President Barack Obama’s meeting Wednesday with King Salman of Saudi Arabia is to be followed by a summit Thursday with the Arab Gulf monarchs to discuss cooperation against terrorism and other regional threats. Central to these efforts is a pledge the Saudis and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council made in 2014 to help combat Islamic State by repudiating the ideology underpinning violent extremist groups. U.S. officials have reason to question Riyadh’s commitment.
Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia has announced some restrictions on its religious police, who enforce–sometimes with brutal force–morality laws such as dress codes and gender segregation. Yet the government in Riyadh continues to embrace and promote clerics who espouse views that would disturb many in the U.S.
King Salman personally handed a prominent foundation’s award for “service to Islam” last month to Saleh bin Humaid, a member of the top state council of religious preachers. A former head of the top Saudi judicial body, the cleric is an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
Saleh bin Humaid is considered a relative moderate within the kingdom’s religious establishment. But some of the messages even he has articulated are deeply intolerant by U.S. standards. He has, for example, proclaimed that it is the Jewish people’s “nature” to “plot against the peoples of the world, permit usury, promote immorality and unlawfully eat people’s wealth.” In March, he called for a judgment-day reckoning that would “break the cross” of Christianity and reimpose the jizya, a tax that subordinates non-Muslims as second-class citizens.
The day President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on a 2014 trip, Saleh bin Humaid delivered a sermon at the Grand Mosque–printed by the official state newswire–with pronouncements including that homosexuality “strips man of his humanity” and makes human beings “lower than beasts.” Last week he ended his Friday sermon at the Grand Mosque with a prayer for divine intervention against the “usurper, occupier Jews.”
The U.S. is looking for partners to make meaningful contributions in the fight against Islamic State. In September 2014, a State Department spokeswoman said a “key part” of the coalition against ISIS involves “moderate Muslim voices in the region; it’s people like the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia standing up and saying this group does not represent Islam.” The grand mufti has, however, also called for the destruction of all Christian churches in the Arabian Peninsula and encouraged marriage of girls as young as 10.
Saudi Arabia continues to provide a home to Salafist satellite channels on which guests say things such as “the Jews are really the enemies of Mankind.” The kingdom’s grand mufti has been a guest several times on one such channel.
In January, a monarch-appointed imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca proclaimed that there is an “alliance of Safavids with the Christians and Jews against Muslims.” This belief that Islam is threatened by an alliance of Christians, Shiites and Jews has also beenarticulated by King Salman’s appointee for minister of Islamic affairs as well as by a member of his top clerical council. Members of that council and the grand mufti criticized Islamic State after the group’s brutal acts sparked global concern in 2014, but many of these preachers have also made public comments about non-Muslims that undermine the effectiveness of this ideological initiative.
The religious messages Saudi Arabia promotes at home and abroad has implications for international security, whether by helping to radicalize Muslims in places such as Belgium or through intolerant material in official textbooks. It is not a large leap from absorbing preaching about hatred of infidels to obeying extremists’ calls to perpetrate violence against such minorities. So long as Saudi Arabia embraces clerics who teach intolerance toward “the other,” it will remain an arsonist as well as a fireman in the fight against terrorism.
David Daoud is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is on Twitter: @davidadaoud. David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the foundation. He is on Twitter: @DavidAWeinberg.