In 2017, Krithika Varagur began investigating Saudi Arabia's use of money, scholarships, diplomacy, and media to propagate its form of conservative Wahhabi Islam. Varagur, now covering Indonesia for The Guardian, joined a Talks @ Pulitzer on April 27, 2020, to discuss her forthcoming book that originated from that initial reporting.
The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project explores Saudi Arabia's proselytization campaign as well as its overall impact on the Muslim world. From Indonesia to Nigeria to Kosovo, Varagur follows the seven-decade Saudi campaign.
Joined by Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, Varagur examines the lasting effects of Saudi influence today and evaluates the future.
The following is an edited transcript of the Question & Answer segment of the Talks @ Pulitzer, moderated by Jon Sawyer, the Pulitzer Center's founder and executive director. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Question: Could you explain the connection between Boko Haram and the Salafi movement?
Krithika Varagur: Nigeria was one of the first countries that Saudi Arabia highlighted as a possible subject of proselytization all the way back in 1965, shortly after Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain. It was obviously home to a huge muslim population—it was a post colonial nation. There were a lot of Muslims touching the North. So, starting in 1965 Saudi Arabia started to send scholarships there and cultivate this class of Salafis. So, starting in the 1970s up until the early millennium there was this very vocal, powerful, influential Salafi movement in northern Nigeria. The most charismatic Salafi of the 21st century in Nigeria was this man called Ja'afar Adam who studied in Madinah on a scholarship and was a very influential creature. I mean, he was like a rock star. He drew thousands of people to his sermons.
One of the people who became his protege was this guy called Mohammed Yusuf who founded a group called Boko Haram. So, the dynamic in Nigeria was that it started pretty innocuously with scholarships, then it became kind of a grassroots phenomenon of this Salafi movement. Then it kept breaking off, and breaking off, and breaking off and it became this more extreme Salafi group. Then it became Boko Haram. And Boko Haram itself wasn’t violent until 2009 when their leader was assassinated. [After that], Boko Haram turned into this very violent Jihadist pehnomenom. So, what we see in Nigeria is a typical case of opening this can of worms that Saudi Arabia could not have possibly expected in the 1960s when they started giving scholarships. But the fact is that Salafism was so influential and attractive in Nigeria that it made a base of millions of people in just about four decades and it completely transformed that country’s religious landscape.
Bruce Riedel: Let me add to that. It’s very important to see the role of individuals in Saudi’s decision-making process over time. While Saudi Arabia has been proselytizing its own form of Islam Wahhabism ever since its founding, it really is the early 1970s—the oil boom, the Arab Israeli war of 1973—that leads to the quadrupling of oil prices that provides the money to do it. But it’s an interesting question: If Faisal had not been on the throne, would it have been done in quite the same way? Faisal was a very pious Saudi, a true believer, he was open to some elements of reform; he began the first education for women in the kingdom. But he was a true believer in the export of Wahhabist Islam. You see in his time this mass of cranking up money but also organizational activity. He also traveled extensively, and in the process of traveling extensively he would often found mosques in places around the world.
I’ll give you one example from my personal experience: We used to live in Brussels. Right across the street from us was—still is—the largest mosque in Brussels. It had actually not been built as a mosque to start with. It was built as part of a centennial anniversary exhibition in Brussels to show you different things around the world—it was one of the exhibits. Well, Faisal went to Brussels right after the 1973 oil embargo and the government of Belgium wanted to show how happy they were that he’d come (and to see if maybe they could get a bit of a break on their oil prices). So they gave the mosque to him. It’s since been filled with Saudi preachers who’ve come from the kingdom and who brought their militant form of Islam to Brussels. Well, it turned out five or 10 years ago when we had the attacks at Paris and at Brussels, that it was precisely from this mosque that those people had been inculcated into the kind of Islam. So without Faisal you might not have had the extraordinary burst that we’ve seen since then.
Which, of course, brings me to today—to King Salman. In the Afghan war of the 1980s when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were the quarter masters of the mujahideen, Salman had his own role to play. He was in charge of raising private funds to go to the mujahideen. And for the first three or four years of the Afghan war, Salman actually raised far more money than the CIA and the Saudi Intelligence Service were putting in. He in many ways funded the start of the Afghan war. Well, he would go on to be a key player in the Bosnia war, he was a big funder of that too. So, the current king is very much part of the whole apparatus and it’s an excellent example of [how] the public and private in Saudi Arabia get blurred when you get into this business of proselytization. Yes, he was the governor of Riyadh so he had an official position, but he was raising private money from other Saudi princes and rich Saudi businessmen which was private money. Where you can draw the distinction between the government of Saudi Arabia and the private sector is very, very hard to do, as the royal family is the government. There's no distinction in the minds of Saudi princes between them and the government, it’s all one thing for them.
