In The Media

Kyle Matthews: What did Saudi Arabia offer to refugees in Germany? Two hundred mosques

by Kyle Matthews

National Post
September 29, 2015

What do refugees need? Shelter, food and medicine tend to be immediate humanitarian requirements. What did Saudi Arabia offer Germany at the start of the refugee crisis that expected to see over one million people seek asylum in the heartland of Europe? Two hundred mosques.

While this is a shameful display of Riyadh’s seemingly heartless foreign policy, especially given the fact that Saudi Arabia has accepted zero Syrian refugees, it does not surprise those inside and outside of government who work on religious extremism and counter-terrorism issues.

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country that practices a very conservative form of Islam known as Wahabbism. The country also goes to great lengths and spends vast sums of oil money to promote Wahabbism across the world.

Why should we be concerned? In a recent column in The New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman explained “Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.”

The recent release of the “Saudi cables” by WikiLeaks has led to an increasing number of worrisome facts about the Saudi Arabian government and their influence on the world stage as an agent of religious extremism. It seems the Saudis have been funding Islamic schools and other organizations that promote Wahhabism around the world in places like India and Canada.

At first glance it may not seem so problematic that a foreign government is helping to create places of worship and to educate youth in another country’s jurisdiction. But an obsession with spreading and promoting a particular strain of Islam that is diametrically opposed to equal rights for other sects and religious groups should be seen as deeply unsettling to all, for obvious reasons.

From Mali to Nigeria, Pakistan to Syria, Egypt to Libya, Canada to France, extremism and violence are often linked to the particular Wahhabist ideology and belief system that emanates out of Saudi Arabia.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Daniel Benjamin of the Brookings Institution argues more bluntly that “Wahhabism has been a devastating invasive species in Islam’s enormous ecosystem — it’s the zebra mussel, the Asian Tiger mosquito, and the emerald ash borer wrapped into one. The consequences have been fateful: A solid line of causation from the slaughter in Islamic State-controlled Iraq and the tragedy of 9/11 traces back directly to Saudi evangelization and the many radical mosques and extremist NGOs it spawned.”

While the world is outraged and united in putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to release blogger Raif Badawi, who criticized religion and was sentenced to prison time and 1,000 lashes, more must be done if the international community is serious about reducing extremism and terrorism. Here’s a suggestion: follow the ideology, not the victims.

Last year the Canadian Senate authorized the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence “to study and report on security threats facing Canada.” An interim report was released last July. One section of the report, focused on foreign influences in Canada, noted that “to promote their own fundamentalist brand of Islam — Wahhabism — here in Canada, the committee has heard that wealthy Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis are using charities as conduits to finance Canadian mosques and community centres.”

While countries should take a united front in pressuring Saudi Arabia to cease and desist exporting fundamentalism, there are additional “reciprocity” strategies that national governments should and must follow. If a particular country has a horrible track record of religious freedom (or none at all) then all efforts should be placed on preventing that country and its citizens from interfering in the religious affairs of other states.

Austria, for example, recently amended a law, to include provisions that it believes will help curb the violent extremism in the country. Originally made in 1912, the law now makes provisions seeking to protect Austrian society at-large. What are the Austrians doing? The new law includes provisions that regulate the funding of imams and religious organizations such that no foreign funding can support the organization for more than a year.

While this may be too aggressive of a solution for some, it is surely an easy first step that can be taken to prevent foreign governments and religious institutions from interfering in other countries domestic affairs.

In the meantime, this is also moment for the international community to shine the spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s hypocrisy and demand that it, as one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, begin to use its national resources for the good of humanity by taking in Syrian refugees, rather than exporting Wahhabism. Religious extremism is powering conflicts that lead to the mass displacement of people. It must no longer be tolerated.

Kyle Matthews is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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