Foreign funded extremism in the West: Politics vs evidence

Foreign funded extremism in the West: Politics vs evidence
Comment: When it comes to Saudi funding of extremist Wahhabi ideologies believed to contribute to violent extremism, the UK and others walk a thin line, writes Tamara Kharroub.
7 min read
18 Jul, 2017
The British government will not make public its report into foreign funding of extremism [Getty]

Against the backdrop of the GCC crisis and allegations against Qatar of "financing terrorism" by the Saudi-led quartet, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) released a report about foreign funding of Islamist extremism in the UK.

Conducted by a hawkish think tank in the UK, the report names Saudi Arabia as the primary sponsor of extremist Muslim institutions and preachers in Britain. At the same time, the British government is facing demands to make pubic a study by the Home Office of foreign funding of extremism in the UK.

What are the contents of these reports? What evidence is available about Saudi funding of extremism and violent extremism? And what should be done about it?

The HJS Report

The "Foreign funded Islamist extremism in the UK" report of the Henry Jackson Society was authored by Tom Wilson, who concludes that Saudi Arabia has been funding extremist Wahhabi interpretations of Islam across the Muslim world and in the West.

The report provides examples of Saudi funding of extremism in the UK through the funding of mosques and religious institutions, inviting and sponsoring extremist speakers at UK mosques, organising educational activities namely by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Muslim World League (MWL), the distribution of hateful literature, funding schools and supplying Saudi textbooks, and providing full scholarships to British individuals to study in Saudi Arabia, who - according to Wilson - go back and preach hateful ideologies in the UK.

The report provides examples of Saudi funding of extremism in the UK through the funding of mosques and religious institutions

The report also refers to several articles by media organisations revealing a link between Saudi funding and mosques that preach extremism such as incitement against non-Muslims, Shia Muslims, and homosexuals. Wilson further lists names of Saudi trained preachers and Saudi funded mosques that produced extremist individuals who attempted or managed to travel to Syria to join Islamic State (IS).

The second half of the report goes on to discuss ways to address this challenge. The author cites Australia, Norway, and Austria as examples of countries that have taken measures to counter some Saudi funding of religious institutions in their countries. Other nations like Germany, France, and the US have made statements, proposed measures, and implemented limited efforts to stop foreign funding of religious institutions and education.

The evidence

While the Henry Jackson Society's report does not provide primary evidence for the findings, it references several media reports, publications, and observations that show a link between Saudi funding and extremist ideologies in the UK.

Although the focus is on Saudi Arabia as the "foremost" financier of extremism in the UK, the report also references and provides examples of connections between British extremism and UAE, Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

  Read more: Britain's May looks to Saudi Arabia for post-Brexit deals

Nonetheless, the emphasis of the report on Saudi promotion of extremist Wahhabi interpretations of Islam is not new.

For decades, scholars and experts have pointed to Saudi Arabia's policy of establishing and funding religious institutions around the world and its long-term strategy of promoting and disseminating the ultra-conservative Wahhabi thought.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent $100 billion over the past few decades to promote Wahhabism worldwide, including funding mosques, schools, religious institutions, education, and religious literature around the world.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent $100 billion over the past few decades to promote Wahhabism worldwide

The author of the report admits that there is no "definitive causative connection" between the funding of extremist ideology and the growth of violent extremism in the UK. However, the report argues that the promotion of extremist ideologies serves recruitment by violent extremist groups.

Comments made by UK's former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, William Patey, at Conservative Middle East Council event, confirm this common belief. Although Sir William Patey did not believe that Saudi Arabia was consciously or directly funding terrorist groups, he asserted that the Wahhabi ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia leads to extremism and might become a "fodder for terrorism".

This view, in fact, has long been supported by observers and experts in violent extremism. While religious ideology is not the primary driver of violent extremism, it is often used as a layer of justification in recruitment and it also gives legitimacy to groups such as IS. In the case of Wahhabi ideology, IS' practices and conduct are reminiscent of Saudi laws and Saudi teachings of Wahhabi Islam.

The relationship between violence and ideology is complex

The relationship between violence and ideology is complex. While there is no direct evidence for a causal relationship between the promotion of the intolerant Wahhabi ideology and violence, some signs point to links between the two.

A political matter

The HJS reports concludes with recommendations for the British government to address foreign funded Islamist extremist in the UK by launching a public inquiry to address the lack of information and data on the topic, and implement policies to counter this phenomenon. This might include requiring transparency in funding or blocking some funding altogether.

Interestingly, this report came after the UK government had blocked the public release of its own study of the source of funding for extremist organisations in the UK, calling the contents "very sensitive".

The government's study was commissioned by former Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2015, and was conducted by the Home Office. Opponents have criticised Theresa May's government for concealing the report in order to protect business relations with Saudi Arabia. 

By declining to disclose the findings, critics say the British government is putting business ahead of national security.

Saudi Arabia and UAE will brand the Muslim Brotherhood as extremist to protect their control and political influence in the region

More recently, and after the publication of the HJS' report, the Home Office released a brief summary of its report by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd. According to the statement, "The most common source of support for Islamist extremist organisations in the UK is from small, anonymous public donations, with the majority of these donations most likely coming from UK-based individuals".

The summary also confirms that a small number of extremist organisations have significant overseas funding and that foreign entities provide "deeply conservative" religious education, literature, and preachers, but the statement does not provide more specific information or name any countries.

According to Rudd, the full study may never be published due to "the volume of personal information it contains and for national security reasons". 

  Read more: Court rejects bid to stop UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite Yemen atrocities

The summary was criticised by opposition leaders, who accused the government of colluding with Saudi Arabia to suppress the report. The UK has significant economic and political ties with Saudi Arabia, from $4.2 billion in weapons sales since 2015, to regional influence and countering Iran, and as a necessary ally in counterterrorism efforts.

When it comes to Saudi funding of extremist Wahhabi ideologies that are believed to contribute to violent extremism around the world, the UK and countries in the West walk a thin line.

At the end of the day, this is a political and diplomatic matter. With no clear definition of extremism and no clear evidence for its relationship to violence, the conversation will always remain at the political level and such allegations will continue to be used as political tools.

Saudi Arabia and UAE will brand the Muslim Brotherhood as extremist to protect their control and political influence in the region, while the UK and the West will not denounce the Saudi promotion of ultra-conservative and intolerant versions of Islam - under the pretext of lack of evidence - for its relation to violent extremism, in order to protect their economic and military strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia.

Serious independent and scientific research efforts are needed to overcome the politics, corroborate the claims, and provide a better understanding of different extremist ideologies, as well as their relationships with violent extremism, and the specific entities responsible. 

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.