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Saudis struggle with rift between traditionalists, modernists

| Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, 11:10 p.m.
Khalid Inad Alshammari (left) and Hael Rajab Alyami are engineering students at Robert Morris University in Moon.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Khalid Inad Alshammari (left) and Hael Rajab Alyami are engineering students at Robert Morris University in Moon.

About six weeks before Donald Trump rallied his base with a call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, a 34-year-old Islamic State terrorist walked into a mosque in Hael Rajab Alyami's hometown and detonated a bomb.

One person was killed and more than a dozen were wounded in the explosion in October in Najran, Saudi Arabia. It was at least the third mosque attack in the kingdom last year for which the terrorist group claimed responsibility and a reason Alyami bristles when he hears people associate the theocracy of his homeland with violent jihadism.

“All of the citizens in every city in Saudi Arabia stood against that person,” said Alyami, 21, a software engineering major at Robert Morris University in Moon.

Yet criticism of the Saudi government — one of the United States' strongest allies in the region — is growing among those who see a link between the kingdom's decision to export its conservative brand of Islam and violent extremists who claim to be the religion's uncompromising messengers.

The Saudis spend millions to support relief organizations, hospitals and the construction of Islamic schools and institutes. Saudi scholar David Commins of Dickinson College called it “the soft and hard infrastructure of religious proselytizing.”

“The Saudis believe that they have a special role in Islam,” said Michael Kenney, international affairs professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Studies. “After all, they are the guardians of the two most holy sites in the religion.”

In war-torn societies from Somalia to the Balkans, Saudi-backed charities and religious education have helped spread the kingdom's official fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — alternately referred to as Salafism or Wahhabism — where more moderate interpretations once held sway.

Some of those places, including the Somali refugee community in Minneapolis, have lost sons and daughters to the radicalism of the Islamic State.

Extremist doctrine?

“For decades, they've been funding a massive education program and madrassas (Islamic religious school),” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, said of Saudi Arabia.

Casey recalled a conversation with Ted Kauffman, a former Senate colleague and longtime aide to Vice President Joe Biden.

“(Kauffman) said, ‘Wherever you look in the Middle East, or even around the world, wherever there is terrorism, extremism ... it all goes back to one source: Wahhabism coming out of Saudi Arabia,' ” Casey said.

But conflating the Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi-supported clerics with that preached by the Islamic State is a mistake, Kenney said.

“It's not like the Wahhabi mainstream guys in the kingdom love ISIS. They don't. They think ISIS is destroying their religion,” Kenney said.

Though their interpretation of Islam is strict and fundamentalist, Saudi-supported Salafism is apolitical, Kenney said. Salafi jihadis, by contrast, see the imposition of Islamic law on others as their duty, he said.

The latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS's English-language magazine, brands pro-Saudi Islamic scholars as “stooges” of the royal family.

“The Salafi jihadis see the mainstream Saudi establishment as apostates. For them, they're not real Muslims,” Kenney said. “From the perspective of the Salafi jihadis, the Saudi scholars will do anything to get that paycheck (from the Saudi government), and they're interpretation of Islam is ... what's politically correct in Saudi Arabia.”

Critics of the Saudi government say the educational curriculum supported by the regime — and exported around the world — lays the groundwork upon which violent jihadists build.

“The totality of the Saudi schoolbooks' goals is to create separation between the student and the outside world — us and them,” said Ali al-Ahmed, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and founded the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington-based nonprofit. Al-Ahmed wrote two studies critical of the Saudi curriculum.

To whom “us” refers within Saudi Arabia is a hotly debated topic, said Commins, the Dickinson professor. When secular Arab governments expelled the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and '60s, many politically active members sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. There, Commins said, they fused with the Wahhabi theology.

That opened a rift that remains within the kingdom between the more compliant, monarchy-friendly strain of Salafism and the activist camp, Commins said.

“They're not all on the same page. If you think of any government or any large organization and even large political movements, there are going to be different factions,” Commins said. “They may share certain general goals, but they may disagree on certain facets of those goals and, certainly, different ways of attaining those goals.”

Resistance to change

All of this has led to internal resistance to those in the Saudi government who want to modernize, experts say.

“They still were allowing these madrassas, where you basically export the education of the Wahhabi view, which is a very austere, intolerant view of Islam,” said former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, a Middle East diplomat for the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “Now, even on that they're cutting back. They seem to be more aware of how this ends up boomeranging, coming back to be a threat against them.”

In December, the Saudi government ordered that schools remove 80 books written by or associated with prominent Muslim Brotherhood members. Years earlier, Saudi leaders had said they would tone down some of the language in their textbooks.

“A few textbooks were changed. This religious intolerance was removed from some textbooks, but not all,” Commins said.

Commins returned to Saudi Arabia in 2011 (he'd been there during and immediately after the 9/11 attacks), and spoke to teachers and members of the education ministry who told him the government-ordered changes were met with mixed success.

“The teachers who had been trained and had been in the classroom for years teaching this material responded as you would imagine American teachers would do — ‘Well, they can change the guidelines. I'm going to keep teaching the way I want to teach,' ” Commins said.

“Some of the teachers who embraced the new spirit of greater tolerance were reported by students to the government and got in trouble,” Commins said.

At the same time, the kingdom dramatically increased the number of students it sends to the United States through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which arose from a 2005 agreement between Bush and the late King Abdullah.

More than 77,000 Saudi students were studying at colleges and universities in the United States in November, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That's up from slightly more than 3,000 shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“To the conservative Saudis, that's a disaster,” Commins said.

To Khalid Inad Alshammari, it's a signal from his country.

“Our government is sending students ... to touch a different culture,” said Alshammari, 24, an industrial engineering major who is among more than 400 Saudi students at Robert Morris University. “They're not just looking for a degree for the students; they're looking for the students to have a better mentality and an open mind.”

Mike Wereschagin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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