Saudi Arabia may believe in terror threat, but its roots in Wahhabi extremism is a danger India can't ignore

In the backdrop of the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman condemned the suicide bombing in the "strongest terms" during his visit to India on Wednesday. Calling terrorism and extremism a "common concern", he also said his country will "cooperate with India and neighbouring states" on the matter.

The irony of the Saudi Crown Prince's statement is not lost here. It came days after the Saudi Crown Prince endorsed Pakistan's so-called "achievements" in "combating terrorism" and infused the country's coffers with more funds, the same country that has been greylisted and even threatened with being blacklisted for not taking enough action against terrorist groups on its soil and the network that funds terror activities.

Saudi Arabia may believe in terror threat, but its roots in Wahhabi extremism is a danger India cant ignore

Representations image. Reuters

If we look at a recent report that reviewed terror financing, we may be able to understand why Saudi Arabia is backing a country that has been denounced by many others for providing a safe haven for terrorists. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — the same watchdog that has grey-listed Pakistan — recently reviewed Saudi Arabia's efforts to fight terror financing and found a number of glaring shortfalls. The FATF has asked Riyadh to present an action plan outlining measures it will take to address these problems. A good start towards that would be to not back a country that has been denounced by many for providing a safe haven for terrorists.

At the root of these deductions is the Wahhabi doctrine the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows. Wahhabism, with its purist interpretation of Islam, is essentially a sect of Islam that has an extreme perception of the Sharia, leaving a very thin line between religious beliefs and views and extremism. This form of Wahhabism eventually leads to the use of violence to meet an end. In fact, one could say that Wahhabism is just a mere step from Islamic extremism, and it is radicalisation through this Wahabism that poses a great threat. Even in India.

The Saudi Crown Prince's efforts to project Saudi Arabia as a more moderate state now, one where its Wahhabi doctrine is less entrenched than it was in the past, is evident to the world now. But even the all-powerful Prince Salman cannot subdue the clout of the Wahhabi clerics in the country.

These clerics, in fact, the entire country, was forced to take a more tolerant stand after the 11 September, 2001, attacks in the US, which brought Saudi Arabia in the international spotlight for the wrong reasons. After it emerged that most of the hijackers were Wahhabi Saudis, the Kingdom had little choice but to allow criticism of Wahhabism and curb the powers of the religious police in the West Asian country.

With counter-terrorism measures in focus, and Saudi Arabia taking a very grey stand on the matter, extending support to both India and Pakistan, the question of Saudi-sponsored terrorism and its roots in Wahhabi extremism arises.

In 2017, the US Department of State had designated 61 groups as terrorist organisations, a great majority of which were Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups. Moreover, the US may have its oil interests in the West Asian nation and the two countries may have been part of the same coalition fighting the Islamic State, but the American government has still maintained that Saudis extending financial aid for terrorist activities "remains a threat to the Kingdom and the international community".

The Indian context

Saudi Arabia may agree with India that "extremism and terrorism threaten all nations", but what it fails to address is that this extremism is embedded in the very ideology it follows. The concern now is that the effects of this doctrine are making their way to India and gradually penetrating the Indian Muslim community.

The ideology of Wahhabism lays the foundation for radicalisation, leading to the development of an intolerant and a hateful mindset towards non-Muslims and those Muslims who dissent from this strain of religious thought. Though it must be clarified here that Wahhabism in itself is 'not' synonymous with terrorism.

So far, Indian Muslims have not been majorly swayed by the jihadi lure of the Islamic State as only 75 Indians have joined the terror outfit even though India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. But this might no longer be the case. There has been a steady rise in the number of reports of Islamic State recruiters being arrested in the country and of authorities unearthing cells of the terrorist organisation.

According to an Indian Intelligence Bureau report, between 2011 and 2013, 25,000 Wahhabis visited India for missionary work. In those two years, they pumped $250 million into the country in instalments to propagate Wahhabism, $460 million to set up madrasas and $300 million for other expenditure, such as alleged bribes to authorities at mosques. According to the report, Wahhabis from the oil-rich country also allocated a whopping $1.2 billion into a project to set up four universities to spearhead Wahhabi operations across India.

Furthermore, Wahhabis also hold an appeal to the more educated class. This is why the Islamic State has mostly recruited Muslims from the comparatively richer sections of Kerala, Karnataka and Hyderabad, where they are better off politically, educationally as well as economically.

But the problem in India is that the threat of Wahhabi extremism goes mostly unnoticed, shrouded by the more dominant incidents of Muslim radicalisation that have been taking place, along with the spike in Hindu nationalism since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014.

There is also the obstacle that no such direct link can be established between the radicalisation of Indian Muslims and Saudi-funded efforts to promote Wahhabism. But the one thing that can be construed with surety is that the growing trend of targeting Muslims leaves massive room to push them towards radicalisation, regardless of whether or not they take the Wahhabi route. It makes them soft targets for a double onslaught from both extremist ideologies from abroad and increasing alienation in their own country.

India's bloody anti-Muslim history that's slowly seeping into its present makes it imperative that New Delhi takes notice of this threat from West Asia and not sweep the menace under the rug, as governments at the Centre often have when it comes to its policies concerning the community. Currently reeling under the spread of an extreme form of Hindutva, the simultaneous spread of such Wahhabi extremism would not bode well for the country.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 16:59:27 IST

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