Money, Money, Money
by Rich Lowry
The federal raids on mostly Northern Virginia Islamic charities and groups last week all have something in common — the Saudis.
According to the New York Times, "the government is seeking wide-ranging financial information about the Safa Trust and the Saar Group, a sister organization, both of which have ties to one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families, as well as 17 other Islamic charities and businesses, many of them also financed partly by wealthy Saudis and the Saudi government."
As they say on the street (or so I'm told), "it's all about the benjamins," in this case the ample petrodollars that have since 1973 allowed the Saudis to spread their influence around the world, including to outposts in sleepy little Herndon, Virginia.
I've written often about how campaign-finance reformers overestimate the influence of money in American politics, but there's no denying that dollars, as a general proposition, matter. The reason we hear so much about Saudi, instead of, say, Jordanian, influence, is simply cash.
Imagine if it turned out that Mormon Church property in Utah sat above huge diamond reserves, and over the next 30 years the Church of Latter-Day Saints could pour billions and billions of dollars into its efforts to proselytize. We would be hearing a lot from the Mormons.
Essentially, this is what happened with the Wahhabis in the early 1970s, producing a spectacular windfall for radical Islam.
As Adam Garfinkle writes in a tough-minded piece in the latest issue of the always-excellent National Interest, "The Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam is neither traditional nor orthodox. It is a slightly attenuated fundamentalism that dates only from the end of 18th century. . . . [A]s recently as 50 years ago the large majority of Muslims considered Saudi Wahhabism to be exotic, marginal and austere to the point of neurotic."
Gilles Kepel, in his compelling new book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, amplifies Garfinkle's point: "Prior to 1973, Islam was everywhere dominated by national or local traditions rooted in the piety of the common people, with clerics of the different schools of Sunni religious law established in all major regions of the Muslim world. . . . This motley establishment held Saudi-inspired Puritanism in great suspicion on account of it sectarian character."
What has happened since 1973? Money, money, money (plus the Saudi custody of the holy sites, which gives their interpretation of Islam an extra measure of credibility).
The Saudis have over the last three decades literally changed the world and the nature of Islam, as the indispensable Stephen Schwartz never tires of pointing out. We are now dealing with the consequences, in places as far-flung as Malaysia and Herndon, Virginia.
Kepel picks up the story of the post-1973 petrodollar-fueled Saudi push: "The objective was to bring Islam to the forefront of the international scene, to substitute it for the various discredited nationalist movements, and to refine the multitude of voices within the religion down to the single creed of the masters of Mecca. The Saudis' zeal now embraced the entire world, extending beyond the traditional frontiers of Islam to the heart of the West, where immigrant Muslim populations were their special target."
John Miller wrote about this phenomenon in the U.S. in the latest NR, persuasively arguing that American Muslims have been particularly susceptible to the Wahhabi push.
The Saudis provide money for mosques, they provide imams — they provide everything. According to Kepel, "the Saudi ministry for religious affairs printed and distributed millions of Korans free of charge, along with Wahhabite doctrinal texts, among the world's mosques, from the African plains to the rice paddies of Indonesia and the Muslim immigrant high-rise housing projects of European cities."
This push served to erase the rich diversity of a great religion: "For the first time in fourteen centuries, the same books (as well as cassettes) could be found from one end of the Umma to the other; all came from the same Saudi distribution circuits, as part of an identical corpus. Its very limited number of titles hewed to the same doctrinal line and excluded other currents of thought that had formerly been part of a more pluralistic Islam."
It is impossible to account for all the ways in which Saudi cash has influenced the Islamic world. Consider just the people from other countries who went to Saudi Arabia to work, and sent money back home, creating an indirect dependence on Saudi society. Kepel reports that: "In Pakistan in the single year 1983, the money sent home by Gulf emigrants amounted to $3 billion, compared with a total of $735 million given to the nation in foreign aid."
All of this is why Saudi Arabia is at the root of the problem in the war on terrorism. Toppling the dangerous Saddam Hussein is important — especially in the way it may change the strategic balance in the Middle East — but in some respects it is beside the point.
Saddam Hussein hasn't spread a poisonous radicalism around the globe. He doesn't fund terrorist-tainted organizations in the United States. It wasn't — to pick just one example — his relief mission in Bosnia that was discovered with suspicious photographs of U.S. military missions.
No, for all that we have to look to the Saudis.
Which is why they would prefer that we don't look too closely. According to the Times in one of the stories about the recent raids, "the Treasury Department was increasingly frustrated by the reluctance of the Saudi government to provide information about at least five Islamic charities, among them the Wafa Humanitarian Organization, suspected of having financed terrorist groups."
The first step to confronting the Saudi problem is simply to acknowledge it. President Bush should have a lot to talk to Crown Prince Abdullah about at the Crawford ranch, and his "peace plan" should be the least of it.
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