As he leaves behind a maelstrom of domestic political troubles, President Trump must be one of the few people in the world who goes to the Middle East for some peace. However, the region badly needs some of Trump’s characteristic disruption.
On Saturday and Sunday, the president will meet Saudi leaders in Riyadh. The Saudis have organized a sprawling “Arab Islamic American Summit” around Trump’s visit, with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries visiting. No doubt his hosts will want Mr. Trump to focus on strategic issues, in particular the threat to them and other Sunni states posed by Iran. Yet he should resist the temptation to read from Riyadh’s script.
For decades, there has been bipartisan concern in America about Saudi Arabia’s role in disseminating radical Islamist ideology around the world.
After the initial shock of the 9/11 attacks, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) investigated the risks posed by Wahhabi ideology in the United States. Hearings uncovered a serious problem, but the Bush administration opted to focus on acts of violence, not the ideology underlying the violence.
President Obama’s former representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, visited eighty countries between 2009 and 2014.
“In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence . . . funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams,” she wrote in 2015.
Just last year, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), stated that thousands of schools in Pakistan funded with Saudi money, “teach a version of Islam that leads . . . into an . . . anti-Western militancy.” Yet Obama, like Bush, did little to counter these Saudi efforts, despite their obviously harmful effects around the world.
Americans elected Donald Trump because they wanted to shake things up, and not only in Washington, D.C. When he is in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump should shake things up by publicly raising three issues:
1. Salafi Wahhabi ideology
In the 18th century, a desert warrior named Ibn Saud formed an alliance with a Hanbali religious reformer, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Saud wanted power. Wahhab aimed to return to Islam’s “pure” early history. The two decided to join forces.
In modern times, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist clergy has been given an effective monopoly over education and religious instruction in the Kingdom, while the royal family has run economics and foreign policy.
The problem is that Wahhabi Islam is highly discriminatory towards women, non-Muslims and religious reformers.
It fosters radical Islamic indoctrination (dawa) which lends itself easily to violent jihad. This is what Saudi’s Grand Mufti, ibn Baz, argued in an English-language book in 1998:
The aim of dawa and jihad is not to shed blood, take wealth, or enslave women and children; these things happen incidentally but are not the aim. This only takes place when the disbelievers (non-Muslims) refrain from accepting the truth and persist in disbelief and refuse to be subdued and pay the jizya [the tax levied on free non-Muslims living under Muslim rule] when it is requested from them. In this case, Allah has prescribed the Muslims to kill them, take their wealth as booty and enslave their women and children . . . this religion (Islam) . . . is superior to every law and system.
2. The funding of dawa, the ideology of radical Islam
From 1973 through 2002, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent an estimated $87 billion to promote dawa efforts abroad. Some of this money landed in the United States: Saudi Arabia helped finance at least 16 Islamic and cultural centers in California, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland.
A study by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom in 2005 found that “Saudi-connected resources and publications on extremist ideology remain common reading and educational material in some of America’s main mosques . . . including Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Washington, and New York.” The publications contained anti-American, anti-Semitic, and jihadist ideology, and advocated removing women from the public sphere entirely. Since 2005, a number of overtly hateful materials have been removed from American mosques, but as of 2017 the ideological infrastructure of political Islam in America remains largely intact.
The Saudis also continue to influence America’s top universities. In 2005, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud donated $20 million to Harvard and another $20 million to Georgetown to advance Islamic Studies. Georgetown created “the Bridge Initiative against Islamophobia”. Increasingly, that word “Islamophobia” is used to silence anyone, even Muslim reformers, who dare ask critical questions about radical Islam.
President Trump must make it clear that this type of funding of dawa in the United States must stop immediately—including contributions from Saudi NGOs and private individuals who support radical ideology within the United States.
3. The imams or the agents that are trained and funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and others
Saudi Arabia has played a harmful role by indoctrinating Muslim clerics from around the world at Wahhabist institutions such as the University of Medina.
Many Western citizens are concerned about the human rights abuses committed by the radical group Boko Haram, including the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. But how did radical Islam establish itself in Africa’s most populous state? The answer is: Saudi Arabia.
According to one recent study, the spread of Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria began “with graduates of the Islamic University of Medina who returned home in the 1990s and 2000s.” Although the founder of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, was not himself a Medina graduate, he was a protege of Shaykh Ja’far Mahmud Adam, who had studied at Medina.
It happened here, too. Warith Deen Umar was for two decades the top imam in New York’s prison system. With help from the Saudi government, Umar traveled to Saudi Arabia and returned to indoctrinate to New York's expanding ranks of Muslim prisoners with Wahhabism. Umar ministered to thousands of inmates and training dozens of chaplains. Yet this was the man who in 2003 told the Wall Street Journal that the 9/11 hijackers should be “honored as martyrs”.
For decades, to be sure, American officials have raised these concerns with the Saudis, but only privately. The Saudis usually promise some improvement, which never materializes. Almost inevitably, short-term military considerations lead us to drop these concerns.
After 9/11, the U.S. even accepted the Saudi demand not to associate Islamic terrorism with Islam itself—hence the endless repetition of the empty phrase that “Islam is a religion of peace.”
More than 15 years after 9/11, it is now time to do things our way.
During his election campaign, Donald Trump pulled no punches on the issue of Islamic extremism. He pledged to “eradicate … radical Islamic terrorism … completely from the face of the earth.”
Former Muslims like me dared to hope that an American president might finally get serious by tackling not only terrorism but also the wells of extremist ideology from which terrorists drink long before they commit acts of violence.
Yet for Mr. Trump, eager to seek a political “success” story after weeks of White House turmoil and negative media coverage, the old path of least resistance must now look tempting. No doubt he is being advised to raise the three issues I have described above only privately, if at all. No doubt he is being urged to focus on military cooperation, like his predecessors.
But if Mr. Trump does not follow through on this promise to tackle radical Islamic ideology at the root, he will be passing up an historic opportunity.
The world has suffered for too long from Saudi Arabia’s toxic ideological exports.
The Kingdom’s young reforming leader is not the first Saudi prince to ask for American help. This time, Donald Trump should ask for something meaningful in return.
Now is not the time, and Saudi Arabia is definitely not the place, for the most disruptive president of modern times to dial it down.