The Tide Could Turn Against Radical Islam

By October 10, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 116

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The driving forces behind the growth of Islamic radicalism – the Islamic revolution in Iran and the immense Saudi funding for spreading Wahhabism – may not endure. By the end of this decade, the current strength of Islamism could be shattered. US action is not required for the Iranian regime to fall – although it could be a big help. On the other hand it is probably only the US that could convince the Saudis to hold onto their money rather than using so much to sell Wahhabism throughout the world. It is important to understand that two quite possible developments could bring about a sea change in the worldwide confrontation with radical Islam.

Today it seems as if the conflict with Islamism – the small component of the Muslim world that sees itself as actively in long-term conflict with most of the world – will be with us indefinitely and may well be getting worse. While this may be true, it is also important to keep in mind a scenario that could decisively change the direction of events.

While the Islamist energy within the Muslim world has achieved a self-sustaining life of its own, we should also notice that the current strength of Islamism is primarily the result of two specific influences which have been the driving force for changing the political balance within the Muslim world for the past 30 years. Both of these driving forces could be removed before the end of this decade.

The root causes of the conflict between Islamism – and indeed Muslim society more broadly – and the rest of the world undoubtedly existed in 1979 as strongly as they do today. But the character of politics, debate, and behavior in the Muslim world was dramatically less troublesome then than it is now. Thirty-one years ago two things happened to change the situation: the Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent Saudi decision to sharply increase their efforts to spread Wahhabism.

Khomeini’s Islamic revolution gained control of Iran, the largest Shiite country in the world and a major power in Middle East affairs. Since coming to power Iran’s Islamic revolutionary regime has been a persistent creative force, spreading Islamism throughout the Muslim world through religious/political leadership, inspiration and advocacy, terror and political violence, and national political measures. v When it began, this new active Iranian program led by Khomeini to organize and promote Islamic radicalism throughout the Muslim world threatened to drastically increase Shiite influence among Sunnis, to many of whom the radical message, supported by Iranian national power, had great attraction. This possibility frightened the Saudi leadership, for whom Shiites were historic enemies. The Saudis felt compelled to compete with the Iranian revolutionary regime for leadership of radical Islam.

The result of this political pressure on the Saudi leadership, plus the great increase in their wealth following the oil price increases of 1979-1980, led to a multiplication of Saudi efforts to spread Wahhabism – the backward-looking Saudi version of Islam – throughout the world. Since 1980, Saudi royal family members and their beneficiaries have been exporting some $4 billion or more dollars a year to spread Wahhabi doctrines and influence throughout the world, from the US through Indonesia, from Chechnya and Bosnia through central Africa. One-hundred-and-twenty billion dollars for education and propaganda is a lot of money.

The result of this immense flow of resources from Saudi Arabia has been a complete transformation of religious and political life in the Muslim world. Wahhabism was a relatively small and somewhat despised element of Islam around the world in 1979. Today Wahhabi-controlled mosques, schools, preachers, and NGOs are a main if not dominant feature in both Muslim majority and Muslim minority communities in almost every country. Wahhabis control, for example, the great majority of Muslim institutions in the US – although certainly most Muslims in the US are not Wahhabis.

Of course both the Iranian and Saudi sources of Islamist energy could continue to move the Muslim world indefinitely. But it is also possible that they could disappear from the picture as suddenly as they entered it 30-odd years ago.

The internal legitimacy of the Iranian revolutionary regime has in the last year become fatally undermined. There is a massive rejection of the regime by the general public because of its destruction of the Iranian economy, because of the forceful imposition of fundamentalist Muslim behavior on the general public, because of the corruption of the regime, and because of its use of violence against public protest of the stolen election last year. And the religious leadership of the revolution has become bitterly divided. Many of the highest religious authorities, and the original leaders of the revolution, have formally proclaimed that the current regime is no longer legitimate. The result has been thousands of defections, and purges, from the leadership of the regime, including the Revolutionary Guards.

