Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
While the Obama Administration is figuring out the best way to combat the extremism of groups like ISIS, it continues to maintain close ties with the Middle Eastern regime that promotes the same brand of Islam.
“The ideology of the Saudi regime is that of ISIS even if the foreign policies differ,” California State University-Stanislaus Professor Asad AbuKhalil tells The Progressive.
In an online column, AbuKhalil elaborates on his view.
“Mainstream Islam frowns upon the views, excesses, practices and interpretations of ISIS,” he writes. “But Wahhabi Islam [the official ideology of the Saudi monarchy] is fully in sync with ISIS.”
But instead of isolating the Saudi regime from the global mainstream, President Obama paid a visit there earlier this year, meeting with King Abdullah. He reportedly did not discuss the regime’s dubious conduct.
“I can’t think of a more pernicious actor in the region,” British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid told me in an interview last year. “The House of Saud has exported this very pernicious form of militant Islam under U.S. watch. Then the United States comes in repeatedly to attack symptoms of this problem without ever addressing the basic issue: Where does it all come from? Who’s at the heart of this thing? It would be like saying that if you have skin rash because of cancer, the best option is to cut off your skin. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Yet, the United States continues with this approach.
Even establishment opinion is recognizing the dimensions of the Saudi problem.
“It can’t be exporting extremism and at the same time ask the United States to protect it,” Retired General (and onetime presidential contender) Wesley Clark recently told CNN. “This ISIS threat is going eventually to be pointed like a dagger right at the heart of the Saudi regime.”
“Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings,” Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote in the New York Times. “For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism [another term for Wahhabism] across the globe.”
Such entities “have been lavishly supported by the Saudi government, which has appointed emissaries to its embassies in Muslim countries who proselytize for Salafism,” he adds. The kingdom also “bankrolls ultraconservative Islamic organizations like the Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth.”
There is evidence that the United States is very aware of the damage emanating from its supposed ally. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a December 2009 leaked diplomatic cable that entities in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Professor AbuKhalil says that in the case of ISIS, the link also exists, even if indirectly.
“There is no hard evidence of direct Saudi regime support, but Saudi and Qatari money to Syrian rebels has wound up with ISIS,” he says.
Yet the United States keeps mum because the Saudi monarchy serves U.S. interests. Due to its pivotal role in OPEC, it makes sure that crude oil prices don’t rise above a certain level. It is a key purchaser of American weapons. It invests in U.S. government bonds. And it has acted in the past as proxy for covert U.S. actions, such as funneling arms and funding to the Nicaraguan contras.
The Saudis are aware of the damage being done to their image by ISIS. The grand mufti of the country has condemned the organization. And the government has been hosting a regional summit supposedly to combat extremism.
But these are mere gestures. Until Saudi Arabia stops sponsoring the most reactionary brands of Sunni Islam, this U.S. ally will remain responsible for much of the mayhem in the Muslim world.