The year 1979 was a watershed for the Middle East. Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the shah, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Sunni Islamic extremists tried to take over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest shrine. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hadn’t been born, but he is fighting the ghosts of 1979 as he dramatically reforms the kingdom.
The attempted takeover of Mecca was a defining event in my country, mainly because of what happened next. Saudi rulers, fearing Iran’s revolutionary example, decided to give more space to the Salafi clerical establishment in hope of countering the radicals. Traditional Salafi preachers are neither violent nor political, but they hold a rigid view of Islam. Their legal rulings and attempts to police morals made the kingdom increasingly intolerant, setting back the gradual opening up that had occurred in the 1960s and ’70s.
In Saudi schools, education was largely in the hands of foreign nationals, many with Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds. In the 1960s and ’70s, Saudi Arabia was more concerned with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism than with Islamist radicalism. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t much of a worry. But the combination of the brotherhood’s political outlook and the rigid Salafi doctrine injected a virus into the Saudi education system. That virus allowed Osama bin Laden to recruit 15 Saudis to take part in that terrible deed on Sept. 11, 2001. We Saudis failed those young men, and that failure had global implications.
The Salafi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood imports also worked in concert as they were given unsupervised access to private donations to fund mosques and madrasas from Karachi to Cairo, where they generally favored the most conservative preachers.
The policy makers’ idea was simple: Give the political Islamists and their Salafi affiliates room to influence educational, judicial and religious affairs, and we will continue to control foreign policy, the economy, and defense. Saudi rulers were handling the hardware, while radicals rewrote the nation’s software. Saudi society, and the Muslim world, is still reeling from the effects.
I can attest that when the Saudi money hit northern Nigeria, the Islam there went from a rather mellow Sufi variety to, well, Boko Haram. Even if all that happens is the Saudis stop funding and promoting radical Islam worldwide, that will be huge. Remember, after the Soviet Union folded, all sorts of “grassroots, authentic” terrorist movements dried up along with the Soviet funding. Something similar could happen here.