wrong, and that true Islam does not condone violence and abuses of human rights. Such claims do not negate the fact that perpetrators of violence and terrorism have often done so, according to their own statements, for religious reasons. Nor does it negate that such individuals have often been supported by communities and governments which have inculcated hate, encouraged violence as ostensibly a legitimate, necessary, and even virtuous means of furthering group interests.
Unfortunately, too much attention in the West has been focused on individual Muslims, at times resulting in prejudice and hate. Not enough attention has been directed at root causes inciting hate and violence, especially indoctrination and support of extremism by authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Foreign Funding of Extremism
The Saudi government has invested $86 billion in promoting Wahhabi extremism worldwide over the past fifty years.(4) Research conducted by the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism in the United Kingdom found:
“The foreign funding for Islamist extremism in Britain primarily comes from governments and government linked foundations based in the Gulf, as well as Iran. Foremost among these has been Saudi Arabia, which since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.
“In the UK this funding has primarily taken the form of endowments to mosques and Islamic educational institutions, which have in turn played host to extremist preachers and the distribution of extremist literature. Influence has also been exerted through the training of British Muslim religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, as well as the use of Saudi textbooks in a number of the UK’s independent Islamic schools.
“A number of Britain’s most serious Islamist hate preachers sit within the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology and are linked to extremism sponsored from overseas...There have also been numerous cases of British individuals who have joined Jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria whose radicalisation is thought to link back to foreign funded institutions and preachers.”(3)
The fundamentalist Wahabbi movement came to power in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century through an alliance between ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the Saud dynasty. In her book “The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project,”“ journalist Krithika Varagur investigates the Saudi program of da’wa, or religious propaganda and indoctrination, in Nigeria, Indonesia, and elsewhere. She provides detailed examples of the program and its results of intolerance and extremism. Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurter Research Center for Global Islam, told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle:
“It has long been known that Saudi Arabia has been exporting Wahhabist ideology - largely similar to the ideology of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS). Propaganda material and organizational expertise are being sent along with money. People are being hired to build mosques, educational institutions, cultural centers and similar organizations, so that Wahhabist theology can reach the public – with great success.
“[N]ot only do the Saudis bankroll extremists. Now attention has been drawn to Qatar for doing this. And yes, it is true that Qatar provides funds and Kuwait provides funds. There are also other players in the Gulf Region who support radical tendencies here in Germany - including Iran. Iran has set up an institute in Berlin, where it works as a missionary. I assume that if you observe where money flows, you will be amazed. Germany is generally a place where foreign extremist organizations are active.
“We have seen that Saudi foundations are operating everywhere - partly underground and partly through intermediaries, like Nadeem Elias. Until 2006, he was chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. This is one of the most important Muslim associations that constantly maintain inauspicious ties with Saudi foundations...We have only scratched the surface. And when people are asked questions, they are always evasive. But it is clear that there are organizations and individuals in Germany who take the Wahhabization of German Muslims seriously.(4)
Dr. Susanne Olsson of Stockholm University, Sweden presented research in 2019 that numerous Muslim immigrants in her country experienced difficulties with immigration due to reliance of many on statements of Saudi theologians forbidding cooperation with the democratic process or secular courts.(5)
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found "numerous passages in Saudi textbooks inciting violence and intolerance."(6) In 2014, the Obama administration suppressed a similar report by the US State Department, notwithstanding egregious statements in Saudi texts cited by AllGov including the following:
“Kill the person who changes his religion … for there is no benefit in keeping them alive.”
“It is permissible to kill a sorcerer” (particularly notable given Saudi police arrested more than 200 people in 2012 alone for alleged sorcery).
Pagans, Christians and Jews are ‘the worst creatures” who “will dwell in hellfire.’
God made Jews out of ‘swine and apes.’”(7)
The left-leaning Daily Beast expressed concern at U.S. complicity in “[keeping] Saudi Arabia’s worst secret.”(8) Only in late 2016, the New York Times obtained a copy of the State Department report through the Freedom of Information Act.(9)
These Saudi Arabian texts promoting Islamic supremacy are freely available on the internet, have been exported as part of the Saudi religious project, and have been referenced by sympathizers elsewhere as “authoritative” sources. In 2020, Time Magazine reported that Saudi Arabia’s textbooks
“teach a version of fundamental Islam so extreme it was used by the Islamic State…Two new reviews of Saudi government textbooks show not much has changed, despite these efforts. In 2019, Saudi students were still being instructed to keep westerners at a distance, to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death. All those sentiments are included in text books that are required reading for Muslim children in Saudi Arabia from kindergarten through high school...”
