Why It’s Not True to Say that the Saudi government “exported” Radical Islam


I am reposting this piece that I wrote in November 2015.


November 2015.

As policy makers focus on what to do about the Islamic State  over the coming months — you will hear people talking about the  role of the Wahhabi version of Islam of Saudi Arabia, and what connection it has to the spread of this new wave of terrorism everyone is talking about.

For decades, there has been a school of thought that blames the Saudis for Al-Qaeda, or Salafism, and now, the Islamic State, as a result of some conscious strategy by the Saudi ruling class to “export” their version of Islam.

Here are eight links ( one two three four five six  seven eight)  from reasonable mainstream media outlets that state some variation of the thesis of this headline:

How Saudi Arabia Exported the Main Source of Global Terrorism

Central to this idea is that, if the Saudis did not take these actions to export their version of Islam, different things would be happening.  Such as:

  • Islam as practiced in many Arab countries would be more moderate
  • Certain radical mosques in say France, wouldn’t exist
  • Fewer Belgians would have traveled to fight in Syria.
  • Radical clerics would have less followers on Twitter.

I have always argued — and will argue in this post — that the spread of more conservative Islamic views across the Middle East, and amongst Muslims in the West, both now, and over the course of the last several decades, cannot be blamed on any conscious strategy by people or organizations inside Saudi Arabia.

It is merely a natural reflection of the “demand” for more conservative religious views.  People chose more conservative Islam because it is logical to them based on their personal surrounding environment.

This is not an academic argument — it has implications for how policy makers respond to this new wave of ISIS-style terrorism.

It comes down to this:

Do you believe that  people adopt ideas and beliefs because they seek them out and agree with them because they best explain their predicament?  They offer the most meaning?  Or do  you believe that people adopt ideas because they are told to believe them?   Do people choose ideas? Or do ideas choose them? Do you trust people to choose what they think?

I try to read any biography of an Islamic State member that is published in the media.

I am not aware of one single instance where a normal, happy, employed person, truly satisfied with their life, joined a radical movement because they by chance stumbled upon a book by a Wahhabi scholar.  Just happened to walk into a radical mosque where a Wahhabi preacher was speaking.

The person that joined an extremist movement has something going on his life that leads him to choose to seek out a radical preacher.  Leads him  or her to choose to go to the Wahhabi mosque, or to feel that a radical political movement deserves his support.

Some possible reasons that inform those choices: 

  • They are angry they don’t have a job, or maybe they have a job but it gives them no meaning
  • Their girlfriend dumped them.  Perhaps they feel that joining an extremist movement will make them more attractive to the opposite sex
  • They feel lost – and feel like they are wasting their lives.  They want to be part of a greater “cause.”
  • They are bored with their life and want something more exciting
  • They are insecure for any or all of the above reasons
  • They don’t believe that moderate approaches to reform have led to results that have changed any of these above equations.  Therefore they are more willing to listen to radical ideas.

There is some imbalance – that radicalism is addressing.  The initial biographies of those involved in the Paris attacks confirms this trend 100%.

Therefore, the available evidence suggests that the  rise of radicalism should be understood as a reflection of grassroots demand for radical solutions, not the cause.  

Let use Salafism in Egypt as a Case Study: 

In 2006 in Egypt, there was a sudden surge in the popularity of ultra-conservative Islamist TV stations.  By most accounts they had become the most watched programming of any kind in that country.

My secular-oriented Egyptian friends  were bothered by this development because it  did show a more conservative and fundamentalist brand of Islam than what had been seen at any other time in 20th century Egypt.

Their preferred explanation  then  was that this must be a Saudi import.  After all – as they argued –  Egyptians are “moderate” by nature.  So  according to their thinking there had to be some external force that was responsible.

Me, I was  skeptical of that theory when I first started hearing about this. So in 2009 an old friend and I undertook to investigate this phenomenon in greater depth.  We published our results in a widely quoted 2009  study at Arab Media and Society that has been cited in at least 20 academic papers and books.

Two things distinguished our approach:

First, we operated under the assumption that secularism is not inherently more “modern” than religion.   We didn’t believe that any particuliar worldview  has a monopoly on what it means to be modern.  If you believe that religion is fundamentally anti-modern, and can’t acknowledge that not everyone shares that view, than your analysis of Islamism will look a certain way.

Second,  and probably because of this first point, our research was based exclusively on primary sources, interviews with Islamists and reading the coverage in Arabic media, and watching the stations.

It is true that these TV stations were often funded by Saudis. However, that doesn’t mean that the surge in Salafism in Egypt was a Saudi export.  Why?  The reason is because the Saudi funders were entrepreneurs who were responding to an unmet niche in the market.  They were trying to make money.  If they didn’t see an interest in these ideas, they never would have invested in the market.

We found no evidence to support the contention that Salafism in  Egypt was a conscious Saudi export theory.  In fact, not one single person that we talked to in the course of study thought it was an import.

The ongoing surge in “demand” for ultra-conservative Islam in Egypt  was a reaction to  economic, cultural and political changes that were perceived as negative by most people in Egypt.   Those changes were causing them to adjust their views on religion. The “moderate” approach wasn’t working for them.

More radical or conservative ideas provided better and more logical explanations to their predicament.  They weren’t “ignorant” or “brainwashed” — more liberal ideas had no benefit for them.

