Hard truths about U.S. relationships in the Middle East

Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
On January 29, 2015 I gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations about how America needs to confront the hard truth of extremism in the Middle East, including taking a look at the actions of our allies. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the full text of the speech below.

Senator Chris Murphy is the Ranking Member of U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. He lays out his vision for a progressive foreign policy at ChanceForPeace.org


I would be a rich man if I had a quarter for every time one of my Republican colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee utters some variation of the sentence, “President Obama doesn’t have a strategy to defeat ISIS”. It’s their calling card on the committee, and on the campaign trail.

But it’s not true. The President does have a strategy to defeat ISIS, and it’s largely working. ISIS’s territory in Iraq and Syria have been reduced by 30% in the last year, we’ve tightened our immigration policies to make sure the bad guys don’t get in, we’ve stood up a more capable fighting force in Iraq, and we’ve clamped down, significantly, on ISIS’s sources of financing. It’s hard to “win”, when only one spectacular and deadly strike can erase all of your good work, but the President does have a strategy.

The problem is that it’s still a short term strategy.

My argument to you today is that one of the reasons that no one has a particularly credible long term strategy is because it would involve facing some very uncomfortable truths — about the nature of the fight ahead of us, and imperfections of one of our most important allies in the Middle East.

And so to make this case to you, I want to first take you to northwest Pakistan, and ask you to imagine for a moment you are a parent of a ten year old boy. You are illiterate, poor, and getting poorer by the day. Unemployment in your village in sky high, inflation is making everything unaffordable, crop yields have been miserable.

But one day, you get a visit that changes your perspective. A cleric from a nearby conservative mosque offers you a different path. He tells you that your poverty is not your fault, but simply a punishment handed down to you because of your unintentional deviation from the true path of Islam. Luckily, there’s a way to get right with God — to devote the life of your only son to Islam. And it gets even better. The cleric will offer to educate your son at his own school — we call them madrassas — and not only will you not have to pay for the education, he will actually pay you — maybe as much as $6,000. And when he finishes school, he will find employment for your son in the service of Islam. Your 10-year old, previously destined to live a life even more hopeless than your own, will get free housing and meals, religious instruction, and the promise of a job when he is older, while you get money and improved favor with God.

For thousands of poor families in destitute places like northwest Pakistan, it’s often an easy choice.

But as the years go on, you lose contact with your son. Gradually, the school cuts off your access to him. But when you do get to see him, every now and again, you see him changing.

And then one day, it’s over. He’s not the little boy you once knew. He’s a teenager, announcing to you that the only way to show true faith to Islam is to fight for it — against the kafirs, the infidels who are trying to pollute the Muslim faith or those Westerners who are trying to destroy it. He tells you he is going to Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iraq, with some fellow students, and that you shouldn’t worry about him, because God is on his side.

You start asking questions to find out what happened in that school. And you start to learn. You discover the textbooks he read that taught a brand of Islam greatly influenced by Wahhabism — a strain of Islam based on the earliest form of the religion practiced under the first four caliphs. It holds that any deviation from Islamic originalism is heresy.

In school, your son was therefore taught an ideology of hate toward the “unbeliever” — defined as Christians, Jews, and Hindus, but also Shiites, Sufis, and Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine. He is told that the Crusades never ended — that aid organizations, schools, government offices are modern weapons of the West’s continuing Crusade against his faith — and that it is a religious obligation to do “battle” against the infidels.

Boys studying at a Madrassa in Pakistan (Photo Credit: New York Times)

I tell you this story because every day, some version of it plays out hundreds of times in far flung places, from Pakistan to Kosovo, Nigeria to Indonesia. The teaching of an intolerant, version of Islam to hundreds to millions of young people. In 1956 there were 244 madrassas in Pakistan. Today, there are 24,000. These schools are multiplying all over the globe. And don’t get me wrong — these schools, by and large, don’t teach violence. They aren’t the minor leagues for Al Qaeda or ISIS. But they do teach a version of Islam that leads, very nicely, into an anti-Shia, anti-Western militancy. And I also don’t mean to suggest that Wahhabism is the only sect of Islam that can be perverted into violence. Iran’s Shia clerics also use religion in order to export violence into Syria and Iraq and Lebanon. But it is important to note the vicious terrorist groups that Americans knows by name are Sunni in derivation, and greatly influenced by Wahhabi, Salafist teachings.

And of course the real rub is — we’ve known this. We’ve known it for a long, long time. Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, diplomats, four star generals, have all complained, over and over again about it, and yet we do very little to stop this long, slow spread of intolerance.

We don’t address it because to do so would cause us to confront two very difficult issues.

The first is how we talk, sensibly, about Islam. Right now, we are caught torn between two extremes. Leading Republicans want to begin and end this discussion with a debate over what we call terrorists, and, of course, their party’s leading candidate for President — Donald Trump — equates the entire religion with violence. The debate over nomenclature is overwrought, but I certainly understand the problem of labeling something “radical Islamic terrorism”, giving purchase to Trump’s unforgiveable argument that all Muslims are radicals or terrorists. Republicans don’t seem to want to go any deeper into the conversation that a simple labeling of the threat.

But Democrats aren’t that much better. The leaders of my party do backflips to avoid using these kind terms, but that forestalls any conversation about the fight within Islam for the soul of the religion. It’s a disservice to this debate for Republicans to simply brand every Muslim as a threat to the West. But it’s also a disservice for Democrats to refuse to acknowledge that though ISIS has perverted Islam to a degree that it is unrecognizable — the seeds of this perversion are rooted in a much more mainstream version of the faith that derives, in substantial part, from the teachings of Wahhabism.

