“Nothing is more obstinate than a fashionable consensus,” said the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 1981. It’s true, and nothing is more consensual in British discourse today than the belief that Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil in the world, especially terrorism. The Saudis, we were told by the left-wing columnist Owen Jones after Daesh had declared its caliphate in 2014, “Are up to their necks in complicity with terrorism.” This was down to what he called “Wahhabism.”
Then you have right-wing broadcaster Iain Dale, who hosts a popular show on LBC Radio. On his blog, citing the former favoured think tank of David Cameron and Michael Gove, Policy Exchange, he said that he “totally understand[s] that Britain wants good relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but for how much longer can we ignore what both these oil-rich states have been doing.” Jeremy Corbyn agrees, saying “difficult conversations” have to take place about Saudi Arabia and “extremism funding.” He made his comment following the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks.
Back in 2008, the paranoid quack terrorism “expert” Professor Anthony Glees, argued that Saudi Arabian royals giving money to British universities would cause “the development of self-imposed Muslim apartheid in the UK.” He continued: “We will have two identities, two sets of allegiance and two legal and political systems. This must, by the Government’s own logic, hugely increase the risk of terrorism.”
So let’s look at who the key ideologues of Al-Qaeda were. First up, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who studied in the West. Although his brother later lived in Saudi Arabia, he didn’t. Qutb hated Saudi Arabia and regarded the Wahhabist state as “jahiliyya,” or “place of ignorance”. He actually attributed his journey to radicalism not to studying in Saudi madrassas, but his time losing faith while studying in — wait for it — the United States.
What about Ayman Al-Zawahiri, he was a Sau… oh, no, he wasn’t either. Also an Egyptian, Zawahiri, like Qutb, came out of the tradition of the original Muslim Brotherhood, but departed radically from his brothers before being ejected from the group for being a mass-murdering lunatic.
What about the Taliban? They’re Deobandis, a group which emerged as a reaction to British colonialism in India before Saudi Arabia even existed. What about India; there must be loads of jihadists there. No, there aren’t really, and yet Saudi Arabia has been sending hundreds of millions of dollars there to build mosques, schools and social centres, as part of its “missionary activities“. India’s population of 1.3 billion people includes one hundred and seventy million Muslims, by the way.
In countries like Nigeria and Malaysia, where Saudi Arabia was blamed for the introduction of sharia law, the tradition of Islamic conservatism pre-dates the Saudis’ arrival by centuries. In Indonesia, which was again subject to Saudi propaganda efforts (I stress “efforts”), Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta studied the 1,000 or so people arrested in the world’s most populous Muslim country on terrorism charges since 2002; “literally four or five” had ties to Wahhabi or Salafi institutions. The Saudi connection was, in her words, “mostly a red herring.”
Critics of the spread of “Wahhabism” in Britain are often unable to cite convincing figures of the extent of this alleged influence. The Liberal Democrat Tom Brake stated recently that, “It is no secret that Saudi Arabia in particular provides funding to hundreds of mosques in the UK, espousing a very hard-line Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. It is often in these institutions that British extremism takes root.”
LBC’s Iain Dale, however, has different figures: “Back in 2007, of the 1,528 mosques in Britain only 68 adhered to Salafism or Wahhabism. That figure has risen by 20 per cent in the last eight years to around 1,850 nowadays. Around 110 are thought to be under Wahhabi/Salafi control, and receiving funding from Saudi or allied sources.”
It all looks and sounds dastardly, but crunch the numbers, and that’s an increase from 4.4 per cent of the total number of mosques in Britain being Saudi-funded, to 5.9 per cent in 2015. That is not a large number of mosques. It is certainly not hundreds. My anecdotal evidence based on interaction with mosques which everyone presumes are Saudi-funded is that, at least in Britain, Saudi Arabian money dried up in the nineties. As no mosques publishes where it gets its funding from, I struggle to understand how people can know these figures anyway.
There is a problem with blaming Saudi Arabia for everything terrorism-related. For pluralism-loving leftists or liberals, in particular, you have to deal with the fact that Saudi Arabia is home to two pretty important religious sites in Makkah and Madinah. The country may be run by some really not very nice people, but the fact that some imams in Britain have studied in Saudi Arabia should be unsurprising. It is, after all, the home of the Islamic faith.
The problem gets bigger, particularly for the supposedly tolerant-of-Islam crowd, because if you blame Saudi “ideology” for the threat, you inevitably buy into the neoconservative view of terrorism, which is that culture is the problem, not bad people. You end up conflating conservative religious beliefs with terrorism. This is what people like Corbyn and Jones are supposedly against.
Saudi Arabia is a lot of things — oppressive, sectarian, filled with inequalities of all kinds — but if you’re blaming it for terrorism on the streets of London, you’re going down a rabbit hole which, quite frankly, ends up with just blaming Islam per se.
So how about this as an idea to chew over? What causes terrorism is the existence of sick, sad people who have the means and will to commit terrorist attacks. Terrorists have always existed. We stop them by investing in the police and security services, not glorifying their successes in the media, and dealing with what legitimate grievances they might have (and only the legitimate ones). Anything else is a waste of time, as is talking ad nauseam about Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist ideology.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.