The Global Saudi Dawa Project: An Interview with Krithika Varagur

In Krithika Varagur’s own words:

Krithika writes the At Work column, about the quirks, realities and frustrations of the workplace today. She is a reporter and author who has covered topics ranging from dating apps to counterterrorism. She spent four years as a foreign correspondent in Southeast and South Asia, reporting on religion, politics and fundamentalism, especially in Indonesia, where she was a correspondent for the Guardian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times and more. She is the author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project, published in April, which she reported from Indonesia, Nigeria and Kosovo. Krithika graduated from Harvard and has a master’s degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where she was a Fulbright scholar.

– from the WSJ

Last year Krithika published The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project. Essentially, the book describes the deliberate spread of Sunni Islam around the globe, with all the political, economic and religious implications that brings. Wahhabism, the most conservative version of Islam  and sharia law, are the focus of her attention. She shows how the Kingdom has proselytized (dawa) its value through a variety of means (discussed below). She addresses the Saudi-American post-9/11 relationship, including terorism and its counter. Mainly, her work describes a society still internally fractured along religious/political lines — between the ultraconservative and ancient Wahhabi sect and the House of Saud — that leads to contradictions much of the western world is cognizant of.

Below is an interview I conducted with Krithika a few days ago:

Could you summarize the message of The Call?

The Call is about what we talk about when we talk about Saudi money. It’s become kind of a chestnut in the post-9/11 world I grew up in that Saudi Arabia funds terrorism, due in no small part because 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And many other things in the era after that made it clear that there was a link between this kind of Saudi propagation of Wahabbi Islam…I wanted to make this Saudi project …more concrete. So I reported about it from across the Muslim world, in places that many Americans still don’t think of as the Muslim world — Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, Nigeria, and Kosovo, a small country in the Balkans.  And I talked with people who actually carried out this Arab Project.

So I have to say the biggest takeaway from the Saudi proselytization project, the dawa project, which started in 1960s and continues up until the years to today, is not one thing; it comes from many places, including government ministries, powerful individual royals, multinational charities headquartered inside of Saudi Arabia, and so on, and it is had many diffuse effects. So, terrorism is just one of them, and honestly a small one in terms of the number people affected. It’s also about political effects, such as propping up Islamist political parties, changing Islamist landscapes like propogating the …Salafi movement, and filling in the spiritual life, in some way, in a once war-torn nation like Kososvo. So, my book is about looking at the Saudi dawa project in a more nuanced way and taking a wide variety of … effects  and …beyond just terrorism, although I do go into Saudi extremism in case of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS foreign fighters.

In The Call, you write, “What did Saudi Arabia displace when it became a leader of the Muslim world, with Western support, in the 1980s? Arab nationalism, socialism, secularism, progressivism. Saudi Arabia bet on religion and political quietism instead of progressive Muslim organizing and thus reshuffled the religious landscape of the Muslim world.” There is an unsettling dimension to this dynamic relationship — the sacrifice of progressivism –almost as if Wahhabism was influencing the direction American policies, domestic and foreign, would take from the 80s on.  Comment?

I wouldn’t say that Wahhabism was influencing American policy but that the Saudi Project in the second half of the 20th century dovetailed a lot with the American Project abroad in the Cold War era. So Saudi Arabia opposed communism, progressivism, Arab socialism at the time as deeply threatening to absolute Sunni bureaucratic monarchy and …the US opposed communism as part of the Cold War against the USSR. …Lot of affinities based upon the pre-existing business relationships between Saudis and America.

Given the “damning” evidence of Saudi financing of 9/11, what exactly is the nature of their long term relationship with America? What do they want from each other? How can Americans still justify it?

The reason why 9/11 wasn’t the nail in the coffin of the US-Saudi relationship was because, despite what we found in the 9/11 commission’s report, was that in the post-9/11 world they remained an important counterterrorism partner for us. In fact, in 2003 to 2004, al Qaeda bombed targets inside of Saudi Arabia too. So they became victims of al Qaeda as well.  Keep in mind,Bin Laden was of Yemeni origin and came from a very wealthy Saudi family and he later distanced himself from the Kingdom and criticised the monarchy as being insufficiently Islamic. The terrorism that led to 9/11 from al Qaeda was also a threat to Saudi Arabia itself, which is a little ironic given the links to extremism that I outline in my book.  We continue to have this close…partnership with them, we couldn’t exactly sever that cord — we continued to have oil interests with the country and continued to sell massive amounts of arms to them — so all of those things continued well into the 21st century …

Can you discuss the effects of postmodernism, with its accompanying relativist virtues, and how it may inadvertently help fuel the fires of intolerance, perhaps by tamping down our response to the inherent anti-democratic actions and beliefs of nations such as Saudi Arabia?

