Saudi Arabia and ISIS: A false equation but troubling echoes

Hussein Ibish writes: A growing trope in mainstream Western analysis, which is also present in some parts of Arab and Muslim discourse, casts the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the political and moral equivalent of the terrorist group ISIL (also known as ISIS, the “Islamic State,” and Daesh). This conflation is wrong regarding most aspects of conduct and policy, especially relations to the international and regional order. But it does evoke some troubling echoes and influences that must be of concern even to those who see the problems with this equation. The comparison does not arise within a total void. Although the analogy is unjustified, it does raise serious concerns that need to be addressed by mainstream Saudi society and its government.

The American “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, has been at the forefront of publicizing the notion that “ISIL equals Saudi Arabia” in recent weeks. A September 2 article by Times columnist Thomas Friedman promoted this metaphor. In “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” Friedman opines that “several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations” because “all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

This explicit cause-and-effect theory about the relationship between the mainstream civic, political, and religious culture in a society and the attraction to such terrorist groups in its population doesn’t scan well. Among the largest number, up to 3,000, of ISIL recruits have been from Tunisia. The Tunisian ISIL recruit rate is generally thought to be the highest of all, more than the Saudi estimate that tops off at about 2,000 – 2,500.

Yet, Tunisia is the most secular and least fundamentalist of all Arab societies, with the possible exception of Lebanon. This undermines Friedman’s claim that cultural and religious extremism in a given society, in this case the Saudi one, especially as promoted by culturally hegemonic national institutions, provides a strong correlation to participation in radical movements. The problem might be correctly seen, as he also suggests, in a global Islamic context, with Saudi and other promotion of intolerance and extremism as an important historical factor in creating the current wave of violent radicalism. But if ISIL recruitment draws most heavily on Tunisia, closely followed by Saudi Arabia — two countries in most ways on the opposite ends of the Arab cultural and political spectrum — that strongly suggests that there are broader explanations than a specific national cultural and religious atmosphere for the appeal of terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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