Features

Soft on Saudis

"Soft on Saudis" Continued...

Issue: "Senate wars over judges," May 14, 2005

Freedom House's report, which it released in January, underscores the risks of allowing mosques to preach such radical Islam: The same ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers could cultivate terrorists on U.S. soil. Moderate Muslims warn that Wahhabism has already overrun American mosques.

"It's certainly become more exposed, but the problem is very much still there," explained Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. The group was virtually alone in warning of extremism's spread as far back as 1999 and criticizing national Muslim advocacy groups for soft-pedaling it. "It's a matter of who has influence and who has money . . . the Saudis continue to peddle their influence. Even if (the mosques) were to disappear overnight, the influence would still remain."

Saudi oil dollars are not limited to mosques either. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, heads the diplomatic corps and enjoys wide-ranging ties in Washington. The Saudis also help fund think tanks such as the Middle East Institute, ensuring sophisticated policy positions on their behalf.

Saudi Arabia is now boosting its image, holding events such as interfaith forums. Wahhabi adherents are adopting the language of Muslim moderates, too. "From the back, if you know these people, you know they support terrorism," Mr. Siddiqui said.

Overall, the Saudis have done little to promote religious reform since the United States fingered them as persecutors. In February Saudi Arabia hosted an anti-terrorism conference that was a "charade," according to Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea. "In my view that's just an appearance if in fact they're teaching the same thing with the same fatwas and books and doing the same thing."

The kingdom also appointed the former head of the World Muslim League, a Saudi arm that exports Islamism worldwide, as the country's new minister of education. "That does not bode well for the prospects of reform," Ms. Shea said, "to have the man responsible for extremism as the minister of education."

Yet the United States is nowhere ready to alienate its Mideast ally. At the same time, Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli acknowledged the kingdom had not become more tolerant in the last six months. One State Department official told WORLD the diplomacy was "complicated."

"We don't want to offend governments by announcing something prematurely," he said.

When Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush at his Crawford ranch in April, the top agenda item was increasing oil production. If political reform received any attention in private conversation, it did not register publicly. The leaders simply released a joint statement saying both countries agree a "message of peace, moderation, and tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices."

But the United States has not pressured the Saudis to follow such sentiments. "Part of the problem that has allowed this to continue is that U.S. policy is so hesitant," Mr. Al-Ahmed said. He said Washington at least "talks tough" on human rights with heavyweights such as China and Russia, but treats the Saudis gently. Ending that will mean no more hand-holding between Messrs. Bush and Abdullah-both physically and figuratively.

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