The Buzz

Time to Halt Weapons Sales to Saudi Arabia

Four U.S. Senators have launched a bipartisan effort this month to block an arms deal to Saudi Arabia worth $1.15 billion. It’s a smart move considering that, since last year, a Saudi-led military coalition has reportedly killed and wounded over 10,000 civilians across their southern border in Yemen.  

With the partisan gridlock that’s so prevalent in Congress, it’s refreshing to see a noble cause like human rights in Yemen shared by two Republicans -- Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, and two Democrats -- Minnesota’s Al Franken and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy.  

Hopefully they will secure a veto-proof majority, as the last thing Washington should do is sell 130 Abrams tanks, other heavy weapons and ammunition to Riyadh in light of Yemeni massacres.

Yet even if the Senators are successful, they should consider taking it a step further.

All weapons sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted.  Until the Kingdom halts violent extremism.

That’s because Wahhabism, the ultra-rigid form of Islam practiced by the Saudis for centuries and exported globally by Riyadh for decades is one of the world’s most dangerous retrograde forces. It demands a literal interpretation of the Koran, fostering a 7th century mentality which applies to law, governance, policy and social norms.

As a PBS Frontline Documentary described it, “Strict Wahhabis believe that those who do not practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.”

In effect, Wahhabism justifies violence against Christians, Jews and others as non-believers, a.k.a. “infidels.” It calls for punishment of “kuffars,” Muslims who are judged as insufficiently pious. Under Sharia Law, religious conversion away from Islam is punishable by death.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of Wahhabism has served them well in recent decades, at least to a certain degree.

It has enabled Riyadh to contain arch-rival Tehran, countering Shia-led Iranian efforts to undermine Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-led dominance of the Islamic world since the revolution of 1979 toppled the Shah. It also enabled the Kingdom to bleed the Soviet military dry using foreign fighters during the 1980s, forcing Moscow’s humiliating exit from Afghanistan.  

Yet that roughly $100 billion spent exporting Wahhabism around the globe opened a Pandora’s Box, unleashing a seemingly endless jihad upon civilization.

As we learned last month from the 28 secret pages of the 2002 Congressional intelligence report into 9/11, the Saudis had spent lavishly to advance radicalism in U.S.-based mosques and charities. This strategy includes labeling those criticizing the rise of radical Islam as Islamophobic or worse, effectively shutting down debate.

Outside of the United States, Saudi Wahhabi schools, called Madrassas, changed the face of entire societies in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Generations of young boys whose families could otherwise could not afford an education were only taught the Koran, growing up to fill the ranks of extremist groups like the Taliban.

Meanwhile, nations which had become secular societies over the past century were whipsawed back into a bygone era and subjugated under Saudi cultural dominance. Women who had made strides towards equality from Morocco to Egypt to Turkey to Indonesia saw their lives gradually transformed. Out with modernity’s dresses and skirts, in with antiquity’s niqabs and hijabs.  In extreme cases, failure to comply was under pain of death.

Perhaps today’s silver lining is that even Saudi leaders recognize the fact fundamentalists may destroy the Kingdom from within -- and are beginning to implement reforms.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the former top U.S. diplomat to Afghanistan and Iraq, recently visited Saudi leaders in Riyadh and described some of those measures in an insightful Politico column this month.

Though it’s encouraging to know the Saudis are making progress in human rights, they still have a long way to go. Along with China and Iran, they lead the world in executions, though they are arguably the most brutal, conducting grisly beheadings in public. According to human rights organizations, at least 157 were executed there in 2015 alone.  Those include foreign maids and nannies involved in domestic violence, as well as drug-related offenses.

Meanwhile, women are still forced to wear the niqab, with only their eyes visible. They can’t travel without being accompanied by an adult male relative, or his written permission.  They aren’t allowed to drive a car.

But the global impact extends far beyond fashion statements and ease of transportation.

The Wahhabi promise of a paradise in the afterlife in exchange for martyrdom steers countless lost souls to commit acts of depravity, all the while using Islam as a justification. According to the Global Terrorism Index, over 32,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2014.  Nearly four in five of those deaths were in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.  Overwhelmingly those were cases of Muslims killing other Muslims.

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