November 27, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

Krithika Varagur Discusses ‘Unstable Byproducts’ of Global Saudi Influence

by Chad Bouchard

More than four decades ago, Saudi Arabia stepped up its soft-power campaign of influence across the Muslim world and permanently shaped the geopolitical landscape, with the campaign’s fruits now taking on a life of their own.

On May 14, journalist Krithika Varagur, OPC member and 2019 Sally Jacobsen Fellowship winner, shared insights and discussed her new book about the Saudi fundamentalist program, titled The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project.

Her reporting spanned hemispheres to Indonesia, Nigeria and Kosovo, three countries touched by Saudi Arabia’s dawa, or “call” to Islam. Varagur said Saudi influence stems back to 1938 with the discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula, with resources that empowered King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1965 to envision his kingdom at the political center of the Muslim world.

She said the Saudi influence campaign went into overdrive in 1979 with the “perfect storm” confluence of events that include the Iranian Revolution, which “struck fear into the heart of Saudi” because it was a Shia movement and a popular revolution against a monarchy. That year also brought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an attempted revolt by a band of Saudi extremist insurgents who seized the Great Mosque of Mecca and called for the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty.

“That absolutely terrified the kingdom,” Varagur said. “This takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was harrowing, and it led to a lot of crackdowns inside the kingdom” and caused the country’s state clerics, the Wahhabi ulamas, to desire more of a presence in the daily religious life of Saudis and others beyond the country’s borders.

OPC Second Vice President Christopher Dickey, Paris-based world news editor for The Daily Beast who previously served as the Middle East bureau chief for Newsweek, moderated the discussion. He said Varagur’s book shows how “groups that were originally fairly well oriented toward Mecca, toward the Saudi state’s and religious establishment’s view of things, tend to go off in their own directions.”

Varagur said after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, funding for many of the Saudi programs dried up due to increased scrutiny of outflows and concern about financing for terrorism.

As an example of the “can of worms” the programs left behind in that wake, she said in Nigeria, where she traveled to report on terrorist group Boko Haram, extremist thought could be traced by a few degrees to an influential class of Nigerian Salafi scholars who attended an international school to promote the Wahabbi mission in the holy city of Medina in the 1960s. This more hostile version of Islam displaced softer and more tolerant Sufi approaches that had characterized Nigerian Islam before that, Varagur said.

That gave birth to a more conservative movement known as the Izala Society, and then in the 1990s a more radical group called Ahlis Sunna broke off, and from that emerged Boko Haram. Ideas from Wahabbi teachings “were so chaotic and unstable that they had many manifestations,” she said.

Though Saudi Arabia had not necessarily intended to foster radicalized groups around the world, “the fact remains that the ideology found such fertile ground there that it led to some very unstable byproducts.”

In Indonesia, where Varagur worked as freelance correspondent for more than two years, she traced the rise of a group known as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, spawned in the aftermath of Suharto’s fall in the late 1990s, to Saudi influence and a Wahabbi school in Jakarta that only taught in Arabic and answered directly to the Saudi embassy.

“By 2016 almost 20 years later, they had become a very powerful political force, and they commanded 500,000 Muslims in Indonesia to protest what they falsely claimed was blasphemy by the Christian governor Jakarta” Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname, Ahok. The governor was jailed and later released for lack of evidece but protests caused turmoil and the conservative group is expected to play a vital and greatly expanding role in future elections.

Varagur also traveled to Kosovo to investigate the legacy of Wahabbi influence, which took hold in the aftermath of the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.

“Even though part of the war had involved Serb forces using minarets for target practice, murdering imams, destroying Sufi lodges, even though this had all been part of the war, it was not in any way really attended to by the U.N. and the U.S., and that was a perfect vacuum for Saudi Arabia to come in and attend to the religious life of this very traumatized community.”

Dickey asked Varagur about the current state of Saudi Arabia’s soft-power objectives and those of its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, also known as MbS.

“This is a very multipolar world now, where Saudi Arabia is by no means the only player, and a lot of Gulf countries including the U.A.E., Kuwait, Qatar, are all doing their own dawa [call] and Qatar is notable for supporting these [Muslim] Brotherhood affiliates.”

She said Saudi Arabia does not currently support political Islam movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or offshoots of the Arab Spring, because they challenge the Saudi monarchical form of government, but ironically at various points in history they have supported Islamist movements such as the Brotherhood.