Now that American victims of terrorism can sue Saudi Arabia on allegations of facilitating 9/11, the kingdom's counterterrorism record is under the microscope like never before.
A major part of this scrutiny revolves around the kingdom's religious ideology of Wahhabism, also referred to by some as Saudi Salafism. Critics argue that this austere doctrine contributes to terrorism and that the kingdom must stop spreading problematic teachings overseas.
Saudi Arabia's deft foreign minister dismisses such critiques by noting that his country is a target for terrorism and by correctly pointing to Tehran as the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. But this doesn't contradict that the royal family's ongoing bargain with retrograde clerics has helped radicalize the region and create fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
Such logical fallacies are prevalent in this debate. Take for example a recent New York Times op-ed that called blaming Wahhabism a “dangerous red herring.”
The author, a Saudi political analyst named Mohammed Alyahya, claims that treating Wahhabism as a “single-cause explanation distracts from the complex political, economic, and psychological reasons people join terrorist groups.” He points instead to frustrated expectations in the Arab world as a “root cause” of terrorism and explains that European Muslims aren't driven to join the Islamic State simply by reading a book from Wahhabism's founder, Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab.
If terrorism is the result of multiple factors, certainly it is conceivable that Wahhabism is one of them. The brutal Islamic State opted to use Saudi Arabia's strict textbooks in its schools until 2015. Reportedly, a majority of historic Islamic tracts that IS has republished are works by Ibn Abdulwahhab. European nations that provide the richest IS recruiting grounds have been places like Belgium and Kosovo, where Wahhabi proselytization and relative deprivation collide.
Alyahya suggests that Wahhabism shouldn't be blamed for terrorism because adherents to other traditions have also engaged in terrorism. He highlights the participation of Shi'ite and Sufi Muslims in terrorism and asserts that most members of al-Qaeda are actually intellectual offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet the danger posed by Shi'ite terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah does little to explain the simultaneous resilience of Sunni terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood's absolute Islamism and bid to topple existing regimes play a major role in IS and al-Qaeda's ideology. But so does Salafism's harsh and sometimes dehumanizing rejection of religious pluralism according to numerous experts on the ideology of these terrorist groups.
Alyahya correctly points out that terrorist recruits sometimes hail from countries where Wahhabi evangelism has been relatively limited, such as Tunisia, Syria, or Iraq.
But while Tunisians are reportedly the largest group of foreign fighters in Syria, Saudis are reportedly in second place and sometimes serve in positions of authority for groups like IS. Saudis were also one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The flipside of Alyahya's point is his assertion that “barely any jihadists” have emerged from India, where Saudi Arabia has engaged in extensive missionary work.
And yet the Saudi king handed an award for “service to Islam” just last year to a bigoted Indian preacher who has authorized having sex with slaves and declared “every Muslim should be a terrorist” if it means terrorizing America. One of the terrorists who helped murder customers at a Bangladeshi bakery this year reportedly posted Naik's terrorism quote to his Facebook page. Others who carried out terror attacks in the U.S., U.K., and India have also been described as fans of Naik's work.
However, he downplays the significance of this observation by implying such intolerance does not contribute to terrorism and highlighting how two of Riyadh's most senior state clerics have issued rulings against suicide bombings or joining terrorists overseas.
While the kingdom deserves credit for regularly condemning terrorist attacks, such defenders of the Saudi state routinely downplay instances when it embraces Salafism's more intolerant strain or the clerics who promote it.
Riyadh's state school textbooks have historically been rife with incitement against Shi'ites, Christians, Jews, women, LGBT individuals, and the West. According to the State Department, at least some derogatory passages still remain. The books have emerged in over a dozen countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe.
When Stuart Levey was America's czar for combating terrorist finance, he wrote that fighting intolerance in textbooks like these was “even more important” than curbing the funding of terrorism. Perhaps he was thinking of Ahmed Abu Ali, the onetime valedictorian of a Virginia school that usedSaudi state textbooks. Abu Ali was convicted in 2005 of plotting with al-Qaeda to assassinate President George W. Bush.
Alyahya concludes that what unites IS's recruits is not Salafism but their belief “the Muslim world and the West are locked in an irreconcilable clash of civilizations.” Yet this is exactly the kind of rhetoric that some of Saudi Arabia's top Wahhabi clerics use their authority to promote.
Less than a year before he was restored to the post by King Salman, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Islamic Affairs decried what he called an “attack on Islam and Muslims from the dangerous triad of Jews, Christians, and polytheists.”
The kingdom's prayer leader at the holiest site in Islam on the first night of Ramadan 2016 was Saud al-Shureem, whose Twitter account had months earlier declared that there is an “alliance of Safavids with the Jews and Christians against Muslims.” Safavid is often used such instances as a slur for either Shi'ites or Iranians.
While a country founded on religious liberty has little right to tell our Saudi allies what to believe, our bilateral efforts to combat terrorism surely cannot be aided by such blatant incitement from many top Saudi clerics.
Secretary of State John Kerry says the Obama administration is currently exploring ways to scale back the controversial Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Yet even if those efforts succeed, Wahhabism could continue to face heavy U.S. scrutiny in the years ahead.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.