The other day here on the blog, I linked readers to a piece by the foreign minister from Iran who was suggesting that it would be good if Wahhabism, the puritanical form of Islam that has been promoted by Saudi Arabia for a long time, could disappear.
His argument, though laden with his own political interests, was that Wahhabism has encouraged radical extremists, some of whom have become terrorists and committed violence in the name of Islam. It's not a hard argument to make and I thought he did a reasonable job of making it.
Soon after I read that, I ran across this pretty remarkable Politico magazine piece by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. In it he discloses that Saudi officials now are telling him that they regret their support for extremism and even regret seeking to mislead the world about it.
Khalilzad, who has spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia, writes this: "On my most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I was greeted with a startling confession. In the past, when we raised the issue of funding Islamic extremists with the Saudis, all we got were denials. This time, in the course of meetings with King Salman, Crown Prince Nayef, Deputy Crown Mohammad Bin Salman and several ministers, one top Saudi official admitted to me, 'We misled you.' He explained that Saudi support for Islamic extremism started in the early 1960s as a counter to Nasserism—the socialist political ideology that came out of the thinking of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser—which threatened Saudi Arabia and led to war between the two countries along the Yemen border. This tactic allowed them to successfully contain Nasserism, and the Saudis concluded that Islamism could be a powerful tool with broader utility."
The tactic continued to be used in later situations, but now, in effect, it has blown up in the faces of the Saudi leadership.
If what Khalilzad learned while in the kingdom can be trusted, that leadership now plans to withdraw support for extremism as it seeks in several ways to modernize various aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.
As Khalilzad notes, there are reasons to be skeptical. And as I learned when I spent time in 2002 in Saudi Arabia talking with government and religious leaders, life there is terrifically complicated and rarely quite what it seems.
But if, in fact, the Saudi leadership can unplug from its unquestioning support of Wahhabism and move the kingdom toward a modern economic state where both men and women enjoy freedom and equal benefits of citizenship, it might send ripple effects across the Islamic world that can be seen as nothing but good in the struggle against extremism.
Let's hope Khalilzad has picked up some useful intelligence and not just more House of Saud propaganda.
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WHAT ELSE CAN WE FIGHT ABOUT?
Religion scholar Mark Silk has taken a look at some recent surveys and has concluded that we Americans are more divided by religion than we are by race now. Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), seems increasingly like a nice goal and less like a present reality. Sigh.
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P.S.: You are invited to join me at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, when I will introduce my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. For a reservation to this free event, click here.