The following is adapted from a speech delivered on February 25, 2004, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Naples, Florida.
When the horror of September 11 happened, Americans experienced a great deal of confusion and heard a great deal of speculation about the motives for anti-American terrorism. It was natural for most of us to assume that we were attacked because of who we are: because we are wealthy, because we are a dominant power in the world and because we represent ideas that are in conflict with the ideas of radical Islam. Many also assumed—wrongly I think—that it had mostly to do with the Middle East and Israel. But almost immediately a very interesting fact emerged: of the 19 suicide terrorists on September 11, 15 were subjects of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Why is this important? It is important because these were not poor people from refugee camps on the West Bank or in Gaza. These were not people who had grown up feeling some grievance against Israel and the United States because they lived in difficult conditions. These were not people from the crowded and disrupted communities of Egypt or Pakistan, or people who had experienced anti-Islamic violence in the last 20 years and had therefore turned against the United States. These people had grown up in the country that Americans often think of as our most solid and dependable ally in the Arab world—the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Thus the question arose: Why would Saudis be involved in this?
Related questions followed: What does it mean that Osama Bin Laden is a Saudi? And that so many members of Al-Qaeda are Saudis? Why is it that Al-Qaeda is essentially a Saudi political movement? And that 25 percent of those detained in Guantanamo are Saudis? Why is it that a country the U.S. had favored, to which the U.S. had delivered an enormous amount of wealth through the purchase of oil—a country that the U.S. had protected militarily, and whose young people have been educated in America for many years—why was Saudi Arabia, of all countries, so connected to the attacks of September 11?
Osama Bin Laden and Saudi Arabia
Many in the United States bought into Osama Bin Laden’s propaganda when he claimed to be outraged that American troops were stationed on the “holy soil“ of Saudi Arabia. In fact, American troops were never stationed on Saudi “holy soil,“ because Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and Dhahran, the area where most U.S. troops were stationed, are not Islamic holy sites. The only holy places in Saudi Arabia, from the Muslim perspective, are Mecca and Medina—and there were never American troops in either of those cities. The only time foreign troops were sent to Mecca or Medina was in 1979, when a group of Muslim radicals took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Saudi government sent in French paratroops to kill them.
We are accustomed to hearing that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda look on the Saudi royal family as just as much an enemy as the U.S., and that they want to overthrow it. But the truth, as I first pointed out in the Weekly Standard about a month after September 11, is that Osama Bin Laden has never called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. What he calls for is a change in their policies. That is, he calls for what he would consider a more Islamic policy. The fact is—based on my contacts and interviews with Saudi subjects both inside and outside the kingdom—Osama is essentially a product of the Saudi regime, and in particular of the hardliners in the regime. And so the message of Osama Bin Laden on September 11 was also a message from those Saudi hardliners, and the message was aimed at their audiences.
First, it was a message to the United States saying, “Don’t ask Saudi Arabia to change, because if we change, this is what you’ll get—instead of us, Osama.“
Second, it was a message to the people of Saudi Arabia—a fundamentally rational people. Many Saudis are on the Internet. Many have satellite dishes. And they are surrounded by a crescent of normalizing countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the Emirates, Oman, Yemen—countries that certainly are not as progressive and prosperous as Florida, but that are on their way toward becoming normal modern countries. And yet Saudis live in a country—to cite but one of several examples of stifling backwardness—where women are not allowed to drive. So Saudi society is a society demanding change. And the second message of September 11 was to the Saudi people in response to their yearning: “Don’t try to make changes because we radical Islamists still have enormous power, and it is a destructive power.“
Third, the same message was intended for Muslims all around the world: “Don’t challenge our control over global Islam.“
Wahhabism in the U.S.
The ideology of Saudi hardliners is, unfortunately, of great relevance even inside the United States. One doctrine of Islam dominates in Saudi Arabia: It is called Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the most extreme, the most violent, the most separatist, the most expansionistic form of Islam that exists. It’s a form of Islam that not only lashes out at the West, but that seeks to take over and impose a rigid conformity on the whole Muslim world.
What then of America? Islam was new in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, because of changes in the immigration laws, the American Muslim community suddenly became much larger. Most Muslims who came to the United States were not Arabs. The plurality have been people from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. And as Islam originally emerged as a major religion in the U.S., it—unlike other American religions—didn’t have an establishment. A disparate group of Muslims arrived and established mosques in various places. They represented different ethnic groups and lacked any structure to bring them together and unite them. But that didn’t last long. And why? Because the Saudis decided to create an American Islamic establishment based on the radical doctrines of Wahhabism. In order to bring this about, they created a system of organizations that would speak for American Muslims to the government and the media and through the educational system and the mosques.
One can learn a lot about how the Saudi-backed Wahhabi establishment in the U.S. works by looking at how it came to speak for all of Islam in the American media. It did this by creating a set of organizations. One of the most prominent is called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). This group was allegedly set up to be a kind of a Muslim version of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. That is, its stated goal was to protect Muslims against prejudice and stereotypes. I was working in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, and I was struck by CAIR’s approach with our reporters and editors. They didn’t come to the newspaper offices and say, “We’re Muslims; we’re here now; this is our holy book; this is the life of our prophet Muhammad; these are the holidays we observe; this is what we believe in, and we’d like you to report these things accurately.“ Rather, they came and they said, “We are a minority and we suffer from discrimination. We suffer from hurtful stereotypes. We know that you are good liberal reporters, and that you want to avoid inflicting these stereotypes on us. So whenever you do a story on Islam, you should call us first and make sure it is correct.“ And, of course, that meant “correct“ according to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism.
