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Hypocrisies abound as report highlights Saudi links to UK extremism

© Bandar al-Jaloud/ Saudi Royal Palace/ AFP | Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (L) and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (C) receive British PM Theresa May (R) in April 2017.

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2017-07-05

While Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of aiding extremism, a think tank report released Wednesday said Riyadh was funding hardline Islamism in the UK. But with the British government refusing to release its own report, immediate answers seem unlikely.

As Gulf envoys gathered in Egypt Wednesday to discuss a diplomatic crisis sparked by Saudi allegations of Qatari support for extremism, a London-based think tank released a report accusing Saudi Arabia of funding Islamist extremism in the UK.

“Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has been committed to a policy of promoting the kingdom’s hardline interpretation of Wahhabi Islam globally,” said a damning report by the Henry Jackson Society.

The report’s release came at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom – along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – are accusing Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation that has directly or indirectly participated in the democratic process in several Muslim-majority countries.

While the report has accused Riyadh of hypocrisy, the Saudi Embassy in London has dismissed its findings as “categorically false”.

But Saudi Arabia is not the only kingdom to be accused of official hypocrisy in the fight against Islamist extremism.

Weeks after the British monarch announced a government plan to establish a Commission for Countering Extremism in the UK, her subjects continue to be denied access to a “public” inquiry into Saudi funding of Wahhabi extremism in the UK.

The inquiry was commissioned in January 2016, while Theresa May was Britain’s home secretary (the UK equivalent of interior minister). As prime minister, May is believed to have received the inquiry findings six months ago, but has continued to resist pressure to release it.

A separate UK Foreign Office strategy paper on the Gulf region is also being withheld amid concerns over upsetting London’s biggest trade partner in the Middle East and a major purchaser of British arms.

Saudis ‘at the top of the list’

While the British public awaits the release of the public inquiry findings, the latest Henry Jackson Society report details the massive web of Saudi funding of British mosques and Islamic institutions, as well as the UK government’s poor record in countering the menace.

Saudi Arabia however is not the only country to be singled out in the 14-page report. Qatar, Kuwait and Iran are also accused of supporting trusts and other institutions that have promoted extremism and hate speech particularly against Jewish people and homosexuals.

But the Wahhabi kingdom’s extremist network dominates the report, with author Tom Wilson noting that “while countries from across the Gulf and Iran have been guilty of advancing extremism, Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly at the top of the list”.

Sidelining other forms of Islam

In the soft war for global Islamic influence, few can match the oil-rich Saudis in spending power, and the budgets have been increasing over the past few years. “In 2007 Saudi Arabia was estimated to be spending at least $2 billion (€1.8 bilion) annually on promoting Wahhabism worldwide. By 2015 that figure was believed to have doubled,” the report notes.

The kingdom has been primarily extending its reach into extremist circles across the globe via the Riyadh-based WAMY (World Assembly of Muslim Youth) and Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL).

Both organisations were formed in the 1970s and have played a major role in spreading the Saudi Wahhabi version of Islam particularly in impoverished Asian and African nations, where the majority of Muslims follow other, more syncretic forms of Islam such as Sufism, Malikism or the Deobandi schools.

The Wahhabi inroads in the UK are noteworthy since most British Muslims are of South Asian – not Arab – origin and have traditionally followed the Hanafi school. The Saudi system of funding the training of religious preachers however has seen “hundreds” of Britons return to work within the Urdu language networks, thus helping spread hardline and illiberal forms of Islam among British Muslims.

Blowback from ‘Londonistan’

Community elders have long warned of the takeover of British mosques by a younger generation of Saudi-influenced hardliners. But successive governments have been accused of turning a blind eye to the problems within immigrant groups.

Critics have argued that the ideal of British multiculturalism has translated into a ghettoised reality of mini-societies dominated by a radicalised minority – a phenomenon dubbed “Londonistan” by French intelligence officials in the 1990s.

While the Londonistan heydays were  in the 1990s, Britain has experienced a blowback from the Londonistan era in recent months with the deadly May 22 Manchester Arena attack followed, barely two weeks later, by the London Bridge attack.

The attackers in both cases were known to British authorities. Manchester bomber Salman Ramadan Abedi was the son of a Libyan jihadist who fought in Afghanistan before settling in the UK, and London Bridge attacker Khuram Shazad Butt was a well-known member of the British extremist group, al-Muhajiroun.

Same Saudi textbooks in UK and IS-group ‘caliphate’

The multicultural British unwillingness to intervene in the religious affairs of immigrant groups is underscored by the widespread use of Saudi textbooks in Muslim schools operating in the UK.

The schools, described as “Saudi schools” in the report, were using “the same textbooks used in the Saudi national curriculum”. The report goes on to note that “the content of these textbooks is so extreme that in 2014 Islamic State adopted these books as the official textbooks for the schools in its caliphate”.

The report cites US legislation, such as the Religious Freedom International Reciprocity Enhancement Bill as a possible model to address the issue of the foreign funding of extremism. But, the author notes, “in the UK such legislation would likely encounter a number of obstacles and objections”.

The lack of adequate data and information is another hurdle for British authorities. “Unless policy makers have the relevant and necessary information on foreign funding, it will prove difficult to shape adequate policy solutions or legislation,” the report notes.

But with the British government unwilling to release its own findings, those policy solutions won't be arriving anytime soon.

Date created : 2017-07-05

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