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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

Rajhi mosque
Al-Rajhi Mosque in Riyadh, the site of a small anti-government protest in March 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring movement. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

9/11 forces change to Saudi's global religious mission

The kingdom adjusts its international Islamic outreach.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — For more than three decades, Saudi Arabia has used its vast oil riches to host foreign students in the kingdom, build schools and mosques abroad, distribute the Qur’an in different languages and send funds to Islamic organizations wherever Muslims are in need.

This global outreach was meant to secure Saudi leadership of Sunni Islam globally while proselytizing on behalf of the kingdom’s ultraconservative brand of Salafi Islam, Wahhabism.

But a decade after 9/11, this proselytization drive has seen major changes, scholars of the Salafi movement say.

Al Qaeda’s 2001 assaults against the United States and its violent insurgency in the kingdom from 2003 to 2006 forced the Saudi government to impose stricter controls on funding sent to Islamic groups abroad, tone down some of the harsher rhetoric of Wahhabism, and broaden its outreach to non-Salafi, mainstream Muslims, according to these experts.

It is impossible to know how much money has gone into this national effort since it began in the late 1970s. The kingdom does not publish official figures on its promotion of Islam abroad. Moreover, it is done by a variety of actors working independently of each other, including clerics, princes, government officials and wealthy businessmen. Most estimates, however, assume that billions of dollars have been spent on this venture.

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
~US State Department cable from 2009 released by WikiLeaks

Angered by evidence collected after 9/11 that some Saudi-funded Islamic charities were collaborating with Al Qaeda, U.S. officials demanded that Saudi Arabia stop financing these groups and halt the flow of private funds to terrorist organizations overseas.

Riyadh was initially uncooperative, especially when it came to Islamic charities, partly because they doubted the U.S. allegations, and also because charities are key vehicles for proselytizing. Eventually, however, it put in place tougher banking restrictions and anti-money-laundering laws.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has created new uncertainties in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Salafi groups in the region, highlighting how Salafism’s expansion around the world has led to greater diversity and a weakening of Saudi leadership within this religious trend.

“Most Salafists would look up to Saudi Arabia and have a lot of respect for Saudi sheikhs and quote them extensively,” said Stephane Lacroix, a French expert on the movement and author of “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia.” “But you also do have dissident Salafi movements that disagree with Saudi Arabia. Not everyone who is Salafi is pro-Saudi.”

In recent months, for example, some Egyptian Salafis discarded the orthodox Saudi Salafi stance of shunning politics and formed a political party. “The reality on the ground has changed,” Egyptian Salafi spokesman Sheikh Abdulmunim Al Shahhat told the Saudi newspaper Asharq al Awsat. “And the fatwa now is to participate” in the political process.

Meanwhile, Syrian Salafis have actively supported the protracted revolt against President Bashar Al Assad, another flouting of Saudi-style Salafism, which demands blind obedience to existing rulers, no matter how tyrannical.

These developments are “very un-Salafi-like because Salafis do not usually engage in politics,” said Martin van Bruinessen of Utrecht University’s religious studies department.


Wahhabism, founded by the 18th century Saudi theologian Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, is a type of Salafi Islam. Salafists are often called fundamentalists because they seek to emulate the purity of 7th century Islam as practiced by their spiritual ancestors, or salaf.

Stressing personal piety, they reject many Islamic cultural traditions, follow a rigid, dogmatic creed stressing tawhid — the unity of one God — and discourage worldly and secular pursuits that distract from worshiping God.

They generally advocate strict gender segregation, discourage women from working and believe a woman should wear a full face veil.

Adherents of Salafism’s strictest versions, such as Wahhabism, have been criticized for intolerance towards other faiths and non-Salafi Muslims, whose company they avoid as much as possible. Such attitudes, critics say, seed the ground for militant Islamist groups like Al Qaeda.

Although Salafists are a minority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, their ideas have a global reach, partly because of Saudi Arabia’s missionary efforts.

“The Salafi contribution to the global debate on Islam is much bigger than it used to be,” said Lacroix. “Some Salafi religious norms, like wearing the niqab [full face veil], are more and more accepted as correct Islam outside Saudi Arabia, which used to not be the case thirty to forty years ago.”

But as Salafism spread it also fragmented, and today it is not monolithic. One major difference revolves around politics. Saudi Salafism teaches that Muslims owe their political rulers absolute obedience; that open dissent, including street protests, is a sin, and that political parties are unnecessary.

Other Salafists, like those in Egypt, argue that peaceful political activity in order to change society is acceptable.

A third current of extremist Salafi jihadis maintains that violence is the only way to reach a pure Islamic society and defeat Islam’s perceived enemies. They justify violence against other Muslims on the principle of takfir, which allows the execution of those deemed apostates from Islam.


Wahhabism’s belief in its superiority over other versions of Islam has fueled Saudi Arabia’s strong missionary impulse. But it has been the religious authorities, or ulema, rather than the government that has put the high priority on proselytizing.

“I don’t think the Saudi government in itself is all that interested in exporting Wahhabism,” said Lacroix. “But you have this deal between the government and the religious establishment...which considers as one of its missions to spread Salafism abroad. The princes cannot tell the ulema to stop exporting Islam because they would have to confront the ulema on this, and the princes don’t want to confront the ulema.”

Saudi Arabia began its global proselytizing in the 1970s as its oil wealth began accumulating. It accelerated the campaign after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution because Riyadh felt that Sunni Islam was threatened by the Shiite state, which began aggressively exporting its brand of revolutionary Islam.

Most Saudi embassies acquired Islamic affairs offices, staffed with religious scholars whose job was to promote Islam. At its peak in the late 1980s, the office in the embassy in Washington had an annual budget of $8 million and 35 to 40 staffers who built mosques, distributed Qur’ans and brought in foreign imams with Salafi training to lead congregations.

One legacy of the Saudis’ proselytizing is the fealty still given by radical Salafi preachers to Wahhabi scholars, many of them now dead, said Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, a scholar of modern Islamist groups. “If I had to make a list of top ten Wahhabi scholars of all time,” he said, “several of the people on the list are people being quoted by radical scholars around the world today.”

The United States turned a blind eye to the intolerant aspects of Wahhabi teachings and did not object to the kingdom’s global missionary project partly out of a desire to support stability in the oil-producing Gulf. But Washington also believed that religious movements generally were allies in its Cold War against the Soviet Union’s worldwide promotion of atheistic communism.

This U.S.-Saudi alliance climaxed in the 1980s when, with Washington’s active encouragement, the Saudis bankrolled brigades of Afghan and Arab fighters, many of them inspired by fiery anti-Western sermons of Salafi clerics, who were battling to expel Soviet occupation troops from Afghanistan. One participant in that jihad was Osama bin Laden.