“Terrorism expert Mia Bloom says… ‘Until ISIS started publishing their own ‘Al-Harouf’ series of children’s textbooks, ISIS used Saudi textbooks in their schools to train the cubs of the caliphate...The Saudi textbooks promoted a view of the world that was virtually indistinguishable from ISIS ideology: hatred of the west; hatred of other Muslims, that are not Sunni; hatred of Jews and antagonism towards women...’”
“[A] long line of U.S. leaders, UN bodies and human and civil rights groups...have been pressuring the Saudi government for decades to stop proselytizing its harsh version of Wahhabi Islam, spread inside and outside the Kingdom by its clerics’ sermons online or given in mosques that Saudi money built. The government freely distributes hundreds of thousands of Wahhabi Qurans around the world, and makes its school textbooks freely available on the internet. Since the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., largely by Saudi-born jihadists, every administration that has occupied the White House has asked the Saudi government to revise what it teaches its children, with only glacial change as a result.”(10)
In spite of international pressure, little has changed, with violent and tragic results:
“Al-Ahmed notes that in one passage, the phrase ‘Christians and Jews’ has been replaced with phrase ‘the enemies of Islam,’ but says other parts of the same textbook make clear that Christians and Jews remain in the ‘enemies’ camp.”(ibid)
“Saudi critics like Al-Ahmed say the curriculum is perpetuating extremist violence, including the actions of Saudi Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, who is accused of opening fire on U.S. personnel at Naval Air Station Pensacola on December 6th , killing three Navy Airmen and injuring eight.”(10)
In 2018, USCIRF found that Inflammatory passages had not been removed, notwithstanding earlier assurances from the Saudi government:
“USCIRF’s study compared twelve 2017-2018 high school religion textbooks with earlier versions from 2012-2014 and found that the current books contain not only numerous intolerant and inflammatory passages but also several passages specifically thought to have been removed from earlier books. Examples of intolerant content include passages: extolling jihad as fighting against non-Muslims; prescribing execution of apostates and those who mock God or the Prophet; and demeaning non-Muslims and warning Muslims against associating with them.”(6)
The commission recommended passage of the Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act requiring annual “which would require annual reports on religious intolerance in Saudi educational materials.” The bill was introduced but never voted on by the US Congress.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a report, “Teaching Hate and Violence: Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018–19 School Year.”(11) Some of the problematic passages include that "Beating [women] is a means of discipline, for the Almighty said 'beat them,'” and “Christianity in its current state is an invalid and perverted religion." The report noted:
“Intolerant language of all kinds still abounds in Saudi Arabia’s government published textbooks...Derogatory language against ‘infidels’ — which is used in this context to refer to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews — remains especially pervasive.”
David Weinberg of the Anti-Defamation League wrote:
“[T]hanks to Saudi Arabia’s tradition of religious proselytization, its vast petroleum wealth and its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest sites, Saudi textbooks have had an outsized impact beyond the Arabian Peninsula, spreading problematic messages to numerous other countries across Europe, Africa and Asia.
“How bad is it? The kingdom’s new books for the 2018-2019 school year continue to teach hatred or even violence against Jews, Christians, Shiites, women, gay men and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.
This academic year, once again Saudi Arabia’s high school monotheism textbooks teach that infidels such as Jews and Christians are ‘the enemies of Islam and its people’ and that proper observance of Islam requires ‘abhorring the infidels’ and ‘enmity’ toward them. These textbooks characterize Shiite Muslims — like those who make up the majority in Iran — as polytheists and declare that Jews, Christians, and polytheists are ‘the most evil of creatures.’ Saudi Arabia’s current high school religion textbooks also call for violence against such people.
“The kingdom’s introductory high school textbook on Islamic jurisprudence teaches that the penalty for adultery is death by stoning and that people who engage in anal sex or who mock or convert away from Islam should also be killed…”(12)
The texts also spread inflammatory misinformation:
“the books teach incorrectly that the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo are among the top sources of Christian missionary work at the expense of Islam in the world today…”
Human Rights Watch noted that serious problems remained in Saudi texts for the 2020-21 school year.(13)
Sadly, Western nations have enabled and facilitated abuses of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other purveyors of hate and extremism. Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia beheading the largest number of victims in two decades in 2015, the United Kingdom helped Saudi Arabia to gain a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council through a secret vote exchange. We have previously noted the Obama Administration’s complicity in covering up Saudi Arabia’s incitement of hate and violence; Donald Trump posed no consequences on the Saudi despotism for the premeditated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Analyst Soeren Kern noted that during Germany’s two years on the United Nations Security Council, Germany and its European associates failed to condemn Saudi Arabia or many other nations exporting violent extremism, even while passing anti-Semitic resolutions.(16) There is little hope for lasting improvement so long as Western governments view human rights as a bargaining chip in political horse-trading, rather than inviolable principle.
