Radical Islam in America
by Stephen Schwartz
The media, prisons, the military, and academia are four key areas where the Saudi government and its Wahhabi ideology have gained tremendous influence in the U.S.
WHEN THE HORROR of Sept. 11 first occurred, Americans experienced a great deal of confusion and were subject to much speculation about the motives for such terrorism. It was natural for many of us to assume that we were attacked because of who we are: because we are wealthy, a dominant power in the world, and represent ideas that are in conflict with those of radical Islam. Many also figured-wrongly, I think-that it had mostly to do with the Middle East and Israel. Yet, a very interesting fact emerged-of the 19 suicide terrorists, 15 were subjects of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This is important because these were not poor people from refugee camps on the West Bank or in Gaza, or individuals who had grown up feeling some grievance against Israel and the U.S. because they lived in difficult conditions. These were not people from the crowded and disrupted communities of Egypt or Pakistan, or those who had experienced anti-Islamic violence in the last 20 years and therefore had turned against the U.S. These individuals had grown up in the country that Americans often think of as their most solid and dependable ally in the Arab world.
Why would Saudis be involved in this? What does it mean that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi? Why are so many members of Al-Qaeda Saudis? Why is it that Al-Qaeda essentially is a Saudi political movement? How come 25% of those detained in Guantanamo are Saudis? How is it that a country the U.S. has favored, delivered an enormous amount of wealth to through the purchase of oil, protected militarily, and whose young people have been educated in America for many years is so connected to the attacks of Sept. 11?
The ideology of Saudi hardliners is, unfortunately for Westerners, of great relevance, even inside the U.S. One doctrine of Islam dominates in Saudi Arabia -- Wahhabism, which is the most extreme, violent, separatist, and expansionistic form of Islam in existence today. It not only lashes out at the West, but seeks to take over and impose a rigid conformity on the entire Muslim world.
What then of America? Islam was new in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, because of changes in the immigration laws, the American Muslim community suddenly became much larger. Most Muslims who came here were not Arabs. The plurality have been from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. As Islam emerged as a major religion in the U.S., it-unlike other American sects-did not have an establishment. A disparate group of Muslims arrived and established mosques in various places. They represented different ethnic groups and lacked any structure to bring them together and unite them. That situation did not last long, however, because the Saudis decided to create an American Islamic establishment based on the radical doctrines of Wahhabism. In order to bring this about, they created a system of organizations that would speak for American Muslims to the government and the media and through the educational system and the mosques.
One can learn a lot about how the Saudi-backed Wahhabi establishment in the U.S. works by looking at how it came to speak for all of Islam in the American media. It did this by creating a set of organizations. One of the most prominent is called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). This group allegedly was set up to be a kind of a Muslim version of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. That is, its stated goal was to protect Muslims against prejudice and stereotypes.
I was working in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, and I was struck by CAIR's approach with our reporters and editors. They did not come to the newspaper offices and say, "We're Muslims; we're here now; this is our holy book; this is the life of our prophet Muhammad; these are the holidays we observe; this is what we believe in and we'd like you to report these things accurately." Rather, they said, "We are a minority and we suffer from discrimination. We suffer from hurtful stereotypes. We know that you are good liberal reporters and that you want to avoid inflicting these stereotypes on us. So, whenever you do a story on Islam, you should call us first and make sure it is correct." Of course, that meant "correct" according to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism.
There are other such groups. One of them is called the Islamic Society of North America. It is controlled directly from Saudi Arabia, and openly owns 250 of the 1,200 main mosques in the U.S. This, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. My research suggests that a full 80% of American mosques are under the control of the Saudi government and Wahhabism. This does not mean that 80% of American Muslims are supporters of Wahhabism-only that their mosques are controlled by the Saudi Wahhabis. There is a wide range of such organizations. Many we do not hear much about, including some of the worst. For example, the Islamic Circle of North America, which acts as a kind of extremist militia, has a very bad reputation for threatening, intimidating, and enforcing conformity in the Pakistani Muslim community.
There are three other areas where the Saudi government and its Wahhabi ideology have gained tremendous influence in the U.S. The first is in the American prison system. With one single exception, all of the Federal and state chaplains representing Islam in this country's prisons are Wahhabis. That is, they are certified by groups originating in Saudi Arabia; the curriculum they follow was created there; and they go into our prisons and preach an extremist doctrine. This is not the same as saying that they go into our prisons and directly recruit terrorists-although there have been cases of that. However, anytime you go into a prison-an environment of violence, obviously populated by troubled people-and preach an extremist doctrine, there are going to be bad and dangerous consequences.
The second area is in the military services. Every single Islamic chaplain in the U.S. military has been certified by Saudi-controlled groups-which means that our military chaplains also hold to Wahhabi doctrines. Is it surprising, then, that we had the incident of the Muslim soldier in Kuwait who attacked his fellow soldiers? Or the problems with military personnel at Guantanamo? Or the Muslim military man in Washington state who was trying to turn over useful information to Al-Qaeda?
Finally, there is the problem with what are known as the Islamic academies: Islamic elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the U.S. are supported by Saudi money and preach the Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine-in some cases to Saudi expatriate children living here but, in many other instances, to Muslim children who are U.S. citizens.
This seems a very dark picture. Yet, there are some fairly simple steps to take to solve the problem. First and foremost, it is vital to support the Federal and state governments in a sustained investigation of Islamic extremism in our country. That means not falling for the propaganda claim -- made by groups like CAIR -- that investigating what is happening in mosques, and the literature being distributed in mosques, somehow violates religious freedom. It is not a violation of religious freedom to prevent extremists from using religion as a cover for sedition and criminality. To the contrary, preventing this is necessary to the defense of religious freedom. So, it is absolutely necessary to support the FBI, Justice Department, and other agencies who are investigating the extent to which Islam in the U.S. is under the influence of anti-American and -democratic extremists. Moreover, it is vital that they are empowered to perform these investigations with laws like the Patriot Act.
Second, we must identify and support the moderate and patriotic Muslims in the U.S. who oppose Wahhabism and all it stands for. Many Muslims fit this description, even if we rarely read about or see them. Related to this, we should hold the media accountable for its coverage of these issues. How many times since Sept. 11 has the following accusation been made: "Why is it that more Muslim leaders failed to speak out against this abomination?" Actually, many have done so, but they often have a hard time being heard because their message does not fit the mold that the media likes to impose on this story. Instead, what the media cover are angry Muslims denouncing America's support of Israel and other misleading factors.
Despite all the negatives, there are, of course, many reasons -- man's unyielding will to be free among them -- to be optimistic about the war on terror around the globe. Yet, let us also not forget, in the course of conducting that war, the importance of stemming the influence of Saudi-supported Wahhabi extremism in our own country.
[This article is adapted from a lecture given at the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar.]