Cross-posted at Education Week.
The United States appears to have taken sides in the great Middle East confrontation between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, which is to say, in geopolitical terms, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We have chosen the Saudis. And, in choosing the Saudis, we have specifically chosen the ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. I chanced the other day to come across an opinion piece Fareed Zacharia wrote in May, in which he described the power structure of modern Saudi Arabia as resting on three pillars: the Saud family, the Arab tribes and the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.
The U.S. has made a strange choice. Wahhabism is an extreme, fundamentalist form of Islam that had its origins in Saudi Arabia and, until recently, was only to be found there. It is, to say the least, uncompromising. Wahhabi teachings stipulate that the most extreme form of Sharia law supersedes all state law everywhere. Islamists who do not subscribe to Wahhabi beliefs are apostates and deserve to die and so on. If all this sounds familiar, it should. That’s because there is a profound resonance between the teachings of the Wahhabis who have enormous influence over Saudi society and the beliefs and teachings of the Islamic State, our sworn enemies. According to a former Imam of the Saudi Grand Mosque, the Islamic State “…exploited our own principles, that can be found in our books…We follow the same thought but apply it in a more refined way.”
Fifty years ago, this puritanical, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam was to be found only in Saudi Arabia and was far less powerful within that country than it is now. It acquired its power by making a deal with the Saud family of the you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours kind. The Saud family gave the Wahhabi sect free reign in their country in exchange for the sect’s backing of the Saud family claim to political power. Religious and social power was exchanged for political and economic power.
And thus was born one of the most successful education “reforms” the world has ever seen. The Wahhabis first took over the schools in Saudi Arabia and then, with the full backing of the Saud family and its oil money, which continues to the present day, began to export Wahhabi schools all over the world.
Over the years, that expansion has been greatly facilitated by two dynamics. First, in the 1960s and 1970s, rapid economic expansion in Western Europe created a demand for low-skill labor that could not be satisfied locally, leading to the importation of low-skill labor on a vast scale from the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Some of these people were Islamists. Originally called “guest workers,” because they were only supposed to be there for a while, they stayed and their children knew no other home. Socially isolated, undereducated and often despised by their hosts, they were an easy target for Saudi-funded schools that taught not math and the language of their host country and modern science, but rather hate and grievance to their young and impressionable students, who then grew up jobless, rootless and eager to belong to something they could believe in.
To that diaspora another, much larger one was added, the great exodus caused by the economic stress and political conflagration in the modern Middle East as the explosion of Syria and Iraq produced millions of refugees and many others came from Libya and other North African countries as they too, failed after the withering of the Arab Spring.
Wahhabi schools, funded by enormous sums of Saudi money, exert a dispiritingly outsized influence on the ideas, beliefs and commitments of millions of students all over the world now. This is not a benign influence. This risks creating a world-wide army of young people eager to die for their cause as they destroy everything the United States stands for. As we play whack-a-mole with the Islamic State, we do nothing to weaken the growing influence of the schools in which their replacements are being grown every day in far greater numbers than they are being reduced by our military on the battlefield.
The great danger to Europe now is not from Middle Eastern nationals sneaking into their countries eager to create mayhem. It is from European nationals who went to Wahhabi-funded schools in Europe and were radicalized right there. These are the hardest threats for Western intelligence agencies to identify. The only weapon they need is a large truck. And hate, which is taught in plenty, right down the street at their schools.
I know of no more impressive instance of “soft power” than the rise of Wahhabi fundamentalist schools throughout the Sunni diaspora. Dollar for dollar, it has been a far better investment for the Saud family than any dollar invested in military hardware. And it is being used against us and against everything we stand for, every day.
Islam is a moderate, tolerant religion as are the vast majority of Muslims around the world. There is some reason to believe that the young crown prince now running Saudi Arabia might at long last be prepared to break the deal with the Wahhabi sect that has made it possible for them to use their schools to spread hate around the world. we can only hope so.
“Soft power” seems to be out of fashion now, here in the United States. I can only muse about what might happen if we took a leaf from the Saudi book and began once again to help young people around world understand the dangers of intolerance and fundamentalism and the attractions of liberty and freedom. Or, for that matter, helped young people around the world learn something about math and science and music and art instead of hate and the making of homemade explosives.
Too expensive? Well, just take a look at the return on investment from Wahhabi schools before you come to that conclusion.