Trump got played by Saudi Ara­bia

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - com­ments@fa­reedza­ FAREED ZAKARIA

This week’s bomb­ing in Manch­ester, Eng­land, was an­other grue­some re­minder that the threat from rad­i­cal Is­lamist ter­ror­ism is on­go­ing. And Pres­i­dent Trump’s jour­ney to the Mid­dle East il­lus­trated yet again how the coun­try cen­tral to the spread of this ter­ror­ism, Saudi Ara­bia, has man­aged to evade and de­flect any re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. In fact, Trump has given Saudi Ara­bia a free pass and a free hand in the re­gion.

The facts are well-known. For five decades, Saudi Ara­bia has spread its nar­row, pu­ri­tan­i­cal and in­tol­er­ant ver­sion of Is­lam — orig­i­nally prac­ticed al­most nowhere else — across the Mus­lim world. Osama bin Laden was Saudi, as were 15 of the 19 9/11 ter­ror­ists.

And we know, via a leaked email from former sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton, in re­cent years the Saudi gov­ern­ment, along with Qatar, has been “pro­vid­ing clan­des­tine fi­nan­cial and lo­gis­tic sup­port to [the Is­lamic State] and other rad­i­cal Sunni groups in the re­gion.” Saudi na­tion­als make up the sec­ond-largest group of for­eign fight­ers in the Is­lamic State and, by some ac­counts, the largest in the ter­ror­ist group’s Iraqi op­er­a­tions. The king­dom is in a tacit al­liance with al-Qaeda in Ye­men.

The Is­lamic State draws its be­liefs from Saudi Ara­bia’s Wah­habi ver­sion of Is­lam. As the former imam of the king­dom’s Grand Mosque said last year, the Is­lamic State “ex­ploited our own prin­ci­ples, that can be found in our books. . . . We fol­low the same thought but ap­ply it in a re­fined way.” Un­til the Is­lamic State could write its own text­books for its schools, it adopted the Saudi cur­ricu­lum as its own.

Saudi money is now trans­form­ing Euro­pean Is­lam. Leaked Ger­man in­tel­li­gence re­ports show that char­i­ties “closely con­nected with gov­ern­ment of­fices” of Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and Kuwait are fund­ing mosques, schools and imams to dis­sem­i­nate a fun­da­men­tal­ist, in­tol­er­ant ver­sion of Is­lam through­out Ger­many.

In Kosovo, the New York Times’ Car­lotta Gall de­scribes the process by which a 500-year-old tra­di­tion of mod­er­ate Is­lam is be­ing de­stroyed. “From their bases, the Saudi-trained imams prop­a­gated Wah­habism’s tenets: the supremacy of Shariah law as well as ideas of vi­o­lent ji­had and tak­firism, which au­tho­rizes the killing of Mus­lims con­sid­ered heretics for not fol­low­ing its in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam. . . . Char­i­ta­ble as­sis­tance of­ten had con­di­tions at­tached. Fam­i­lies were given monthly stipends on the con­di­tion that they at­tended ser­mons in the mosque and that women and girls wore the veil.”

Saudi Ara­bia’s gov­ern­ment has be­gun to slow many of its most egre­gious prac­tices. It is now be­ing run, de facto, by a young, in­tel­li­gent re­former, Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who ap­pears to be re­fresh­ingly prag­matic, in the style of Dubai’s vi­sion­ary leader, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid al Mak­toum. But so far the Saudi re­forms have mostly trans­lated into bet­ter eco­nomic pol­icy for the king­dom, not a break with its pow­er­ful re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment.

Trump’s speech on Is­lam was nu­anced and showed em­pa­thy for the Mus­lim vic­tims of ji­hadist ter­ror­ism (who make up as much as 95 per­cent of the to­tal, by one es­ti­mate). He seemed to zero in on the prob­lem when he said, “No dis­cus­sion of stamp­ing out this threat would be com­plete without men­tion­ing the gov­ern­ment that gives ter­ror­ists . . . safe har­bor, fi­nan­cial back­ing and the so­cial stand­ing needed for re­cruit­ment.”

But Trump was talk­ing not of his host, Saudi Ara­bia, but rather of Iran. Now, to be clear, Iran is a desta­bi­liz­ing force in the Mid­dle East and sup­ports some very bad ac­tors. But it is wildly in­ac­cu­rate to de­scribe it as the source of ji­hadist ter­ror. Ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of the Global Ter­ror­ism Data­base by Leif We­nar of King’s Col­lege London, more than 94 per­cent of deaths caused by Is­lamic ter­ror­ism since 2001 were per­pe­trated by the Is­lamic State, al-Qaeda and other Sunni ji­hadists. Iran is fight­ing those groups, not fu­el­ing them. Al­most ev­ery ter­ror­ist at­tack in the West has had some con­nec­tion to Saudi Ara­bia. Vir­tu­ally none has been linked to Iran.

Trump has adopted the Saudi line on ter­ror­ism, which de­flects any blame from the king­dom and redi­rects it to­ward Iran. The Saudis show­ered Trump’s in­ex­pe­ri­enced ne­go­tia­tors with at­ten­tion, arms deals and do­na­tions to a World Bank fund that Ivanka Trump is cham­pi­oning. (Can­di­date Trump wrote in a Face­book post in 2016, “Saudi Ara­bia and many of the coun­tries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hil­lary must re­turn all money from such coun­tries!”) In short, the Saudis played Trump. (Jamie Tarabay makes the same point.)

The United States has now signed up for Saudi Ara­bia’s for­eign pol­icy — a re­lent­less se­ries of bat­tles against Shi­ites and their al­lies through­out the Mid­dle East. That will en­mesh Washington in a never- end­ing sec­tar­ian strug­gle, fuel re­gional in­sta­bil­ity and com­pli­cate its ties with coun­tries such as Iraq that want good re­la­tions with both sides. But most im­por­tant, it will do noth­ing to ad­dress the di­rect and on­go­ing threat to Amer­i­cans — ji­hadist ter­ror­ism. I thought that Trump’s for­eign pol­icy was go­ing to put Amer­ica first, not Saudi Ara­bia.

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