As is customary with the Saudis, any competition when it comes to ruling Islam is crushed to the best of their ability. They have all but obliterated the moderate Muslim voice in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and now with millions of relatively secular Muslims free from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, the Saudis are thirsting to inseminate the seeds of Wahhabism into Iraq. Wahhabism is the Kingdom’s lifeblood — should Iran (or democracy) gain hold of a sizeable majority of Iraq’s population, the Saudis’ attempts to dominate Islam would be compromised.
Frightened of this prospect, the Saudis have begun a campaign to enable their proselytization to be as effective as possible, first by demonizing non-Muslims entering the country. Abdullah al-Turki, Secretary-General of the Saudi-owned Muslim World League, issued a warning last month to Arab and Muslim countries: “Non-Muslim organizations are preparing to enter Iraq to start their activity under the cover of providing humanitarian aid, as they normally exploit crises, wars and tragedies.” By “non-Muslim,” Turki means “Christian missionaries.” These xenophobic statements by Turki are typical of the Wahhabis, who with no intellectual way to spread their hard-line brand of Islam, instead rely on force and bullying.
The Muslim World League, the largest Muslim charity in the world, the Saudi Red Crescent, and other Saudi charities have a long history of upsetting relief workers, non-Muslims, and Muslims for their callous and arrogant attempts of providing aid. When Ethiopia was suffering from its famous terrible drought in the 1980s, governments and peoples from all over the world came to country’s aid. The drought was indeed a challenge to humanity as a whole and the response was overall positive. Indeed, the relief efforts surpassed anything seen before, and they very much helped overcome the catastrophe. In the Western world, Ethiopia has the image of being a Christian island amongst a sea of Muslims, because the surrounding countries are mostly Muslim majority countries, such as Egypt and the Sudan. In actual fact, however, the population of Ethiopia is largely Muslim.
As a result, in the Arab and Muslim world, the media campaign was appreciable, and there was a remarkable outpouring of donations from the public. Organizations like the Muslim World League began their relief efforts. The Saudi Red Crescent, as well as the Kuwaiti Red Crescent, became active in Ethiopia in a way unknown of them before.
Yet, complaints about these organizations were there from the start, mainly because of an overemphasis on religion in the camps where people’s main concern was physical survival. These people needed food and clothes to sustain their immediate needs, not religion. To be fair, some of the Christian organizations were not innocent of missionary endeavors, and their proselytization efforts were met with a hue and cry from the Muslim side.
Availing themselves of the opportunity to denigrate non-Muslim relief work, the Islamists then became active campaigners against all relief work with a link to churches. In a fit of hypocrisy, they propagated the idea that the drought was used for Christianization. This propaganda was so fierce, that it interfered with the work of some European relief organizations. In order to be successful, humanitarian work often requires considerable trust and confidence of the people for which it is destined.
The Saudis demonstrated their apathy to true relief work in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Rather than sponsoring doctors and relief workers to aid the wounded in Afghanistan, the Saudis funded the Jihadist party under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a designated terrorist by the United States. Hekmatyar pursued a hideous policy of liquidating the country’s elite and replacing it with a new one coming from its party ranks, analogous to what the Khmer Rouge did under Pol Pot. This drove Afghan medical doctors into exile, creating in Afghanistan what can best be described as a medical desert.
European relief agencies entered Afghanistan to fill the void created by Hekmatyar’s rampage. One such example was Dr. Angel Pitoni, leader of Italian resistance fighters against the German occupation of Italy during World War II, and who later became a fervent champion of Afghan resistance to the Russian occupation. Dr. Pitoni and his friends traveled to Afghanistan to provide maimed children rehabilitation treatment in Europe. A deeply secular person, Dr. Pitoni had made it a condition that no Christianization attempts would be undertaken on children brought to Europe for treatment.
In response to Dr. Pitoni’s work and the work of others like him, some Islamists accused Dr. Pitoni of working for the CIA with a hidden agenda. These same people, however, copied photos from his brochures for use in their own publications, such as the Muslim World League magazine. Indeed, the Islamists had no compunctions of claiming for themselves the relief work that had actually been done by Dr. Pitoni and others. At the same time, they campaigned against the West for allegedly misusing the plight of the Afghans in order to win them for Christianity.
It seems as though almost anywhere the Saudis perform relief work, the reactions of the Muslims receiving the “relief” was everywhere more or less the same. The people complained that the Wahhabis concentrated too much on ritual niceties, treating the suffering people as if they were not proper Muslims, whom they had to teach Islam from scratch. This complaint became loudest in Bosnia, where many people said angrily that they did not want to be taught a new religion; their own old Islam was good enough. Others put it slightly differently, complaining that the children in the camps needed above all love, but from Saudi-funded organizations all they got was disdain, not affection.
One particular incident in Bosnia came to symbolize the problem vicariously for many other instances. In a camp for Bosnian refugees in Austria, members of a Saudi-run relief organization distributed scarves for the women to cover their heads — not traditional garb for Bosnian Muslims. When the Bosnians told the Saudis that they would prefer blankets for their babies, they scolded them for having become lax in their religious observance, an accusation that made the Bosnians thoroughly angry. They found the Wahhabi attitude inhuman, and ever since, the label “Wahhabi” has become a term of derision among them. Saudi Arabia has spent huge amounts in Bosnia on the construction of pompous mosques, but it did not win the hearts of the people.
Some of the Wahhabization the Saudis promote under the label of Islamization falls under the category of retraditionalization, which is quite a universal phenomenon and observable in very diverse cultures. All the same, there is a substantial difference of opinion with regard to Islamic priorities. For example, most Muslims agree that memorizing the Koran is a meritorious task as it has been for centuries. Yet at a time when many Muslims still have to overcome a developmental lag, many would like education to emphasize more secular aspects than Saudi-sponsored schools usually do. There is a general complaint that the Wahhabis are given to overemphasize the externalities of religion over its contents, just as they emphasize politics at the expense of ethics. Quite often, deeply religious Muslims argue that this is a distortion of Islam and an insult to the intelligence of the believers who are being treated like immature children.
The point here is that Iraq’s children must not be made Saudi, Iranian, or American. The Iraqis have their own history and their own Islam. Successful relief work in Iraq must be progressive but at the same time allow the people to draw from their rich, beautiful cultural heritage. The Saudis and the Iranians look to Iraq as an opportunity to spread their would-be empires. When facing the imminent threat from the Islamists, the Iraqi people need to remember that, above all, they are Iraqi.
— Khalid Durán, a former chairman of the Solidarity Committee for the Afghan People, is currently president of the Ibn Khaldun Society, a cultural association and intellectual forum of independent Muslims. He began his career at Pakistan’s Islamic Research Institute and the University of Islamabad, and later taught at half a dozen universities in Europe and the United States. Josh Devon is a senior analyst at the SITE Institute, based in Washington, D.C.