Let’s Step Back — and Apply Some Context From History: 

Two Examples of Other Extremely Violent, “Market Demand” Driven Ideological Movements: 

The two most violent and murderous political reform movements of the modern era were The National Socialist German Workers Party  and the Communist Party of Lenin and Mao.
Both were more violent (in terms of scale of killing achieved) than anything that is occurring today.    Both had massive popular support that propelled them to power.

Key Point:

  • All of the ideas of both parties were present from the 1870s onwards.  None were intellectually “innovative.”  Yet true believers in those ideas in say 1905  or even through say 1923 in Germany were a small group..
  • It was only that in a certain moment in history — the demand for their approach reached a critical mass. People “chose” these movements because they saw them as the only way forward

The trauma of the First World War — combined with the Great Depression for Germany was the underlying “game changer” for both movements.

And it ultimately led critical masses of people in both countries, eventually to think that these two ideologies were worth following.  They did choose — especially in Germany where National Socialism came to power through the electoral process.

In essence, the “Demand” for radical reform options surged.

How do you combat  Demand Driven-Radicalism?

You address the source of the ideas.  There is  an obvious military element involved.  But you have to drain the movement of its appeal — through economic reforms.  That was how we beat Communism and prevented any resurgence of National Socialism.

  • Military action when applicable (i.e. WWII)
  • Economic Reforms to Make Those radical ideas less appealing (Marshall Plan, post-war approach o Germany)

Those lessons will be applied in future Towards a Better World posts as relates to current security problems.

Back to Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Idiosyncracies: Cultural or Religious? 

There are certain things about Saudi Arabia that attract negative attention from foreign media, that are often said to be something “Wahhabi” or uniquely related to “Saudi Islam.”

Let’s just take one – the issue of women not being allowed to drive.

I lived in Saudi for two years and have spoken to lots of Saudis about this. Most  — but not all — would agree with me about this.  That’s not a religious issue.   It’s a cultural issue that is related to the Kingdom’s coming to grips with modernity.

You can not understand Saudi Arabia without recognizing the effect that its sudden surge from a bedouin backwater to an aspiring industrial power in the course of 40-50 years has on how its people view the world.   In most countries this transition took place over the course of several hundred years.   Its speed provokes certain reactions.

Let’s do a thought experiment: 

What practices in Saudi Arabia today are different from what was happening in the US or Europe in say 1940?   Were Londoners “Wahhabi” if they wouldn’t let a women go out by herself?  Were your great grand parents “Wahhabi” if they wouldn’t let your grandmother mingle alone with a boy?  If they felt that it was better for males and females to attend separate schools?  If your grandmother felt that the job of the woman was to be a homemaker?

Case in point — here is an article from the New York Times in 1910 about a trend that was “shocking” France in 1910:

“The Tight Skirtists” Against The Old Guard: 



That was the “tight skirt” that was shocking France in 1910. Not too much unlike the Saudi abaya.

Yet anyone who has been to France recently would know that this no longer qualifies as a tight skirt.  In fact, a woman today who dressed like this would be seen as extremely modest.

Whereas if her grandmother or great grand mother did, they would have been considered risqué. But over time — people got used to the issue.

This is why the whole issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia is a cultural issue — just like the role of tight skirts in France was.

The controversy of women driving relates to whether  unmarried women and men should mix. Because if woman can drive — it means they might be in a situation where they might be pulled over by a police officer. And there would be temptation.  That’s the heart of the issue that disturbs many people inside Saudi Arabia.

Just as if you were a 25 year old French woman in 1910 and were a “Tight Skirtist” — would probably have stunned your parents.   Yet as with France,  attitudes change over time.

Resistance to the idea of women playing an active role in Saudi society is drastically less today, than it was ten years ago, and even mores 20 or 30 years ago.  I would be very surprised if 15 years from now — women in Saudi Arabia are not driving legally.

Moral of the story — you can’t blame Wahhabism for something going on in Saudi Arabia in 2015, if something fairly similar was occurring in the West when your grandparents were growing up, or even your parents.

Policy Implications: 

If violent Islamist extremist movements are an “export” of Saudi Wahhabism, if extremist ideas can be exported and choose people, not be chosen by people, then you can do things like pressure the Saudis to stop their funding of so-called  Wahhabi mosques, or sending out certain books.

You can identify and promote so-called “moderate” Muslims and amplify their voices.  That would theoretically cut into the appeal of radical Islamist approaches.

But if you generally believe, as I do,  that the surge in extremism is a mere reflection of demand for extremist ideas, then you have to address whatever is causing that demand.  That is the only way you can cut into the appeal of Islamic extremism.  That appeal — especially as relates to a non-geographic Syria/Iraq context,  is largely tied to socio-economics.

The “demand” for radical political solutions is growing, because 80% or so are struggling to find meaningful, purposeful lives in their local context.   If that socio-economic gap that is leading a growing number of people to choose radical views, is not addressed, Islamic extremism is a problem that has only began its ascent. It will continue to grow.

How to address that socio-economic gap?  Here is a post I wrote at The Arabist last week titled “To Beat ISIS Focus on Economic Reforms“.  It offers specific new ideas for how to provide alternatives for people to choose.



4 thoughts on “Why It’s Not True to Say that the Saudi government “exported” Radical Islam

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