I don’t think relativism is the predominant phenomenon so much as just lack of interest and a kind of exoticism/othering rising from the fact that people didn’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia for a long time. The US-Saudi relationship was forged between elites, based on business interests, and there were never strong cultural ties between regular Americans and regular Saudis. There wasn’t even non-religious tourism to the Kingdom until a few years ago. And given that the House of Saud — despite its internal power and succession struggles — has kept a grip on the nation-state since 1932, its politics are relatively stable within the Middle East, which has led to a feeling that this idiosyncratic governing structure works for them, even though most outsiders don’t understand it. I think there has been a sense that this theocratic monarchy, in what has been a very closed kingdom to outsiders for most of its history, just has certain conventions that are not worth interfering in. The lack of information about life inside the kingdom has of course changed in recent years, both due to the internet and social media and thanks to the brave work of Saudi activists, from the Islamist dissidents of the 1990s to feminists in this decade.

Speaking of Saudi activists, I’ve just watched The Dissident, the Human Rights Foundation film about Jamal Khoshoggi’s murder. There is already an air of impunity suggested by the film’s revelations. And now, we’re told by the MSM that the Biden administration will do nothing about the MBS role in the killing. In The Call, a similar strain of impunity exists.  Can you speak to this posture to the world and its implications?

As I write in The Call, the US has for several decades balanced certain strategic demands we make of Saudi Arabia against the effects of Saudi actions at home and abroad, and the former can make it hard to take a strong stance on the latter. When it came to Saudi proselytization of Wahhabi Islam in the Muslim world, the US actively encouraged that during the Cold War, since it dovetailed with our anticommunist activities in Asia and Africa. US officials including Henry Kissinger believed that Saudi promotion of conservative Islam, and its appeal to a greater Islamic world focused on a spiritual community rather than certain political goals, could help divert burgeoning socialist and communist energy in various young countries.

So in that light, the post-9/11 War on Terror constituted whiplash, since the US suddenly deemed fundamentalist Islam to be the biggest national security threat in the world. But part of the reason Salafi communities become so strong in the first place, from Nigeria to Indonesia, is the Saudi proselytization campaign that the US supported so heavily. Also recall that the US and Saudi Arabia each spent billions of dollars funding the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which became an unprecedented hotbed of international jihadist activity.

For instance, Indonesian and Malaysian militants trained in Afghanistan and Peshawar would go on to found the Al Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah. The complex history of the US-Saudi relationship makes it tough to take a stance of outright censure today. Throughout the Bush years, the Saudis were an important national security partner and source of intelligence, esp. under former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. And in the present day, we sell billions of dollars of arms to them (though the Biden administration has already frozen sales of some weapons) and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has billions invested in Silicon Valley.

MBS is likely to become the King in the not too distant future, and unlike his father, who was already old when he ascended to the throne, stands to be in power for a very long time. So unilaterally censuring him, given the prospects of his leadership in the region and our deeply enmeshed interests, remains difficult. Any US President crafting policy towards Saudi Arabia is not starting with a fresh slate; they are inheriting a complex relationship that dates back to FDR.

In the April 15, 2020, issue of Foreign Affairs, you discuss how Covid-19 has slowed the Saudi dawa project. Do you want to speak to that?

The pandemic has accelerated the retreat of the Saudi proselytization project, which had already been in decline over the last two decades. Saudi Arabia took one of the most decisive early measures against the pandemic when it shut down religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in February 2020. On-site social ties cultivated by scholars and preachers from around the Muslim world, at institutions like the Islamic University of Medina, were essential to the spread of Salafi and Wahhabi ideas to places like Nigeria, Indonesia, and the Balkans. The shock to global travel patterns obviously put a stopper in that.

