9/11 forces change to Saudi’s global religious mission

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — For more than three decades, Saudi Arabia has used its vast oil riches to host foreign students in the kingdom, build schools and mosques abroad, distribute the Qur’an in different languages and send funds to Islamic organizations wherever Muslims are in need.

This global outreach was meant to secure Saudi leadership of Sunni Islam globally while proselytizing on behalf of the kingdom’s ultraconservative brand of Salafi Islam, Wahhabism.

But a decade after 9/11, this proselytization drive has seen major changes, scholars of the Salafi movement say.

Al Qaeda’s 2001 assaults against the United States and its violent insurgency in the kingdom from 2003 to 2006 forced the Saudi government to impose stricter controls on funding sent to Islamic groups abroad, tone down some of the harsher rhetoric of Wahhabism, and broaden its outreach to non-Salafi, mainstream Muslims, according to these experts.

It is impossible to know how much money has gone into this national effort since it began in the late 1970s. The kingdom does not publish official figures on its promotion of Islam abroad. Moreover, it is done by a variety of actors working independently of each other, including clerics, princes, government officials and wealthy businessmen. Most estimates, however, assume that billions of dollars have been spent on this venture.

Angered by evidence collected after 9/11 that some Saudi-funded Islamic charities were collaborating with Al Qaeda, U.S. officials demanded that Saudi Arabia stop financing these groups and halt the flow of private funds to terrorist organizations overseas.

Riyadh was initially uncooperative, especially when it came to Islamic charities, partly because they doubted the U.S. allegations, and also because charities are key vehicles for proselytizing. Eventually, however, it put in place tougher banking restrictions and anti-money-laundering laws.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has created new uncertainties in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Salafi groups in the region, highlighting how Salafism’s expansion around the world has led to greater diversity and a weakening of Saudi leadership within this religious trend.

“Most Salafists would look up to Saudi Arabia and have a lot of respect for Saudi sheikhs and quote them extensively,” said Stephane Lacroix, a French expert on the movement and author of “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia.” “But you also do have dissident Salafi movements that disagree with Saudi Arabia. Not everyone who is Salafi is pro-Saudi.”

In recent months, for example, some Egyptian Salafis discarded the orthodox Saudi Salafi stance of shunning politics and formed a political party. “The reality on the ground has changed,” Egyptian Salafi spokesman Sheikh Abdulmunim Al Shahhat told the Saudi newspaper Asharq al Awsat. “And the fatwa now is to participate” in the political process.

Meanwhile, Syrian Salafis have actively supported the protracted revolt against President Bashar Al Assad, another flouting of Saudi-style Salafism, which demands blind obedience to existing rulers, no matter how tyrannical.

These developments are “very un-Salafi-like because Salafis do not usually engage in politics,” said Martin van Bruinessen of Utrecht University’s religious studies department.


Wahhabism, founded by the 18th century Saudi theologian Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, is a type of Salafi Islam. Salafists are often called fundamentalists because they seek to emulate the purity of 7th century Islam as practiced by their spiritual ancestors, or salaf.

Stressing personal piety, they reject many Islamic cultural traditions, follow a rigid, dogmatic creed stressing tawhid — the unity of one God — and discourage worldly and secular pursuits that distract from worshiping God.

They generally advocate strict gender segregation, discourage women from working and believe a woman should wear a full face veil.

Adherents of Salafism’s strictest versions, such as Wahhabism, have been criticized for intolerance towards other faiths and non-Salafi Muslims, whose company they avoid as much as possible. Such attitudes, critics say, seed the ground for militant Islamist groups like Al Qaeda.

Although Salafists are a minority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, their ideas have a global reach, partly because of Saudi Arabia’s missionary efforts.

“The Salafi contribution to the global debate on Islam is much bigger than it used to be,” said Lacroix. “Some Salafi religious norms, like wearing the niqab [full face veil], are more and more accepted as correct Islam outside Saudi Arabia, which used to not be the case thirty to forty years ago.”

