By Francisco Martin-Rayo
The recent attacks against U.S. embassies around the world, the murder of U.S. diplomats, and their associated hateful images, have shocked the American public and confounded policymakers. Although many Americans and academics have asked the question, “What changed?” these attacks are simply the most recent example of a long-term trend in the region that undermines U.S. values and interests. Unless U.S. policymakers take concrete steps to counter the influence of extremists in these countries, the United States will find itself more isolated, ineffective, and unable to defend its national interests in the most important region in the world.
The majority of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts have been organized and attended by members of the various Salafist groups which have emerged during the Arab Spring. These groups’ influence has been growing since Saudi Arabia began exporting its version of Islam in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In the late 1960s, King Fahd began funding the export of Wahhabi Islam as a counter to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist movement, which threatened to overthrow monarchies around the region. Wahhabism is an interpretation of Islam that is typically characterized as intolerant both of other religions and sects within Islam (hence the attacks against Sufi shrines). Though not all Salafists are Wahhabis, all Wahhabis are considered Salafists.
Today, now that so many secular dictators in the region have been deposed, Saudi Arabian funding of these groups has increased exponentially. Sharron Ward notes this in her recent article in Foreign Policy, where she writes that Saudi funded Salafi groups have provided both financial and religious backing for Salafis in Libya, effectively helping them to take by force what they weren’t given through elections. After decades of exporting this extremist version of Islam through mosques and madrasas, those populations indoctrinated with Saudi money are finally coming to power, unencumbered by existing institutions or groups that can stand up to them. Robin Wright, in an op-ed in the New York Times, references the idea of a “Salafi Crescent” across the Middle East, and notes how successful Wahhabi funding was at radicalizing Afghanistan and bringing the Taliban to power.
The foreign policy that King Fahd adopted as a bulwark against nationalism makes even more sense for Saudi Arabia today, albeit for opportunistic instead of defensive reasons. If
Saudi Arabia succeeds at positioning these groups in power, then the Middle East will see a rise of theocratic governments that will replace former autocratic allies, a win-win for the kingdom’s foreign policy, and the most successful way to strangle nascent democracy movements in the region. At stake today are two visions of the Middle East: one, increasingly unlikely, where newly liberated countries embrace values of liberal democracy that give a voice to women and ethnic/religious minorities; or one where Salafist-influenced regimes crush women’s rights, target minorities, and create theocratic autocracies based on their skewed interpretation of Islam.
Salafis, and the groups funding them, are better organized than those espousing values that are concomitant with a liberal democracy. Sadly, that is to be expected. After all, the U.S. has shied from openly supporting any of the pro-democracy movements that have emerged across the region for fear of delegitimizing them and making the hollow argument that nascent democracies have to find their own way. But if the U.S. does not support these groups, who will? Unless the U.S. and its allies, who can only benefit from having more countries in the region become democracies and not theocracies, provide a counterbalance to the organized and consistent funding by Wahhabi groups, then there is little chance that these emerging democratic movements can succeed.
Although the U.S. has become extremely proficient at counterterrorism, the tragedies of the last few weeks should serve as a stark reminder of the myopia of this strategy and of the long term consequences which the U.S. will face if does not adapt. If the U.S. continues to rely exclusively on counter-terrorist tactics to protect its interests in the Middle East and eschews any support for democracy groups in the region, the next 10 years are likely to see the succession of governments increasingly dominated by extremist elements that will be viscerally against U.S. values and interests.
If the U.S. wants to protect its long term interests in the region, it needs to start countering extremism in these countries. The export of Wahhabism over the past few decades has been successful because it focuses on generational ideological change. By funding thousands of schools, mosques and charities the movement has been able to indoctrinate young men and women in these countries from a very early age. Years later, these same youths are the ones who storm U.S. embassies and demand Taliban-esque governments. In order to counter this trend, the U.S. needs to actively finance organizations that seek to provide these children with a well-rounded education, and not just Salafi vitriol. Access to a well-rounded education, even of mediocre quality, makes it significantly less likely that these children will become radicalized.
The fight today isn’t so much for the hearts of the Middle East, but for the minds of those who are shaping these societies. If the U.S. does not start fighting for the minds of these young men and women, it stands to lose much of its influence in the region and one or two generations from now, be faced with a crescent of virulently anti-American, anti-democratic, extremists. The U.S. today faces the most crucial choice in its dealings with the Middle East since the end of World War II – either fight for the minds of the people who will take over the most important region in the world, or allow a group of fundamentalists to indoctrinate them against the U.S. The choice is clear, today more than ever: Win the Minds or Lose the Region.
Francisco Martin-Rayo is the author of the recently published book, “Winning the Minds: Travels through the terrorist recruiting grounds of Yemen, Pakistan, and the Somali border.” He holds a Masters from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was an International and Global Affairs Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.