John Burger, News Editor for Aleteia’s English edition talks to Ambassador Dennis Ignatius about Islamic Extremism, Sharia law & why we need to support the Moderates in Islam
Could the kind of Islamic extremism that has been wreaking havoc in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and other countries take root in Southeast Asia? Dennis Ignatius, a retired Malaysian diplomat, thinks it’s entirely possible. And if it happens, he would lay the blame at the doorstep of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Already, said Ignatius, there are troubling signs of a growing extremism in his native Malaysia and other countries of the region: heretofore moderate Muslims adopting a more rigid view of Islam versus the world, debates over whether to adopt Sharia law, and greater restrictions on public displays of religion among non-Muslim communities. Where is the trend coming from?
“Security experts increasingly point to the Wahhabi ideology that is being aggressively exported by Saudi Arabia as the single biggest cause of extremism in the region,” Ignatius wrote recently in The Malaysian Insider.
Ignatius, who served in London, Beijing and Washington and other world posts, spoke with Aleteia Tuesday about the worldwide threat posed by Wahhabism and what can be done about it.
Over the past year, a group calling itself the Islamic State has grabbed headlines for its swift takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria and its brutal treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims. Is their brutality an indictment of the religion of Islam, as many in the West might argue?
I don’t see it’s an indictment of Islam per se but of a very narrow, fundamental and extremist interpretation of Islam that has come to be known as Wahhabism, sometimes referred to as Wahhabi-Salafism.
Wahhabi Islam, the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a truly virulent interpretation of Islam that breeds contempt, hatred, intolerance and suspicion of other faiths, other cultures and systems of government. It is a worldview that’s premised upon an existential struggle between Islam and the rest of the world, and there’s no room for compromise or accommodation. Wahhabis insist that only Islam—and a very narrow interpretation of it at that—is valid, and there’s no room for anything else. Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Islam, called it a fanatically destructive form of Islam. And that’s what it is. Admiral James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, said that Wahhabism represents “an extraordinarily serious ideological threat, a totalitarian movement masquerading as a religion.”
To my mind, it is this ideology that underpins so much of the Islamic extremism that you see in the world today, and it is this that is principally responsible for the hate and violence against Christians, Jews and others, and I might add, against other Muslims as well, who do not share the same ideology. Don’t forget that more Muslims have been slaughtered by groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban than anyone else. And many Muslims across the world are rightly horrified by this narrow interpretation, an interpretation that they argue is very much against the essence of their own faith.
In your article, you write about the “exporting” of Wahhabi ideology to Malaysia. Who is behind this move?
I think it’s abundantly clear that the Wahhabi ideology is funded, supported and exported principally by Saudi Arabia. It has been estimated that since 1975, the Saudis have invested at least $100 billion in their Wahhabi adventure. I’ve come across some statements by scholars who put the figure as high as $200 billion. It’s not just being exported to Malaysia but all over the world. Some reports suggest that, for example, 80% of the religious schools in Pakistan, which provided many recruits for the Taliban and other jihadi groups, are supported and funded by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Wahhabis have also invested massively in building mosques, Islamic centers, establishing Muslim university student associations, prison outreaches, etc., in the United States. Saudi Arabia has funded or partially funded Islamic centers in several major cities, and of course these are all promoting Wahhabi extremism.
And then add to that the thousands upon thousands of students from all over the world who attend a network of Saudi-supported and Saudi-funded religious universities and schools where they are influenced to adopt the Wahhabi worldview and then sent back to their own countries to propagate it—it’s spreading hate and extremism on a global scale.
The scale of this is really quite unimaginable. Nothing like this has ever been seen before. And it’s all well-documented. There are literally hundreds of newspaper reports, scholarly studies, government statements, congressional and parliamentary findings on this subject. The US Congress, for example, has had several hearings, not just on the growing Wahhabi threat to the world, but to the expanding Wahhabi influence in the US. And they’ve all pointed, implicated or linked Saudi Arabia to this.