The annual hajj was also extremely small this year, mainly a symbolic event with no foreign nationals, and the hajj has typically been one of the trump cards in Saudi soft power in the Muslim world. (Increasing hajj permits for Indonesian citizens, for instance, is perennially on the agenda of Indonesian presidents, and that can only be granted by Saudi Arabia.)

As Saudi Arabia’s footprint in the Muslim world slowly recedes, it accelerates the emergence of a multipolar Islamic world, where many different Muslim-majority countries, not just Saudi Arabia, are having meaningful impacts, with distinctive religious foreign policy agendas. Turkey, for instance, has become a major regional power in the Balkans, revitalizing huge numbers of Islamic heritage sites and organizing Balkan pilgrims’ hajj transits, and drawing upon historical ties to its former Ottoman territories in Europe. See also my Foreign Affairs article on the subject.

How do you read the partnership between Israel and SA?

Keep in mind that they still don’t have formal diplomatic relations, but the reported meetings and talks between officials of both states seem to be guided by a variety of complex regional motives. Again, it seems like a partnership between high-level officials. In 2018, for instance, Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu publicly defended Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi affair. The alliance is not really related to the Wahhabi project (which points to the latter’s declining clout in the kingdom) since, as I write in my book, many Wahhabi texts, textbooks, and Qurans have included antisemitic material in the past.

It seems strange to see SA involved in a carbon-free zone city project like NEOM, which makes it a kind of leader in climate change actions, while at the same time the murder of Koshoggi is such a step backward.  In The Call, you write, “These people have been dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, which has forced them to accept innovations like the internet and television inside the kingdom.” How would you explain this seeming contradiction in terms of the project you describe in The Call?

There has always been a push and pull between the Wahhabi clerical establishment and the Saudi royal family inside the kingdom. They are the two sites of power and authority, stemming from an 18th-century pact in the desert, but ultimately the royals do have the final word. So the clerics are famously conservative and almost anti-modern — they vigorously resisted all kinds of new technologies in the kingdom, from radio to social media, and issue the reams of occasionally-absurd fatwas, like one prohibiting taking photos with cats — but many royals have been much more modern, since they have to act as leaders of 20th and 21st-century nation-states. Many (though not MBS) are also foreign-educated.

MBS is far and beyond the most disruptive royal we’ve seen in the kingdom in a very long time, and it’s worth noting that he’s still very young, and a millennial, who grew up addicted to Facebook, playing American video games, and obsessively trading stocks. His extreme style underlies everything from his unprecedented steps to crack down on the Wahhabi clerical establishment’s influence inside the kingdom, to the chilling and extreme pursuit of Jamal Khashoggi abroad, to such splashy development projects as NEOM.

The Wahhabi clerics are generally interested in Wahhabi dawa, or call to their strain of Islam (the source of my book’s title), which is expressed both in domestic laws governing Saudi citizens’ daily lives and in foreign proselytization. The Wahhabi clerics’ influence inside the kingdom has decidedly contracted under MBS, who has single-handedly made rulings curbing the religious police’s powers and jailed many opposition clerics.

Joe Biden has gotten us back to “normal” in the Middle East quagmire by bombing Syria — more specifically Iranian-backed militias. Do you see a specific project at work here?  A coming war with Iran? How does it relate, if at all, to dawa plans you describe in The Call?

I think it’s too soon to forecast what President Biden’s overarching foreign policy is, but his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, was the most overtly skeptical of the US-Saudi relationship of any president in recent decades — he once called them our ‘so-called allies’ and, in one speech in Indonesia (where he spent a few years of his childhood), called out what he perceived as the deleterious effect of Saudi proselytization on the country’s religious traditions.

President Biden came to power after historic levels of popular skepticism of the US-Saudi relationship, which had been slowly building for years and then really boiled over with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. So he potentially has more room to negotiate the terms of our relationship while he’s in office than any previous president. He’ll certainly be a chillier partner than President Trump, who decided to make Saudi his first foreign trip as president, signed enormous arms deals with them, and so on. Regarding the Saudi proselytization of Wahhabism that was the theme of my book, several other elected officials have explicitly called attention to the phenomenon in recent years, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy, which felt like a major turning point in the public discourse about the kingdom.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.