Global HotSpots, Global Pairings

The Muslim World’s Struggle to Counter Militancy

The real downsides of Donald Trump’s choice in Saudi Arabia to prioritize commerce at the expense of principle.

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Takeaways


  • To confront extremism, Muslim leaders will have to stand up to prejudices and conspiracy theories based on bias.
  • Baseline honesty is a prerequisite to effectively counter extremism and political violence.
  • The Saudis see militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia used U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s visit to the kingdom to drive its anti-Shia and anti-Iran agenda. For the Saudi royals, it was a dream come true.

Giving Saudi Arabia a free ride

Trump’s visit barely two weeks after Saudi Arabia had managed to block his administration’s proposal to impose United Nations sanctions on the Saudi branch of the Islamic State (IS).

In light of Mr. Trump’s speech and main message while visiting the kingdom, it is truly bewildering to see that Mr. Trump and Muslim leaders turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s recent intervention.

Wrong focus

While a majority of world leaders, including many leaders of Muslim nations, condemn Iranian policies, they view the Islamic State as the world’s foremost terrorist threat.

If that position needed any further proof, it arrived post-haste. Supporters of IS celebrated Monday’s attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, in which at least 22 people were killed and 59 others wounded. Claiming responsibility for the attack, IS described the concert as a Crusader gathering.

The Saudi obsession with Iran trumps everything

Saudi Arabia blocked the sanctions to ensure that the world’s focus would remain on Iran, which it sees as the world’s leading state sponsor of political violence.

The U.S.-proposed sanctioning of the Gulf branch of the Islamic State at the United Nations risked drawing attention to the fact that the Saudis see militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

How the Saudis fan the flames of extremism

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has given IS rival Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) a new lease on life. Prior to the war, AQAP had been driven to near irrelevance by the rise of IS and security crackdowns.

In a report in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that AQAP was “stronger than it has ever been… In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority… Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events,” the ICG said.

Empty words?

In a statement issued by the Riyadh summit attended by representatives of 55 countries, the leaders vowed “to combat terrorism in all its forms, address its intellectual roots, dry up its sources of funding and to take all necessary measures to prevent and combat terrorist crimes.”

It “welcomed the establishment of a global center for countering extremist thought to take base in Riyadh, and praised the center’s strategic objectives of combating intellectual, media and digital extremism and promoting coexistence and tolerance among peoples.”

Saudi actions are white-washed

The statement made no reference to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that propagates a supremacist worldview, encourages prejudice against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities and that according to many policymakers and analysts, enables an environment that potentially breeds militancy.

In a nod to Saudi Arabia’s four-decade long proxy war with Iran that increasingly appears to enjoy Mr. Trump’s endorsement, the statement paid lip service to confronting “sectarian agendas.”

However, that passage was linked to countering “interference in other countries affairs.” That is a reference to Iranian support for groups like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, the Houthis in Yemen, Iraqi Shiite militias fighting IS alongside the Iraqi military and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudis can’t do any wrong

The statement avoided calling on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative political and religious leaders to refrain from contributing to sectarian strife. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the eve of the summit ruled out dialogue with Iran on the grounds of its religious beliefs.

Prince Mohammed, turning its power struggle into an existentialist sectarian battle, charged that Iran was planning for the return of the Imam Mahdi (the redeemer) by seeking to control the Muslim world.

Shi’ites believe that the Mahdi was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed who went into hiding 1,000 years ago. They trust that he will return to establish global Islamic rule before the end of the world.

Conclusion

To confront extremism, Muslim political leaders and religious groups will not only have to stand up to political manipulation of their faith, but also to prejudices and conspiracy theories based on ingrained bias.

This also includes implicit as well as explicit supremacism that have long been common currency across the Muslim world. It is a jihad that is a lot more difficult than Muslim political leaders paying lip service and playing politics.

Baseline honesty is a prerequisite, if there is to be any hope for an effective countering of extremism and political violence.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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