On Friday, the day French police killed the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, the liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged in Jeddah for insulting Islam.
The two cases are bookends.
The terrorists, who apparently had links to al-Qaeda and ISIS, murdered 10 journalists in the name of Islam because the journalists “insulted” the prophet Muhammad. Badawi, a brave human-rights activist, was sentenced to 15 years by a Saudi court — and 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks — because he critiqued the way Saudi clerics interpret Islam.
The Saudis export their harsh Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, which disdains or denounces other religions or variants of Islam. The terrorists just take that ideology one step forward, killing for the faith.
As the debate begins about lessons to be learned from the attacks in France, I’d urge people to focus on the blogger Badawi along with the French victims. He fell afoul of the extreme Saudi religious ideology that, like virulent cancer cells, has spread through many parts of the Muslim world.
Badawi’s website was called “Free Saudi Liberals,” and his goal was to create a public forum to discuss how to modernize Saudi Islam. After his arrest in 2012, he appealed an initial seven-year sentence and 600 lashes, but the judge made the punishment harsher. Then his lawyer was sentenced by an antiterrorism court to 15 years in jail.
The irony is that the Saudis denounce al-Qaeda and are frightened by ISIS, which has threatened their regime and pledged to take over the holiest Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina. Belatedly, the Saudi rulers cracked down on government foundations that fund Islamist terror groups, and they have donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counterterrorism agency.
But the Saudis’ rivalry with Iran has led them to fund almost any Sunni Islamist group in Syria willing to fight the Tehran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Moreover, the Saudis refuse to recognize that their extreme, literalist version of Islam underlies the terrorists’ thinking.
Most Muslims do not embrace Wahhabism, a variant of the Salafi doctrine whose adherents seek to live like the earliest Muslims. So, for decades, the Saudi kingdom has spent hundreds of millions of dollars proselytizing across the Muslim world. It has funded religious schools and textbooks from Central Asia through the Arab world to Pakistan and beyond, sending out imams who spread its intolerant thinking. Tens of thousands of Egyptians and Syrians, who came to work in Saudi Arabia, also absorbed Salafist ideas.
Private Saudis still fund satellite TV channels that are watched throughout the Arab world, where Salafi sheikhs denounce all infidels and spew out hatred toward the West.
Meantime, at home, the Saudi government has made only the feeblest attempts to cleanse textbooks of diatribes against other religious groups, or to broaden the religion-heavy curriculum. And, as the Badawi case shows, the regime is unwilling to permit any open discussion of religion at home.
All this money and rigid religious propaganda have had a powerful impact. At a time when the Arab world is in disarray and government corruption is rampant, when the “Arab spring” revolutions have failed, many youths are looking for new answers. So are alienated young Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe.
These youths need only look to the Internet or take a trip to Syria or Yemen, where they can learn to put the supremacist precepts of Salafi ideology into practice, seeking to overthrow Arab governments or attack the West. In 2003, according to the State Department, the six terrorist groups causing the most casualties globally all operated in Muslim countries. Indeed, most of the victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims.
The Islamic world is in a poor position to fight back. The Sunni world has no pope or grand ayatollah with the clout and legitimacy to counter Salafi religious propaganda.
“There are some moderate people within the Sunni tradition calling for reform,” says Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, whose grandfather was a leading Iraqi cleric, “but they are small groups and they don’t have the power.”
Badawi tried to promote reform, and it brought him the lash.
Many Arab leaders denounced the Charlie Hebdo murders, but their legitimacy is shaky. Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, called for a “revolution” in Islam to reform outdated interpretations of the faith, but he will have trouble implementing it. And to reinterpret the faith, he must rely on the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, a government religious institution that no longer has the broad clout it once had as a center of Islamic teaching.
Washington and its European allies can no longer wait around for Saudi Arabia (or other Arab states or Pakistan) to root out the Salafist ideology that inspires terrorists. It is past time to pressure countries that are supposedly our allies to stop dispensing this ideological poison. The flogging of Raif Badawi, as much as the Paris murders, signals a threat that endangers us all.