So the government of Saudi Arabia is responsible for this?
I think that the government of Saudi Arabia must be held responsible for this. There’s already a clear consensus that nothing will change—certainly not the culture of intolerance that is causing so much violence and destruction associated with Islamic extremism—until the Saudis themselves stop funding and supporting Wahhabism. In Saudi Arabia there’s no such thing as NGOs. They’re all government-affiliated or government-linked. So this is a government-supported, if not sanctioned, venture.
Several prominent Americans and other leaders have been quite categorical about the link between Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and the export of extremism: General Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe, is on record as saying, “The Saudis have for years funded extremism.” Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, in the Wikileaks 2009 cable, speaks of the Saudis as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Gen. Jonathan Shaw, former assistant chief of defense staff in the UK, identified Wahhabism as the root cause of Islamic extremism, calling it “the time bomb that is funded by Saudi money.” And Adm. James Woolsey again, referring to Wahhabism that is supported and funded by Saudi Arabia, called it “the soil in which Islamic terrorism is growing.”
And Saudi embassies have also been directly implicated in disseminating some of the most extremist and hateful literature across the world, as shown by studies by Freedom House in the US and Newcastle University in the UK. What we are seeing, I believe, is a Saudi-Wahhabi alliance to promote this very narrow, extremist interpretation of Islam that, as Admiral Woolsey stated, is the soil in which Islamic terrorism is growing.
So, are the Saudis responsible? Absolutely. All this is already well-documented, so it should come as no surprise. What is surprising, even shocking, I think, is that despite all the findings, despite all the statements by key leaders, despite all the academic research and newspaper reports and congressional hearings, very little has been done to confront the Saudis and put a stop to their sponsorship and export of extremism, and I’ve been very puzzled by this. All I can say is, I suppose that the Saudis are considered too significant to antagonize. But at the same time, they’ve also become too dangerous to ignore.
Give me an example of how this plays out in an individual, local case. How does a locality become “infected?”
Traditionally, Islam in countries like Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, was always moderate, open, very tolerant of other cultures and other faiths. I remember as a kid in Malaysia hanging out with friends who were Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and there was never any problem. Today, however, after years of Wahhabi infiltration, after hundreds of Wahhabi-trained teachers, preachers, religious scholars spreading their extremist ideology, we find ourselves in a very different region now. Muslims are told, for example, not to mix with non-Muslims, not even to wish Christians a merry Christmas because that is now deemed un-Islamic. And suddenly, the crosses on church steeples are too high, Christmas lights are too bright, church services are too loud, bibles and handbooks are deemed subversive, minority religious groups are despised and treated with contempt. And at the same time what we are seeing is essentially Arab dress and culture gradually supplanting the rich cultural traditions and customs of the region in the name of Islam. To my mind, this is nothing short of the “Saudization” of the region. And it is very destructive.
Brunei has already declared itself an Islamic state complete with Sharia law. Malaysia is caught up in an acrimonious debate about the implementation of Sharia law, including penalties like amputation, stoning, and even crucifixion. That a once moderate nation like Malaysia is even having such a discussion is mind-boggling and indicative of the vast changes that have been wrought after more than 30 years of Wahhabi infiltration.
And of course all the region’s Islamic groups, like Jemmah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, Laskar Jihad, Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia, and all those are all Wahhabi linked. As well, we have now hundreds of young Muslims from the region traveling to the Middle East to join jihadi groups like Islamic State. I think this is a disaster for the region, and honestly I fear that unless something is done quite urgently, the Southeast Asia that I grew up in, with its rich history, traditions, cultures and diversity, will become another Middle East, full of extremism, violence and instability. Like a cancer, extremism will grow and grow, consuming everything in its path until it’s stopped.
