When the Henry Jackson Society released its report earlier this week about how Saudi Arabia is allegedly funding extremism in Britain, there was acclaim from all corners. Left and right united to publicise the think tank. The report even prompted an article in the New York Times, which claimed that it shows that “Britain debates Saudis’ ties to extremism, with [Theresa] May in an uneasy spot.” Many did exactly what HJS media strategists hoped they would do and used the report as a proxy for the government’s own report into Gulf funding of terrorism, which is currently being suppressed for diplomatic reasons.
However, the HJS report offered nothing new. There were no details of bank statements, wire transfers or secret communications between Saudi Arabian handlers and the Manchester, London Bridge, Westminster, Woolwich or 7/7 attackers. There were, instead, unsurprising statements about preachers who studied in Saudi Arabia, in some cases more than 20 years ago.
Saudi Arabia, it shouldn’t need to be said, is the spiritual home of the Islamic faith; it hosts the two most holy places in Islam, Makkah and Madinah. That some British Muslims study there should not be a surprise to anyone.
Several of the preachers accused by HJS of being created by Saudi Arabia — notably Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, Abdullah Al-Faisal and Omar Bakri — have been, in fact, among the strongest critics of the kingdom. Abu Qatada repeatedly lashed Riyadh, and in particular the “court scholar” status of Saudi scholar Rabee Al-Madkhali, who he accused of facilitating spying against Muslims, and taking money from the House of Saud.
Abu Hamza claimed dramatically that the Saudi king had “broken his divine covenant” — as one report put it — which is an exceptionally serious accusation to level at the custodian of Islam’s most holy sites.
Abdullah Al-Faisal may have studied at the Imam Muhammed Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh back in the eighties, but when he preached at the Brixton Mosque in London, he lectured about “The Devil’s Deception of the Saudi Salafis”; he was another one excoriating the Saudi monarchy.
Omar Bakri studied in Saudi Arabia as well, but there founded a cell of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was a banned organisation. He was even briefly arrested by the Saudi authorities for his political activities.
A close look at the HJS report also reveals a serious discrepancy in its fundamental premise that Saudi Arabia is now increasing its efforts to fund “extremism” in Britain and elsewhere. The footnotes evidence this by linking to a single article published in the World Affairs Journal. Nowhere does this article claim that Saudi Arabian funding of “Wahhabism worldwide” is growing.
HJS claims that, “In 2007 Saudi Arabia was estimated to be spending at least $2 billion annually on promoting Wahhabism worldwide. By 2015 that figure was believed to have doubled.” What its own footnoted source actually states is that $4bn per year was being spent, but during the Cold War and by King Fahd, who died in 2005. Indeed the same article says that Saudi Arabia has “begun introducing more stringent rules for oversight of waqfs, or charities, to curb funds flowing to Islamists.”
Even in 2008, when HJS presumed Saudi money was accelerating into British mosques, an MI5 report obtained by the Guardian suggested that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation” and that, “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices.” None of that suggests that even if Saudi Arabia was funding orthodox Islam in Britain it would make terrorism more likely.
You only have to look to India or Indonesia to see that Saudi money, even in the hundreds of millions, does not necessarily equate to more terrorism. In Indonesia, the effect of Saudi money has been called a “red herring”. India has remarkably little “Islamic” violence but it does have a remarkable number of Saudi-funded charities, schools and mosques.
Despite these extraordinary gaps in the HJS report, media voices across the political spectrum have united to exalt its findings. It was an exercise in confirmation bias. In a Britain where opinion is divided on everything after last year’s Brexit referendum, probably the only political issue that left and right can agree on is that neither like Saudi Arabia.
Largely forgotten in all of this is that a key figure within HJS, associate director Douglas Murray, has made repeated derogatory comments about Muslims, has his own association with extremists banned from the United Kingdom, and is complicit in the concealment of covert foreign funding of the Henry Jackson Society which is intended to influence decent British citizens.
One of the few donors to HJS who pay Murray’s salary that we know about is Nina Rosenweld’s Abstraction Fund, an American outfit. Alongside its support for Murray’s sectarian propaganda, the Abstraction Fund gives money to Daniel Pipes (who says that Muslims are “brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene”); Brigitte Gabriel (Muslims “have no souls — they are dead set on killing and destruction”); and the Gatestone Institute, a pseudo-academic organisation that pumps out anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and had, until recently, Douglas Murray on its board of governors.
Murray aside, none of these people are British or think in a particularly “British” way. They are, by his society’s own definitions, “foreign extremists”.
