Elephants in the Room

Saudi Arabia Can Win Islam’s War of Ideas

Mohammed bin Salman’s embrace of “moderate Islam” deserves the Trump administration’s support.

Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office at the White House, March 14, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office at the White House, March 14, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House later this month, there will be no shortage of urgent issues to discuss — from the crown prince’s ambitious modernization agenda to joint efforts against Iranian aggression. But near the top of the president’s priorities should also be securing the crown prince’s commitment to lead the ideological war against the scourge of violent jihadism.

Nearly two decades after 9/11, America’s greatest failure in the war on terrorism has almost certainly been its inability to delegitimize the extremist ideas fueling groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The United States has killed tens of thousands of fighters, disrupted revenue streams, and shuttered social media accounts. What it hasn’t done effectively is discredit the hate-filled doctrine that continues to draw a steady stream of recruits to the terrorist cause — leaving it to confront this unsettling reality: By an order of magnitude, al Qaeda in 2018 enjoys a larger presence in more countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia than it did the day the Twin Towers were felled.

It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama understood that we wouldn’t be able to just kill our way out of the conflict with radical Islamists. Each devoted considerable resources to what’s been called the “battle for hearts and minds.” Whether through programs to promote democracy or counter violent extremism, both administrations made ample efforts to dissuade Muslims around the world from the path of murderous jihad — but to little avail.

What’s consistently been missing from America’s strategy have been powerful partners in the Muslim world who can reliably be counted on to speak out authoritatively on matters of Islamic theology in ways that the United States simply can’t. That’s where Saudi Arabia comes in. It’s the birthplace of Islam and host to the faith’s two holiest mosques. Combined with abundant oil wealth, these assets bestow on the Saudis a measure of soft power influence unrivaled in the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, for decades that power was wielded largely for ill. In an effort to counter the threat of Iran’s 1979 Shiite revolution, and burnish their legitimacy at home with powerful religious conservatives, Saudi rulers plowed billions of dollars annually into spreading the kingdom’s extremely harsh version of Islam — aka Wahhabism — around the world. Saudi funds built mosques and schools on every continent. They trained radical clerics and teachers to staff them. They distributed editions of the Koran and school textbooks heavily skewed toward messages of hatred against anyone — including other Muslims — who failed to toe the line of Wahhabi orthodoxy. In this way, millions of young believers from Mali to Malaysia, from Belgium to Bangladesh, have had their idea of what it means to be a good Muslim insidiously shaped by a narrative that systematically dehumanized the “other” — creating a large pool of potential recruits who inevitably had a heightened susceptibility to the siren song of jihadism.

Enter the enormous promise of Mohammed bin Salman. For months, the crown prince and his closest advisors have relentlessly hammered the theme that Saudi Arabia’s modernization requires an embrace of “moderate Islam.” He’s slammed the extremist ideology that the kingdom did so much to empower after the Iranian revolution and acknowledges that “the problem spread all over the world.” He’s vowed that “now is the time to get rid of it” and declared that “we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

It’s not just talk, either. At home, the powers of the kingdom’s notorious religious police have been scaled back. Prominent hard-line clerics have been jailed. On the all-important issue of female empowerment, the pace of change has been breathtaking. Women can now open businesses without the approval of a male guardian. They’re being allowed to enter the military for the first time and attend sporting and cultural events. This summer, the ban on women driving will disappear.

Now, the U.S. imperative should be pressing Mohammed bin Salman to take his campaign for moderate Islam on the road. His willingness to “destroy” the monster of global jihadism that the kingdom helped create needs to be turned into a concrete action plan. To their credit, the Saudis have already invested heavily in a center focused on countering extremism in cyberspace. Trump should press to make the ideological battle an institutionalized feature of the U.S.-Saudi dialogue. A bilateral working group should quietly be established to develop a strategy that can be jointly monitored. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Treasury did something similar to help the Saudis get on top of their terror finance problem, and by all accounts the collaboration has produced significant results.

There should be multiple elements to such an effort, but some immediate tasks come to mind. First, school textbooks. The Saudis promised to eliminate the hate-filled passages a decade ago. Progress has slowly been made, but the job’s still not done. Mohammed bin Salman should order it finished — this year. Behind the scenes, U.S. experts should provide verification.

Second, working with trusted partners in indigenous communities known for their religious moderation, the Saudis should conduct a thorough audit of the global network of mosques, schools, and charitable organizations that they’ve backed with an eye toward weeding out radical staff and content.

Third, initiate a worldwide buyback of Saudi-distributed mistranslations of the Quran and other religious materials notorious for propagating extremist narratives.

On the Saudi side, the effort could be well led by a Mohammed bin Salman ally, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the new head of the powerful Muslim World League — an organization once at the forefront of exporting Wahhabism. Mohammed bin Issa has already taken extraordinary steps such as visiting a French synagogue and issuing an unprecedented letter condemning Holocaust denial. A masterstroke would be taking on an independent advisor in the mold of Farah Pandith, a Muslim-American woman of Indian descent who served for five years as the U.S. representative to Muslim communities. In that job, she traveled to 80 countries, witnessing firsthand Wahhabism’s destructive impact at a local level. While a fierce critic of the Saudi legacy, Pandith also understands the opportunity that Mohammed bin Salman presents and the imperative of converting it into concrete, positive change on the ground.

If U.S. policymakers have learned anything since 9/11, it’s that only other Muslims will ultimately be able to — as Trump has said — “drive out” the extremist ideology that has fueled America’s long and costly war on terror. Saudi Arabia, perhaps the world’s most influential Islamic state, now has a leader who says that he aims to do exactly that. It’s a potentially historic moment that the president should seize, help shape, and exploit to advance vital U.S. interests.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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