But I want to emphasize that the vast majority of Muslims in the region are aghast at these developments, and many are speaking out and courageously seeking to reclaim the middle ground for their faith. But they’re up against some very powerful forces. And I think that western governments, including the US, do themselves and moderate Muslims no favors by pretending that this problem doesn’t exist or by pandering to the extremists.
What else can be done about this problem?
I think that most security experts agree that the most important step is to get the Saudis to stop funding extremism. Without that funding I think Wahhabism and the culture of extremism that it propagates will diminish significantly.
Secondly, the Saudis must work with the international community and with moderate Islamic groups to dismantle this infrastructure of extremism that they have built up over the years. They need to do things like changing the curriculum and the textbooks, stop spreading this extremist ideology, stop empowering extremism.
The Saudi monarch, as custodian of the two most sacred sites in Islam, carries a lot of influence, and I think he has an obligation now to take the lead in promoting the peaceful, moderate and tolerant Islam that he and many other Muslim leaders insist is what their religion is all about.
There are reports now and then of attempts to allow Sharia law in certain jurisdictions in the US and other western countries. What should be our response?
In the province of Ontario, Canada, there was a proposal to experiment with Sharia law, and there’s also ongoing—maybe not so much in the US but it’s ongoing in the UK and parts of Europe—so it’s a question that is worth thinking about. In my view, it would be absolute folly to entertain such a proposal. Make no mistake: Sharia law, and the value system behind it, is absolutely incompatible with democratic values, human rights and human dignity. It puts society at the mercy of narrow-minded and bigoted men, claiming to interpret vague and ill-defined and highly questionable concepts which even Muslim scholars can’t agree on.
And I believe that Americans and others would do well to take heed of what Paul Marshall of Freedom House had to say about Sharia—and he has studied this quite extensively. His conclusion is that Sharia law leads to a lack of due process, vague and haphazard laws and extrajudicial enforcement, cruel and unusual punishment, denial of equal rights under law to women, the denial of equal rights under law to non-Muslims. And he has warned that the greatest danger of these laws is to democratic principles and systems themselves.
And let’s not forget that even in Muslim countries, moderate Muslims are valiantly resisting the imposition of Sharia because they know how damaging and destructive it can be for everyone. In Malaysia a group of moderate Muslims—very senior retired civil servants, lawyers and civil society leaders—have banded together to oppose the imposition of Sharia law. I think it is completely unhelpful, therefore, for western democracies to even entertain the idea of Sharia law, under some misguided notion of accommodating minority rights or something like that.
By the way, I would say to those who are agitating for Sharia law: have you noticed that countries which have implemented Sharia law either are failed states, failing states or corrupt and authoritative ones? Sharia law, far from helping, has plunged those states further into the abyss of intolerance, hatred, disunity, instability and chaos. So my question would be: Why would any country want to invite such disaster upon itself?
You would, I assume, agree that Wahhabism falls under the category of “radical Islam,” a kind of shorthand term we often use. Are there other kinds of radical Islam about which we should be concerned?
I think the kind of extremism and intolerance of other faiths being promoted by the mullahs in Iran is also worrying. As we speak, several pastors are languishing in Iranian prisons. The Baha’i community too has been very horribly treated. All this, of course, is contrary to the Quranic injunction that there should be no compulsion in religion.
Nevertheless, I share the view of Admiral Woolsey and others, who said that Wahhabism is a far greater danger than anything else because the Saudis have empowered this extreme form of radical Islam with millions of dollars and a massive infrastructure.
I want to emphasize again that we must not make the mistake of thinking that all Muslims are radicals and that all mosques are centers of extremism. Moderate Muslims are just as threatened by Wahhabi extremism and are courageously fighting to reclaim the peaceful and tolerant interpretation of their faith that they believe is the essence of their religion.
And I think we must support them and be careful not to isolate them in any knee-jerk reaction to the real extremists. Let’s focus on the real extremists, the ones who are doing the most damage, the ones who are threatening democracies, threatening societies the most, and that is this extreme form of Islam called Wahhabism supported by Saudi Arabia.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.