July 3, 2016
Sunday Review | Op-Ed Columnist
The Saudis and Radical Islamist Terrorism
by Nicholas Kristof
PEJA, Kosovo — FIRST, a three-part quiz:
Which Islamic country celebrates as a national hero a 15th-century Christian who battled Muslim invaders?
Which Islamic country is so pro-American it has a statue of Bill Clinton and a women’s clothing store named “Hillary” on Bill Klinton Boulevard?
Which Islamic country has had more citizens go abroad to fight for the Islamic State per capita than any other in Europe?
The answer to each question is Kosovo, in southeastern Europe — and therein lies a cautionary tale. Whenever there is a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, we look to our enemies like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should also look to our “friends,” like Saudi Arabia.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has recklessly financed and promoted a harsh and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam around the world in a way that is, quite predictably, producing terrorists. And there’s no better example of this Saudi recklessness than in the Balkans.
Kosovo and Albania have been models of religious moderation and tolerance, and as the Clinton statue attests, Kosovars revere the United States and Britain for averting a possible genocide by Serbs in 1999 (there are also many Kosovar teenagers named Tony Blair!). Yet Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries poured money into the new nation over the last 17 years and nurtured religious extremism in a land where originally there was little.
The upshot is that, according to the Kosovo government, 300 Kosovars have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, mostly to join the Islamic State. As my colleague Carlotta Gall noted in a pathbreaking article about radicalization here, Saudi money has transformed a once-tolerant Islamic society into a pipeline for jihadists.
In a sign of the times, the government last year had to turn off the water supply in the capital temporarily amid fears of an Islamic State-inspired plot to poison the city’s water.
“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a 430-year-old mosque here in the city of Peja, told me sadly. Hajzeri is a moderate in the traditional, tolerant style of Kosovo — he is the latest in a long line of imams in his family — and said that as a result he had received more death threats from extremists than he can count.
“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a 430-year-old mosque here in the city of Peja, told me sadly.–Nicholas Kristof
Hajzeri and other moderates have responded with a website, Foltash.com, that criticizes the harsh Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. But they say they are outgunned by money pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to support harsh variants of Islam through a blizzard of publications, videos and other materials.
“The Saudis completely changed Islam here with their money,” said Visar Duriqi, a former imam in Kosovo who became a journalist who writes about extremist influences. Duriqi cites himself as an example: He says he was brainwashed and underwent an extremist phase in which he called for imposing Shariah law and excusing violence. Those views now horrify him.
This is not a Kosovo problem, but a global problem. I first encountered pernicious Saudi influence in Pakistan, where the public school system is a disgrace and Saudis filled the gap by financing hard-line madrasas that lure students with free tuition, free meals and full scholarships for overseas study for the best students.
Likewise, in traditionally moderate, peaceful countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in West Africa, I’ve seen these foreign-financed madrasas introduce radical interpretations of Islam. In the Balkans, Bosnia is particularly affected by Gulf support for extremists.
I don’t want to exaggerate. I saw fewer head scarves on my trip through Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania than I do in New York City, and any jihadist would tear his hair out at seeing women with bare heads and shoulders, not to mention shorts.
There are still pillars of pro-American feeling and ecumenism (there is great reverence among Albanian Muslims for Mother Teresa, who was Albanian). Moreover, after a series of arrests of radical imams in Kosovo and Albania, the situation may have stabilized, and jihadists no longer seem to be traveling to Syria from here.
But the world needs to have tough conversations with Saudi Arabia about its role. It’s not that it is intentionally spreading havoc, more that it is behaving recklessly; it has made some painstaking progress in curbing extremist financing, but too slowly.
It’s particularly dispiriting because much of the extremist funding seems to come from charity: One of the most admirable aspects of Islam is its emphasis on charity, yet in countries like Saudi Arabia this money is directed not to fight malnutrition or child mortality, but to brainwash children and sow conflict in poor and unstable countries.
I asked Hajzeri, the imam, whether he was worried by foreign threats to Islam, like the Danish cartoonist who mocked the Prophet Muhammad. “Cartoonists can just hurt our feelings,” he snorted. “But damaging the reputation of Islam? That’s not what the cartoonists are doing. That’s what Saudi Arabia is doing.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 3, 2016, on page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Terror the Saudis Foment.