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Kristof: Saudis cultivate terrorists in peaceful countries

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whenever there is a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, we look to our enemies like the Islamic State or al-Qaida. But perhaps we should also look to our “friends,” like Saudi Arabia.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has recklessly financed and promoted a harsh and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam around the world in a way that is, quite predictably, producing terrorists. And there’s no better example of this Saudi recklessness than in the Balkans.

Kosovo and Albania have been models of religious moderation and tolerance, and Kosovars revere the United States and Britain for averting a possible genocide by Serbs in 1999. Yet Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries poured money into the new nation over the last 17 years and nurtured religious extremism in a land where originally there was little.

The upshot is that, according to the Kosovo government, 300 Kosovars have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, mostly to join the Islamic State. Saudi money has transformed a once-tolerant Islamic society into a pipeline for jihadis.

“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a mosque in the city of Peja, told me sadly. Hajzeri is a moderate in the traditional, tolerant style and said that as a result he had received more death threats from extremists than he can count.

Moderates have responded with a website that criticizes the harsh Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. But they say they are outgunned by money pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

This is a global problem. I first encountered pernicious Saudi influence in Pakistan, where the public school system is a disgrace and Saudis filled the gap by financing hard-line madrasas that lure students with free tuition, free meals and full scholarships for overseas study for the best students.

Likewise, in traditionally moderate, peaceful countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in West Africa, I’ve seen these foreign-financed madrasas introduce radical interpretations of Islam. In the Balkans, Bosnia is particularly affected by Gulf support for extremists.

There are still pillars of pro-American feeling. Moreover, after a series of arrests of radical imams in Kosovo and Albania, the situation may have stabilized, and jihadis no longer seem to be traveling to Syria from there.

But the world needs to have tough conversations with Saudi Arabia about its role. It’s not that it is intentionally spreading havoc, more that it is behaving recklessly. It’s particularly dispiriting because much of the extremist funding seems to come from charity.

One of the most admirable aspects of Islam is its emphasis on charity, yet in countries like Saudi Arabia this money is directed not to fight malnutrition or child mortality, but to brainwash children and sow conflict in poor and unstable countries.

I asked Hajzeri, the imam, whether he was worried by foreign threats to Islam, like the Danish cartoonist who mocked the Prophet Muhammad. “Cartoonists can just hurt our feelings,” he snorted. “But damaging the reputation of Islam? That’s not what the cartoonists are doing. That’s what Saudi Arabia is doing.”

 

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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