Q: Is King Salman a Wahhabi? What is the difference between Wahhabism and Salafism?
KV: Yes, he is a Wahhabi. If you’re a Saudi royal, you are a Wahhabi, that’s categorical. So, what is Wahhabism? Wahhabism is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. It started in the 18th century when there was a preacher named Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab (who gave his name to this movement) who was very against some of the idolatrous practices that he saw in the peninsula—like going to shrines and celebrating the prophet's birthday. He was kind of like Martin Luther in that way—he wanted to reform and purify the religion and go back to the book. So, in the late 18th century Wahhab—who was a very popular preacher across desert Arabia—signed a pact with the Saudi royal family that said ‘I will give you religious legitimacy for your rule if you protect me and my preachers’ and they shook on it. To this day, the Saudi royal family (which includes Mohammed Bin Salman) upholds that pact and supports the Wahhabi clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia. So, Wahhabism is Saudi religion, Saudi Islam.
Salafism is different. Salaf means the earliest Muslims, the first three generations of Muslims. They have a lot in common in practice, but they’re different because Salafism started in 20th century Egypt and was an anti-colonial movement to reject European and Western imperialism by going back to Islam instead of these secular nation-learning projects. In practice, Saudi proselytization created Salafis instead of Wahhabis. Because Wahhabism is so site-specific, it’s so related to the House of Saud, it’s so related to being a Saudi citizen that, in practice, it creates Salafis abroad. They are two different things but in the 20th century they have a lot in common. In terms of MBS (Mohammed Bin Salman) today, he is a Wahhabi.
Q: To what extent was the 1979 siege of Mecca a turning point for the Dawah Project?
BR: 1979 is the pivotal year. It’s the trifecta. You have the takeover of the mosque, and the people who took over the mosque were well known to the Saudi clerical leadership. In fact, many of these people had been nurtured by the Saudi clerical leadership for many, many years and here all of a sudden they've turned against them, taken over the mosque. Saudis had to call in foreigners in order to take the mosque back. Specifically, they had to go to the French who brought in some commandos who, using chemical weapons, were able to take back the mosque. It was a searing experience. It was also the year of the Iranian revolution, it was also the year that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, so all these things came together and encouraged the royal family to move very much into the proselytization business against two enemies: communism and Shiism.
There is a little bit of mythology—and MBS pushes this mythology—that kind of portrays Saudi Arabia pre-1979 as this almost hidden, mystic society with movie theaters and girls running around in short skirts. I don’t think that happened. Saudi Arabia was a very conservative society pre-1979. Yes, it got more conservative post-1979, but the notion that they went from light to dark is, I think, a fiction of history. It serves the purposes of someone like MBS who wants to make the argument ‘we’re just returning to the old ways,’ but, I say it again, it’s an exaggeration. But, it’s no question that this was a crucial, formative event particularly for the then-Crown Prince, Crown Prince Fahd, who was by no means the epitome of a Wahhabi pious person. He was known for drunkenness, he was known for gambling, he loves spending time on the Riviera. 1979: He reinvented himself. He’s the Saudi King who first begins to use his common term custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Because he needed to change his image from playboy to the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the protector of Islam.
Q: How have the Saudi proselytizers rationalized the Quranic verse “there is no compulsion in religion”?
KV: There really is no compulsion in the Saudi Dawah project. It’s very incentive-based. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was forced to do anything in Indonesia, Nigeria, or Kosovo by Saudi Arabia. In Kosovo, they found a post-war population with no opportunities and gave out hundreds of scholarships to get a world-class university education. In Indonesia, they found this very large population of Muslims whose government was aggressively secular, had no place for them, and gave them free schools and free orphanages and offered to teach them Arabic, which most people in Indonesia who are Muslim want to learn anyway—it’s the language of the Quran. Same story in Nigeria: post-colonial country, religion has always been a contentious field there. So it’s a two-way street. I don’t think there was compulsion in the Saudi project regardless of its effects. It was very incentive-based and it also builds upon this very strong grassroots feeling towards Saudi Arabia. In Indonesia today, leaving Dawah aside, Saudi is such a powerful brand. It’s like having an American flag on something. I have bought Saudi brand Q-Tips. What does that have to do with Saudi? Nothing, it just sells. People love it. You can go into shops and buy anything branded with a Kaaba. So, it’s a good question, but I think that they made their ideology so attractive through other means—often material things, not spiritual things—that’s why the project was successful, because they had concrete things to offer, not just gloom and doom.