It is quite possible that this fatally undermined regime could continue in power – on the bayonets of the Revolutionary Guard – for many years, especially if the outside world continues not to provide moral, political, or financial support for the internal opposition. But it is also possible that the regime will collapse or be overthrown this year or next, or the year after. While no one can predict when this will happen, it is certainly possible that the original engine of the expansion of radical Islam will disappear in the not too distant future. Iranian politics are extraordinarily subtle and complex and difficult for outsiders to understand. No one can predict with confidence the result of outside efforts to help the Iranians who are trying to remove the revolutionary regime. It is reasonably clear that a large majority of Iranians have reached the point where they would be very pleased for the current regime to be replaced, and slightly less clear that the momentum of anti-regime feeling would produce a very different government if the Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC) were to lose control. But it is not at all clear what is required for the opposition to put together enough unity and power to overcome the IRGC so long as it holds together and maintains its determination to hold onto power, however many Iranians have to be killed to do so. Even more than most, standard Iranian behavior is to try to stay on the winning side. Therefore one key to opposition success is to convince more Iranians – inside and outside the regime – that the regime is doomed.

There are good reasons for prudent governments not to commit themselves to the overthrow of the current Iranian regime. But it is hard to understand why no democratic government has done anything at all to provide some moral and political support to the opposition or to provide small-scale, non-military assistance, such as communication equipment and Radio Free Europe-style broadcasts. The US in particular could improve the opposition’s position by speaking positively about Iranians imprisoned for political protest and treating the regime with mere diplomatic correctness and by ceasing its policy of going out of its way to demonstrate great respect for the regime. One cannot be sure, but it is entirely plausible that those Iranians trying to replace the regime would have an easier time if Iranians could see that a new regime would be welcomed by the democratic great powers. Iranians may have more respect for these powers, and especially the US, than we realize.

What about the second engine, Saudi funding for the international promotion of Wahhabism? First, the disappearance of the Iranian revolutionary regime would remove one of main original incentives for the Saudi effort. But this by itself would not bring the program to a stop.

The main requirement to end the flow of Wahhabi funds from the Saudis is for the US to recognize the harm being produced by these funds and appreciate its power to influence – even to compel – the Saudis into halting this activity. Saudi desistance from funding radical Islamic groups worldwide, America could explain, is a central US security need, especially after the removal of the Iranian power from its support of the Islamist attack on the West.

Perhaps the greatest reason to think that the US could stop the export of Wahhabi funding from Saudi Arabia is the softness of the demand the US would be making of the Saudis. The basic US message would be, “Stop giving away so much of your money; keep it at home and use it for yourselves.” That, after all, is not a terribly harsh or oppressive proposal – although undoubtedly it would meet a good deal of resistance.

Nothing today in US diplomatic or political discussion faintly suggests that the US would follow such a course with the Saudis. Nobody – except a few people outside policy circles, such as Professors Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes (and the current author) – have even mentioned such a possibility or discussed anything in this direction. But it is such a simple idea – to try to stop something that has caused so much harm to the world – that there must be some possibility that it could occur to the policy-making world at some point.

Despite all their oil money, and oil power, the Saudi leadership understands very deeply that they and their regime are weak and vulnerable, and that the US is infinitely more powerful. If the US comes to understand this half as well as the Saudis, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the US could lead the Saudis to understand that they could expect America to continue to be their protector if they keep their money at home, but that the US would come to see them as an enemy if they continue to export their funds to promote Wahhabism in the world. Such a change would not have to take many years.

So, even if unlikely, it is physically quite possible that the second engine that has been spreading Islamism through the world for 30 years could also come to a halt in the next few years.

The removal of these two engines would not end all our troubles, by any means, but it seems more than plausible that their disappearance would lead rather quickly to a change in direction of the conflict within the Muslim world, and therefore of the relations between Islam and the West. There would be much better reason for hope for a better future than is readily apparent today.

The possibility that the situation in the Muslim world could change as sharply in our favor as it changed against us 30 years ago is one of the reasons why Israelis should not assume that time is not on our side.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]