As Africa Faces More Terrorism, Experts Point to Saudi-spread of Fundamentalist Islam
WASHINGTON DC- (VOA News) — On June 5, Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of funding extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State.
In response, Qatar said it was the victim of a policy of “domination and control” by its larger neighbor and that Saudi Arabia was, in fact, the one responsible for backing extremism.
So what is the truth? Fundamentalist strains of Islam, including Saudi-born Salafism and Wahhabism, form the ideological bedrock for most terror groups. According to a study by Leif Wenar of King’s College London based on the Global Terrorism Database, three out of four terror attacks in the last 10 years have been conducted by people espousing Salafist ideology.
Wenar said Saudi Arabia is the chief exporter of Salafism around the world, spending tens of billions of dollars to build mosques, fund madrassas, finance preachers and offer scholarships to students to study the rigid form of Islam.
“We are seeing a tremendous escalation of terrorist attacks,” Solomon told VOA. “We actually are seeing three terrorist attacks per day on the African continent, and [they] are linked directly to Wahabi ideology.”
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates offer scholarships to young Africans to attend religious schools in the Gulf states. According to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the number of East African students enrolled in Gulf state universities has grown from several hundred in 2010 to nearly 10,000 in 2014.
Solomon said he has interviewed parents whose children have returned home from these schools with radically changed, hardline views.
One Malian boy came home and denounced his father for listening to music and smoking cigarettes, and his mother and sisters for not wearing a full hijab. “It caused tremendous ruptures just inside the family,” Solomon said.
Saudi Arabia has also built hundreds of mosques around the continent. Solomon said the divisive form of Islam taught in these mosques has caused tension between Muslims and Christians in areas where they live side-by-side.
“Part of the deal in terms of the construction of the mosques is that the Imam either comes from Saudi Arabia or [is] trained by the Saudis and is given a syllabus in terms of what to say and what to preach, and, of course, this is an ill-effect to a continent like Africa which is multi-ethnic, multi-racial and certainly multi-religious,” he said.
Wenar said he has also reviewed textbooks published in Saudi Arabia that compared Christians and Jews to animals and taught children that they are prohibited from befriending infidels.
“This really is quite an archaic and extreme ideology that the Saudis have been sending, and it seems [that] to check it, we should make the world more aware of what’s going on,” he said.
Shihabi said the rise of Islamic extremism in some African countries is not a result of textbooks or what is preached at Saudi-funded mosques. Mainly, he believes, extremists twist religious doctrine to fit their own local, political purposes.
“And people realize that if you want to be a revolutionary today and you want to attract attention, you put on this Islamic cloak, and it gets you much more attention than if you just package yourself as a domestic player with no transnational reach,” he said.
In a recent New York Times story, William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar, accused Saudi Arabia of being “both the arsonists and the firefighters” when it comes to Islamic extremism.
Shihabi argues that is no longer the case. “Saudi Arabia may have been… an accidental arsonist in ways in the past if part of its ideology was misused, but now it has certainly become a very dedicated fireman, and it’s been doing that for the last fifteen years.”