Time’s Up for Oppressors
One commentator observed:
"Washington’s tight embrace of the Saudi royals always was a mistake...The region was never as vital as claimed, and it matters even less today. America’s domestic energy production has turned the U.S. into an exporter and eliminated reliance on Middle East oil.”(17)
Claims of American strategic interest in the region have always been exaggerated, and pose no excuse for overlooking pervasive human rights abuses, teaching of hate, and incitement of violence. The United States and other democratic nations should stop supporting authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia which have spread hate and extremism. The US embrace of abusive dictatorships has weakened the hand of reformers and has facilitated the very violence and atrocities that it has a legal and moral obligation to resist.
1. Bush, George W. “In the President’s Words: Respecting Islam.” White House Archives, 2001. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/ramadan/islam.html
2. Moore, John. "The Evolution of Islamic Terrorism: An Overview." Public Broadcasting Services: Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/target/etc/modern.html
3. Wilson, Tom. "Foreign Funded Islamist Extremism in the UK." The Henry Jackson Society. Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism. Research Paper No. 9 (July 2017)
4. von Hein, Matthias. "Saudi Arabia exports extremism to many countries - including Germany, study says." Deutsche Welle, July 9, 2017. https://www.dw.com/en/saudi-arabia-exports-extremism-to-many-countries-including-germany-study-says/a-39618920
5. Olsson, Susanne. "Minority Wahhabism between the will of God and that of the nation state." Presented at the European Association for the Study of Religion annual conference, Tartu, Estonia, June 25, 2019.
6. "USCIRF Study Reveals Numerous Passages in Saudi Textbooks Inciting Violence and Intolerance." United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, March 24, 2018. https://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/releases-statements/uscirf-study-reveals-numerous-passages-saudi-textbooks-inciting
7. "State Dept. Blocks Publication of Study it Commissioned on Hate-Filled Saudi Textbooks." AllGov, March 27, 2014. http://www.allgov.com/news/us-and-the-world/state-dept-blocks-publication-of-study-it-commissioned-on-hate-filled-saudi-textbooks-140327?news=852777
8. Lake, Eli. "U.S. Keeps Saudi Arabia’s Worst Secret." The Daily Beast, March 25, 2014. https://www.thedailybeast.com/us-keeps-saudi-arabias-worst-secret
9. "State Dept. Study on Saudi Textbooks." New York Times, August 25, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/17/international-home/document-state-dept-study-on-saudi-textbooks.html
10. Dozier, Kimberly. “Saudi Arabia Rebuffs Trump Administration's Requests to Stop Teaching Hate Speech in Schools.” Time Magazine, February 10, 2020. https://time.com/5780130/saudi-arabia-hate-speech-schools/
11. "Teaching Hate and Violence: Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018–19 School Year." Anti-Defamation League, November 2018. https://www.adl.org/media/12180/download
12. Weinberg, David. “Saudi Textbooks Still Foment Hate: The Kingdom's Education Materials Are Rise with Anti-Semitism and Calls to Hurt Shiites, Gays, Women and More.” Anti-Defamation League, December 4, 2018. https://www.adl.org/news/op-ed/saudi-textbooks-still-foment-hate-the-kingdoms-education-materials-are-rise-with-anti
13. “Saudi Arabia: Further Textbook Reforms Needed.” Human Rights Watch, February 15, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/15/saudi-arabia-further-textbook-reforms-needed
14. Associated Press. "Saudi Arabia: beheadings reach highest level in two decades." The Guardian, January 1, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/02/saudi-arabia-beheadings-reach-highest-level-in-two-decades
15. Osborne, Samuel."UK helped Saudi Arabia get UN human rights role through 'secret deal' to exchange votes, leaked documents suggest." The Independent (UK), September 30, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/uk-and-saudi-arabia-made-secret-deal-to-exchange-votes-for-human-rights-council-seats-leaked-a6673491.html
16. Kern, Soeren. “Germany's ‘Shameful’ Two Years on the UN Security Council.” Gatestone Institute, January 1, 2021. https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/16907/germany-un-security-council
17. Bandow, Doug. "American Soldiers Are Not Bodyguards for Saudi Royals." Intellectual Takeout, December 5, 2019. https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/american-soldiers-are-not-bodyguards-saudi-royals/