But as Salafism spread it also fragmented, and today it is not monolithic. One major difference revolves around politics. Saudi Salafism teaches that Muslims owe their political rulers absolute obedience; that open dissent, including street protests, is a sin, and that political parties are unnecessary.

Other Salafists, like those in Egypt, argue that peaceful political activity in order to change society is acceptable.

A third current of extremist Salafi jihadis maintains that violence is the only way to reach a pure Islamic society and defeat Islam’s perceived enemies. They justify violence against other Muslims on the principle of takfir, which allows the execution of those deemed apostates from Islam.


Wahhabism’s belief in its superiority over other versions of Islam has fueled Saudi Arabia’s strong missionary impulse. But it has been the religious authorities, or ulema, rather than the government that has put the high priority on proselytizing.

“I don’t think the Saudi government in itself is all that interested in exporting Wahhabism,” said Lacroix. “But you have this deal between the government and the religious establishment…which considers as one of its missions to spread Salafism abroad. The princes cannot tell the ulema to stop exporting Islam because they would have to confront the ulema on this, and the princes don’t want to confront the ulema.”

Saudi Arabia began its global proselytizing in the 1970s as its oil wealth began accumulating. It accelerated the campaign after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution because Riyadh felt that Sunni Islam was threatened by the Shiite state, which began aggressively exporting its brand of revolutionary Islam.

Most Saudi embassies acquired Islamic affairs offices, staffed with religious scholars whose job was to promote Islam. At its peak in the late 1980s, the office in the embassy in Washington had an annual budget of $8 million and 35 to 40 staffers who built mosques, distributed Qur’ans and brought in foreign imams with Salafi training to lead congregations.

One legacy of the Saudis’ proselytizing is the fealty still given by radical Salafi preachers to Wahhabi scholars, many of them now dead, said Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, a scholar of modern Islamist groups. “If I had to make a list of top ten Wahhabi scholars of all time,” he said, “several of the people on the list are people being quoted by radical scholars around the world today.”

The United States turned a blind eye to the intolerant aspects of Wahhabi teachings and did not object to the kingdom’s global missionary project partly out of a desire to support stability in the oil-producing Gulf. But Washington also believed that religious movements generally were allies in its Cold War against the Soviet Union’s worldwide promotion of atheistic communism.

This U.S.-Saudi alliance climaxed in the 1980s when, with Washington’s active encouragement, the Saudis bankrolled brigades of Afghan and Arab fighters, many of them inspired by fiery anti-Western sermons of Salafi clerics, who were battling to expel Soviet occupation troops from Afghanistan. One participant in that jihad was Osama bin Laden.


Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to move against terrorist financing coming from the kingdom evaporated after Al Qaeda launched a violent insurgency in 2003. That year, Riyadh passed its first comprehensive anti-money-laundering legislation.

In 2004, it joined the U.S. in partially freezing the assets of Al Haramain, a Riyadh-based international charity linked to terrorist groups. It later arrested 40 individuals associated with the charity, according to a January 2011 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre, also known as Al Mamlaka Tower, is Saudi Arabia’s tallest skyscraper. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

But the pace and scope of the Saudi crackdown on terrorist funding left questions. For example, despite reports that terrorist financiers were arrested and prosecuted, these actions were not a deterrent since they were not publicized in the kingdom. Also, there was no way to know if the arrested donors had given major or trifling amounts of money.

As late as December 2009, a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks complained that while Riyadh had aggressively gone after Al Qaeda funders inside the kingdom, “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” Donors in the kingdom, it added, “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” including the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.

Western diplomats in Riyadh, however, say that the Saudis have recently been more aggressive against terror funding. Last October on the Charlie Rose Show, Stuart Levey, then-undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury, said that “we’ve been very successful…in the last couple of years [in] developing a good partnership on looking at the financial network of Al Qaeda and money going out.”

