How ironic it was that last week Saudi Arabia should host a meeting between the foreign
ministers of the Arab League and U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, to discuss what to
do about the growing crisis about Islamic State (IS). The fact is that IS is inspired by
Salafism, a small branch of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. What’s more, it is said to
have got plenty of its money from Saudi supporters.
Salafism represents only about three percent of the world’s Moslems. It eschews modern
morality and the accepted ways of 21st century life. It wants what it regards as a pure form
of Islam which is really what applied in medieval times. It supports sharia laws long
abandoned by most Moslems. Within the space of a fortnight last month in Saudi Arabia 19 people were beheaded, nearly half of them for non-violent crimes. That may be why IS
adherents apparently regard this as the norm and acceptable practice.
The Saudis find themselves in a terrible dilemma. King Abdullah wants his country to move forward from some of its questionable practices, such as its strict dress code, zealous religious police and suppression of women’s rights, and put an end to cruel movements like IS. But he is a prisoner of the Salafi clerics.
‘The king is a moderniser’, says Ed Husain, a Moslem and adjunct senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S. ‘But he and his advisers do not wish to disturb the
270-year-old tribal pact pact between the House of Saud and the founder of Wahhabism,
an austere form of Islam close to Salafism. It is time to nullify that 1744 desert pact’.
Easier said than done, of course. While compromise is always possible in political matters,
it is out of the question when it comes to deep-rooted religious extremism.
Saudi Arabia faces another dilemma: What to do? It has already outlawed IS, has donated
$100 million to the United Nations to help with counter-terrorism, has banned public and
private donations to support IS (though they still happen) and has signed up to the U.S.-
led campaign to destroy IS. But the extent of that support is unclear. All U.S. officials would say was that the Saudis have agreed to provide bases for the training of moderate Syrian rebels fighting both the Assad regime in Damascus and IS militants in their country.
The U.S. is reluctant to push Saudi Arabia when for so long it has been an ally of
Washington, never mind its vast oil wealth and the influence that goes with it plus it being
greatest customer of American defence companies. Three years ago it signed the biggest
defence contract in history – $60 billion worth of weapons. Indeed Washington tends to tip-toe around sensitive matters in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. It continues to suppress 28 pages of the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the September 11 attacks because, it is speculated, they contain evidence of Saudi complicity in the terrorist strikes.
Even though John Kerry has Saudi Arabia and nine other Arab states on board to crush IS,
it is hardly a case of ‘Here comes the cavalry’. They are mainly all Sunni countries which
do not want to risk disaffecting their people over a Sunni movement no matter how evil
they regard it. They will do their best to blacken the name of IS, choke off funding to it,
curb local support and punish countrymen who have joined the movement. The rest will be left to the U.S. and its traditional allies, including Australia. Arab states usually are reluctant to go to war. The last incident among them of any kind was in 2011 when a popular uprising in Bahrain threatened the dynastic regime there. Saudi Arabia despatched its national guard, the Emiratis sent their police forces and Kuwait assigned its gunboats to patrol the Bahrain coastline. The uprising was put down and the U.S. with its large naval presence there no doubt felt relieved.
For the Saudis, their most immediate concern is combatting the terrorist threat within,
including the Yemen-based al-Qaeda. They are also on the lookout for plots to assassinate
religious and Government officials as urged by Saudi IS members fighting in Syria.
They might also start quietly removing textbooks from schools and universities which teach Salafism. Next they could tackle the university in the holy city of Medina which, according to Ed Husain, recruits students from around the world to indoctrinate them in ‘the bigotry of Salafism’ with the aim to spread the word back in their own countries.
IS today has an estimated 30,000 active followers on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields.
Australia, now that we are plunging back into this dangerous and unpredictable region,
should be ready for the long haul and the greater risk to our way of life. This crisis has all
the elements of a long-running one.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.