Leaders of both parties should avoid the extremes of this debate, and enter into a real conversation about how America can help the moderate voices within Islam win out over those that would sow the seeds of extremism. Let me give you an example. Last fall, I visited the Hedayah Center in Abu Dhabi, a U.S. supported, Arab led initiative to counter-program against extremist messaging. When I pressed the center’s leadership on the need to confront Wahhabi teaching, and the mainstream roots of extremism, they blanched. Out of their lane, they told me. They were focused on the branches of extremism, not the trunk. But of course, by then, it’s probably too late.

America doesn’t have the moral authority or weight to tip the scales in this fight between moderate Islam and less tolerant Islam. Muslim communities and Muslim nations need to be leading edge of this fight. But America, and most notably leaders of my party, also can’t afford to shut our eyes to the struggle that is playing, in real time, throughout the Muslim world.

And that brings me to the second uncomfortable truth. And I present it to you in a quote from Farah Pandith, President Obama’s former Special Representative to Muslim Communities. In a moment of candor, she commented that she traveled to 80 countries in her official position and “in each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence…funded by Saudi money.”

Saudi Leader King Salman (Photo Credit: Fayez Nureldine)

The second uncomfortable truth is for all the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side to Saudi Arabia than the one that faces us in our bilateral relationship. And it is a side that we can no longer afford to ignore as our fight against Islamic extremism becomes more focused and more complicated.

First, let me acknowledge that there is a lot to value in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I don’t agree with the cynics who say our relationship is just an alliance to facilitate the exchange of oil for cash and cash for weapons. Our common bond was forged in the Cold War, when American and Saudi leaders found common ground in the fight against communism. The Saudis helped the U.S. ensure that the Russians never got a meaningful foothold in the Middle East. The unofficial détente between Sunni nations and Israel, our closest ally in the region, is in part a product of Saudi-led diplomacy. There have been many high profile examples of deep U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS. And more generally, our partnership with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful, richest country in the Arab world, serves as an important bridge to the Islamic community — a testament to the fact that we seek cooperation and engagement with governments in the Middle East and people worldwide — a direct rebuttal of terrorist ideology that asserts that we seek war with Islam.

But increasingly, there is more and more not to like about the current state of our relationship. The political alliance between the House of Saud and the conservative Wahhabi clerics is as old as the nation, and the alliance has resulted in billions funneled to and through the Wahhabi movement. Those 24,000 religious schools in Pakistan — thousands of them are funded with money that originates in Saudi Arabia. According to some estimates, since the 1960s, the Saudis have funneled over $100 billion into funding schools and mosques all over the world with the mission of spreading puritanical Wahabbism. As a point of comparison, researchers estimate that the Soviet Union spent about $7 billion exporting its communist ideology from 1920–1991. Less-well-funded governments and other strains of Islam can hardly keep up with the tsunami of money behind this export of intolerance.

Rightfully, we engage in daily castigations of Iran for sponsoring terrorism throughout the region. But why has Saudi Arabia been largely immune from direct public criticism from political leaders simply because they are a few degrees separated from the terrorists who are inspired by the ideology their money helps to spread? Why do we say virtually nothing about the human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia, fueled by this conservative religious movement, when we so easily call out other countries for similar outrageous behavior?

Second, we need to have reckoning with the Saudis about the effect of their growing proxy war with Iran. There is more than enough blame to go around in assessing the damage done by the widening Saudi-Iranian fault lines in the Middle East. I would argue that the lion’s share of responsibility lies with the Iranians, who have been a top exporter of terrorism and brutality for decades. It is primarily Iranian backed groups that have destabilized Lebanon and Iraq. It is Iran that is propping up a murderous regime in Damascus.

But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, there are many in Congress who would have the United States double down in our support for the Saudi side of this fight in places like Yemen and Syria, simply because Saudi Arabia is our named friend, and Iran is our named enemy.

But the Middle East doesn’t work like that anymore, and there is growing evidence our support for Saudi-led military campaigns in places like Yemen are prolonging humanitarian misery and aiding extremism. $90 billion in arms sales to Saudi during the Obama Administration have helped Saudi Arabia carry out a campaign in Yemen against the nominally Iranian-backed Houthis. Our government says its top priority in Yemen is defeating AQAP, arguably al Qaeda’s deadliest franchise. But this ongoing chaos has created a security vacuum in which AQAP can thrive and even expand. No expert would dispute that since the Saudi campaign began, al Qaeda has expanded in Yemen, and ISIL has gained a new territorial and recruitment foothold.

And to make matters worse, Saudi Arabia and some of their GCC allies are so focused on their effort to fight Iran in Yemen that they have dramatically scaled back, and in some cases totally suspended, their military efforts against ISIS.

ISIS Militants in Yemen

How, under these circumstances, does military support for Saudi Arabia help us in our fight against extremism?

Here, my recommendation is simple. The United States should suspend supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, at the very least, until we get assurances that this campaign does not distract from the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, and until we make some progress on the Saudi export of Wahhabism. And Congress should not sign off on any more military sales to Saudi Arabia until similar assures are granted.

If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, then our horizons have to extend beyond the day to day, here and now, fight in Iraq and Syria.

We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality, and the U.S. needs to lead by example by ending our effective acquiescence to the Saudi export of intolerant Islam.

And we need to be careful not to blindly back our friend’s plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums, into which ISIS and other extremist groups can fill, like what is going in Yemen today.

Tackling intolerant ideologies, refusing to incentivize destabilizing proxy wars, these are the elements of a long term anti-extremism strategy. And we should pursue this strategy, even if it makes us, on occasion, uncomfortable.

Thank you the Council on Foreign Relations, and I look forward to the discussion to come.