But, Levey added, there were “continuing challenges because…[terrorist groups are] still trying to raise money in Saudi Arabia.”

The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a Saudi organization promoting Islam worldwide that came under investigation by U.S. law enforcement after 9/11, was significantly affected by stricter Saudi financial controls, according to its secretary general Saleh S. Al Wohaibi.

In a 2010 interview at WAMY’s Riyadh headquarters, Al Wohaibi said the restrictions initially caused a 40 percent drop in the organization’s budget. Saudi citizens can no longer make bank transfers to the organization. Instead, they have to come to WAMY’s offices personally, make their contribution by cash or credit card, and get a receipt. The Interior Ministry now oversees all international money transfers by Saudi NGOs and charities.

Meanwhile, responding to the 9/11 backlash against the kingdom in the United States, the Saudis suspended the activities of their embassy’s Islamic affairs office and many of its staffers had to leave the country when Washington revoked their diplomatic visas.


One effect of the drop in Saudi funding for Islamic groups after 9/11 was that Salafis in some countries became more independent. In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, more than 20 Salafi foundations had a relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to Noorhaidi Hasan, a scholar of the Salafi movement in Jakarta.

Now, he said, the foundations “are no longer depending on Saudi money, they are trying to be more independent. The money from Saudi Arabia has dried up significantly.”

The Saudi funding that still is coming is more widely dispersed. “Mainstream foundations and schools are getting Saudi money, it’s more open now…they are moving closer to the center,” Hasan said. “They are trying to make a balance because they don’t want to be blamed for being a sponsor of terrorism.”

In 2002, 202 people were killed when an Islamist terrorist group bombed a Bali nightclub.

Overall, Saudi support to Indonesian Islamic groups was meant “to Wahhabize Indonesian Muslims,” Hasan said. “But this mission is no longer as strong as before…Indonesians say, ‘We don’t need Saudis to tell us how to be good Muslims.’”

Utrecht University’s van Bruinessen, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, noted that the Saudis also had supported “an ideological counter-offensive” to terrorists by the Indonesian government by supplying “books written by Saudi authors in the Salafi jargon, giving lots of references to the Qur’an and hadith to show that terrorist activities are un-Islamic.”

Similar patterns have appeared among Salafis in Europe. Martijn de Koning of Radboud University, Nijmegen, an expert in Salafist communities in the Netherlands, said that they now “have their own networks, funding, students, lecturers, imams. So to a certain extent they do not need that much support anymore from Saudi Arabia.…the European movement is becoming…a little bit more independent from the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia still sends religious scholars to Europe to give lectures, de Koning said, “but they are clearly more aware of their audience…so they sort of adjust their language a little bit.”

Several experts said that recruiting Muslims to study Islam in Saudi Arabia remains an important aspect of the Saudi mission. “I think at this moment there are about ten Dutch Muslims” at the University of Medina, de Koning said. Many Indonesians who study in the kingdom, van Bruinessen noted, “come back with a great sympathy for Salafism. Some become Salafi teachers.”

Eko Haryanto. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

That is what graduate student Eko Haryanto plans to do. For the past seven years, he has explored the intricacies of Islamic law and theology at one of Saudi Arabia’s premier religious universities on an all-expenses-paid scholarship.

The 37-year-old Indonesian said in an interview that the Islam taught here is “true Islam because it follows the Sunna and the righteous path. And it’s applied here almost 90 percent. There’s no other country or government that applies this form of religion like the kingdom.”

He noted that the number of foreigners studying Islam in Saudi Arabia has “almost doubled” since he arrived, with the University of Medina hosting “almost a hundred students a year.”

Haryanto said he expects to be well-received when he goes home because “well-educated people are searching for the true path as it was applied in the ages of the Prophet [Muhammad]. So when they find the true interpretation of Islam, they follow it.”

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Program in Media and Religion.)