The Great Salafi Gamble

Saudi Arabia hopes Salafism will keep the Arab Spring from coming to Riyadh. They're beginning to see the blowback.

A sign at a Salafi rally calling for Islamic law. Flickr/gr33ndata.In serving their patrons in Saudi Arabia, ultraconservative religious Salafis are stirring violent protests and flexing political muscle in North Africa and fledgling Arab democracies. But the instability they unleash may backfire on their Saudi sponsors by animating new waves of religious fanaticism.

The Saudi royal family and its partner, the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi religious establishment, have for decades spent billions of petrodollars proselytizing and sending Saudi-trained imams across the globe. Though there is ever more reason to see Salafism as a belief system that can give rise to radicalism and jihadism, Saudi clerics continue to export their ideology to young people.

Mobs threatening Western embassies assert the power of Salafis to rattle the newly elected Brotherhood-affiliated governments.

Restive Salafis are already agitating for more power. In Cairo on November 9th, more than ten thousand of them demonstrated to demand the new constitution be based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law. In Tunisia, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist en-Nahda party, caused a furor in October when he was caught on hidden videotape advising radical Salafis to build support for their views through religious schools and radio broadcasts. Ghannouchi has said he was trying to tamp down their rush to gain power.

It is a puritanical religious fervor that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and shows every indication of continuing to spread. In recent weeks, scholars at Tunisia’s Zaytunah University raised concerns about the import of Wahhabism as a result of new ties between their university and the Wahhabi-influenced Jeddah University in Saudi Arabia.

Last month, the heads of major U.S. publishing houses joined forces to protest the Saudi government’s promotion of textbooks depicting how to amputate hands and feet under Shariah and calling for death for homosexuals. Such books also call Jews and Christians enemies. The Saudis continue to publish them despite longstanding vows to make revisions. The protest from U.S. publishers comes on the heels of news that a UN agency on education, the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is working on textbook content to ensure it reflects “cultural and religious diversity”—and that it just received a $20 million check from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

On September 11 and the days that followed, Salafi religious fervor whipped up crowds of violent anti-American protesters by citing the The Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube.

It is a storm Saudi and other Persian Gulf Wahhabis helped create. Indeed, the video would have languished in deserved obscurity had an angry Salafist commentator not broadcast it on Egypt’s al-Nas TV, an ultraconservative religious network reportedly owned by a Saudi businessman.

Saudi monarchs who jet around the world in luxury may gain a measure of safe haven behind the mobs of rock throwers. With the repressive Saudi regime now beset by states undergoing democracy transitions, Saudi rulers have worries all around. The Muslim Brotherhood Islamists who’ve gained power in Egypt and Tunisia may one day threaten the House of Saud and the Wahhabis governing Qatar and Bahrain.

That is the way the secularist Libyan Democratic Party sees it. Sabri Malek, a London-based spokesman for the party, told Iranian television that he believes Libyan democracy “is upsetting the Saudis and the Qataris, badly.”

“The Saudis and Qataris want to ensure that the Arab Spring revolutions will not spread to the Arab Peninsula,” he said.

That Wahhabis in the Gulf initially seemed to sanction the embassy protests was evidenced in Bahrain, where the Wahhabi regime has brutally suppressed demonstrations by its Shiite majority, but took no steps against protesters waving black Islamic flags outside the U.S. embassy.

The prospect of more mob fury in Egypt and Tunisia strengthens the hand of Salafis in those countries, putting new pressure on Brotherhood leaders more schooled in mounting opposition than in quelling it. As a result, the Brotherhood government is all the more challenged to win the Western aid and business it needs to stand up a functioning economy.

President Mohamed Morsi has already gone begging to the Saudis, and he now needs them more than ever. For that, the Saudis stand to gain more leverage in shaping Egypt’s dealings with the Kingdom’s foes in Iran and Syria. Even the current jockeying for power between clerics and political leaders within Egyptian Salafis’ al-Nour Party creates more chaos for the Morsi government.

Ali al Ahmed, a Shiite Saudi scholar who runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, said the Saudis are encouraging Salafi challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood governments. “They are terrified of what’s happening in Egypt,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood government there is Arab, Sunni, religiously attentive to its people. If they can create a model, others will want it in their countries.”

One of Saudi Arabia’s most popular clerics, Salman al-Odah, jailed for years as a radical, supported the Arab Spring and new Muslim Brotherhood governments. Al-Odah, who has over 1 million followers on Twitter, expressed worries that the anger of Salafis could destabilize Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.

But the drive by some in the Saudi religious establishment for puritanical societies abroad may boomerang on the Saudis, just as Riyadh’s support for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and other Cold War battlegrounds ultimately caused trouble for the Saudi royals when Osama bin Laden set his sights on the Kingdom. Al Qaeda-linked jihadis who showed up for the September 11 protest at the US embassy in Cairo used clips from the televised YouTube video to incite a mob, Thomas Joscelyn has reported in The Long War Journal.

Already, Salafi protests may have further emboldened Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shiite population in the oil-rich eastern part of the country, where recent months have seen violent demonstrations and a crackdown on local leaders, who complain of harsh discrimination against by the Sunni majority. In recent months, protesters have demanded the release of political prisoners in Riyadh, draping banners over highway overpasses and gathering their families outside prisons. Political detentions have been a flash point in Arab revolutions, and in Saudi Arabia’s police state, protests are rare.

The fervor and velocity of protests that spread to some 20 countries show the reach of the Salafi movement in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have and their NGOs have been building mosques and madrassas, training Wahhabi imams and trying to radicalize Africa’s Sufi Muslims and turn them into Salafis. A Pew Research survey in 2010 found that 63 percent of Muslims across sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, favored making Shariah the law of the land. More than half believed the Islamic Caliphate would be reestablished in their lifetimes.

The spread of puritanical Islam in Africa, with its impoverished population and weak national governments, has created an opening for Islamic armed groups, like Ansar Dine in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which enforce brutal versions of Shariah, stoning adulterers, amputating thieves’ limbs, and destroying Sufi shrines. And that’s not to mention radical Islamic terrorist groups Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, believed tied to the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other embassy personnel in Bengazi, as well as a host of other radical Islamic militias in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.

These Islamic militants and jihadi terrorists have been known to direct their hatred of local Christians and oil-seeking Western infidels toward Gulf monarchies. Saudi security officials this fall broke up new al-Qaeda cells in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abul Aziz al-Sheikh seemed to see the threat when he tried to tamp down the Salafi violence. Even as he lambasted the creation of the anti-Muslim video, he cautioned his followers against misdirecting violence toward embassies and diplomats, warning that “it is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty.”

The Mufti knows well that blasphemy is a sin punishable by death in Islam, but that it’s no crime in the much of the West. Yet the Mufti has “appealed to all countries and international organizations to criminalize acts ridiculing all prophets and messengers,” according to the official Saudi press agency.

Indeed, Muslim leaders of many stripes continue to promote the offensive video in the service of their demands for a global crackdown on the criticism of Islam.

Time will tell if the Saudi Wahhabis have indeed once again overplayed their hand, spreading Salafist fervor that spawns jihadis that threaten the Kingdom. That is what happened in 2003, when jihadi attacks inside Saudi Arabia finally prompted a crackdown on religious charities supporting Islamic terror groups.

The Salafis’ demands for Islamic law in the new democracies makes it harder for the new Muslim Brotherhood governments to establish themselves. And given the way it’s gone so far, those governments can’t count on more cheerleading from the West. But the Saudis and the rest of the Gulf countries also need stability in Egypt and North Africa—and their Salafist followers are undermining it every day.

Susan Schmidt is a longtime Washington journalist and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.