There are other such groups. One of them is called the Islamic Society of North America. It is directly controlled from Saudi Arabia, and openly owns 250 of the 1,200 main mosques in the United States. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: My research suggests that a full 80 percent of American mosques are under the control of the Saudi government and Wahhabism. This does not mean that 80 percent of American Muslims are supporters of Wahhabism—only that their mosques are controlled by the Saudi Wahhabis. There’s a range of such organizations. Many we don’t hear much about, including some of the worst; for example, the Islamic Circle of North America, which acts as a kind of extremist militia among Pakistani Muslims and has a very bad reputation for threatening, intimidating and enforcing conformity in the Pakistani Muslim community.
Other Areas of Wahhabi Influence in the U.S.
There are three other areas where the Saudi government and its Wahhabi ideology have gained tremendous influence in the U.S. The first is in the American prison system. With one single exception, all of the federal and state chaplains representing Islam in American prisons are Wahhabis. That is, they are certified by groups originating in Saudi Arabia; the curriculum they follow was created in Saudi Arabia; and they go into our prisons and preach an extremist doctrine. This is not the same as saying that they go into our prisons and directly recruit terrorists—although there have been cases of that. But anytime you go into a prison—an environment of violence, obviously populated by troubled people—and preach an extremist doctrine, there are going to be bad and dangerous consequences.
The second area is in the military services. Every single Islamic chaplain in the U.S. military has been certified by Saudi-controlled groups—which means that our military chaplains also hold to Wahhabi doctrines. Is it surprising, then, that we had the incident of the Muslim solider in Kuwait who attacked his fellow soldiers? Or the problems with military personnel at Guantanamo? Or the Muslim military man in Washington State who was trying to turn over useful information to Al-Qaeda?
And finally there is the problem with what are known as the Islamic academies: Islamic elementary schools, middle schools and high schools throughout the U.S. that are supported by Saudi money and preach the Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine—in some cases to Saudi expatriate children living here, but in many other cases to Muslim children who are U.S. citizens.
What to Do
This seems a very dark picture. On the other hand, there are some fairly simple steps to take to solve the problem.
First and foremost, it is important to support the federal and state governments in a sustained investigation of Islamic extremism in our country. That means not falling for the propaganda claim—made by groups like CAIR—that investigating what’s happening in mosques, and the literature being distributed in mosques, somehow violates religious freedom. It is not a violation of religious freedom to prevent extremists from using religion as a cover for sedition and criminality. To the contrary, preventing this is necessary to the defense of religious freedom. So it’s absolutely necessary to support the FBI, the Justice Department, and other agencies who are investigating the extent to which Islam in the United States is under the influence of anti-American, anti-democratic extremists. And it is important that they are empowered to perform these investigations with laws like the Patriot Act.
Second, we must identify and support the moderate and patriotic Muslims in the United States who oppose Wahhabism and all it stands for. Many Muslims fit this description, even if we rarely hear of them.
Related to this, we should hold the media to account for its coverage of these issues. How many times have we heard the question since September 11: “Why is it that more Muslim leaders didn’t speak out against this abomination?“ Actually, many Muslim leaders did speak out against terrorism and in support of freedom, but they weren’t heard in the media because their message didn’t fit the mold that the media likes to impose on this story. Thus, for instance, we didn’t hear from a Muslim leader in Chicago—the Mufti of the Bosnian Muslims in America—who is a very influential man, who loves America, and who, the day after September 11, said, “No Muslim living in America should support any of this. Everybody should do everything possible to stop it. If you hear about it in your community, tell the FBI about it and organize against it.“ Instead, what the media covered were angry Muslims blaming America’s support of Israel and other misleading factors.
I say to my fellow journalists, “Why don’t you go to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, West Africa, Morocco and Bosnia? Why don’t you go and interview the Muslim leaders who support the West, who are against terrorism and who are willing to stand alongside the United States?“ Recently (as I have written in the Weekly Standard), I went to Uzbekistan and interviewed three Islamist defectors, two of them from Al-Qaeda. These interviews suggest that although the leaders of the Islamist movement are extreme, murderous and fanatical, the foot soldiers in the movement are just like foot soldiers in other extremist movements. They get involved in this movement for reasons that are not ideological, and often become disillusioned. One man I spoke to defected from a group connected to Al-Qaeda when he saw that he was being used to commit atrocities against his own comrades. At the end of the interview, I asked him if he had anything to say to Americans. “Yes,“ he said, “I want you to tell President Bush there are a lot of us out here who are ready to stand alongside America to deal a death blow to these monsters, these terrorists.“
As this story indicates, there is reason to be optimistic about the war on terror around the globe. But let us also not forget, in the course of conducting that war, the importance of employing law enforcement to stem the influence of Saudi-supported Wahhabi extremism in our own country.