The Abstraction Fund is estimated to have given some $2.8 million to anti-Muslim secular preachers since 2000. Murray is tied closely into this network of hate. He has described Robert Spencer, an anti-Muslim academic from the United States, as “a very brilliant scholar and writer.” Spencer denies that genocide took place in Srebrenica, and is banned from entering the United Kingdom on security grounds because his views are so extreme.
Nevertheless, in 2006 Murray and Spencer appeared together at an event in Holland. There, Murray stated that
Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.
This was a foretelling of Trump’s Muslim ban (and it is a Muslim ban, no matter how the US administration tries to dress it up). When Trump introduced this, Murray supported him with a nine-point defence published in the right-wing Spectator magazine. Earlier this year, Murray said that Britain needed “less Islam” (which is shorthand for “fewer Muslims”), a claim that was aired by the BBC, the Spectator and the Sun.
It should be noted that If Murray had said any of this about Jews, Jamaicans or Indians, he would have been rightly labelled an “extremist” and frog-marched into career oblivion. Instead, he is rewarded with foreign cash and mainstream media coverage.
America has many great and good things to offer the world. Anti-Muslim bigotry, which has gone from the fringes of polite society to the White House, is not one of them.
One of the mosques called out in the HJS report is the King Fahd Mosque in Edinburgh, also known as Edinburgh Central Mosque. It was built with Saudi money nineteen years ago. According to the HJS, it is run directly “from Saudi Arabia.” The implication is ominous, but the report does not expand on its claim. To do so would reveal the paucity of truth in it.
I know this mosque well. It is right next to the university I attended. Every day, it offered exceptionally cheap curry to students of all faiths and none. We all ate on benches and it was packed every lunch-time. We were never proselytised by the staff at any level. After 9/11, the manager had “decided to open the restaurant to everyone, no matter their religious persuasion, to show that Islam ‘was not about terror’.”
The feeding operation has since expanded from the mosque forecourt, a pleasant enclosed space, to a separate restaurant nearby. The mosque is now deriving a great deal of its income not from sinister forces in Riyadh, but from curry.
In fact, many mosques in this country raise funds either from their community or from social enterprises. That the bricks and mortar came from Saudi Arabia or other oil-rich Middle East donors decades ago, seems increasingly irrelevant.
When the Asad Shah stabbing occurred in Glasgow, the city’s Central Mosque management team launched a lecture series dealing with differences between Ahmadi and other Islamic beliefs. After other terror attacks they have welcomed Christian congregations to “discuss how to live together in peace.” They have an entire programme called “Against Extremism” and work closely with the police and host Scottish politicians regularly. Glasgow Central Mosque is the epitome of an “integrated” British mosque, and yet the HJS report implies that it is somehow “extremist”.
Remarkably few Muslims from Scotland have gone to fight in Syria. The only person thus confirmed is Abdul Rakib Amin, who joined Daesh. He came from Aberdeen, and the mosque he attended knew nothing about his radicalisation; it is funded locally, not from Riyadh. Amin was apparently recruited through the internet.
A Scottish “jihadi bride”, Aqsa Mahmood, has also travelled to Syria. She comes from Glasgow, not Edinburgh and its allegedly “Saudi-run” mosque. She wasn’t groomed in a madrassa; she attended an expensive private school which banned the hijab. She also appears to have been recruited online.
There are 15,000 Muslims living in Edinburgh, with the Saudi-built Edinburgh Central Mosque, controlled by Riyadh according to the Henry Jackson Society report, catering to 1,000 worshippers at a time. Not one of them has gone to Syria.
Bash Saudi Arabia all you want. Its leadership court bigots and have turned the holy sites into theme parks. Women, Shia and foreigners are treated like dirt. Its foreign policy is appalling, particularly towards Yemen and now Qatar, and it is now allying itself with Israel against the Palestinians. It is backing fighters in Syria, although not Daesh, who do not offer Syrians a future much better than the ruling Assad family.
The impact of “Wahhabism” on the specific problem of terrorism in the West, or in Britain, is largely a figment of the imagination. The conspiracy theory often glosses over flaws in the way that Western countries are themselves dealing an unfair hand to their own Muslim citizens. It is easier to blame the foreign blokes with beards than it is to wrestle with our own inadequacies.
That this criticism comes on this occasion from the Henry Jackson Society, an organisation with shady foreign funding in abundance, and from the most extreme of sources with the most extreme of agendas, is hypocrisy worth highlighting. The media, though, has generally missed the trick. Instead, the society’s report has sparked yet another tedious debate about Saudi Arabia. It’s time to move on. The money from the Gulf has dried up, and the real terrorists have moved on. We should too.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.