I’m Glad June Is Over, But What Comes Next?

June 2016 was a particularly rough month (except perhaps for Cleveland sports fans).

Europe is getting divorced, Muhammad Ali is dead, Donald Trump’s ego is alive, the worst rampage in America’s prolific rampage history, three maniacs brazenly attacked Istanbul’s international airport, etc. Body blows to the left and right, coming on the heels of Prince and Bowie dying — 2016, WTF?

So, it would not be a shock if the killing of Amjad Sabri in Pakistan passed through your news feed undetected. A singer you’ve never heard of in a country far, far away. But, if you’re confused about Islam and this seemingly endless war, this may be the most important June 2016 story for you to understand.

(Incidentally, does anyone know what this war is called anymore? The War on Terror? World War 3? The Never-Ending War? It feels like whoever’s job it is to name wars has really dropped the ball on this one, fifteen years and counting since the twin towers fell).

Amjad was this generation’s leader of the Sabri family, a dynastic clan of qawwali singers from the Indian Subcontinent. Qawwali music is a powerful expression of mystical Islam’s intense love for the divine — the South Asian equivalent of Turkey’s whirling dervishes. Sufism, the branch of Islam that this music springs from, is tolerant, peaceful, and focused mostly on the love between human being and God.

This article from NPR explains more about who Amjad Sabri was and why he was killed, but the bottom line is that the Pakistani Taliban killed him over a song he sang on TV that they deemed blasphemous. This isn’t like those unfortunate Charlie Hebdo satirists, who were lampooning Islam from the outside — this was a beloved Muslim artist whose family had for generations made their living by singing in praise of Allah. Yet, he was killed for the same reason as the French cartoonists — blasphemy, as defined by a twisted form of Islam whose roots lie in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, back in America, the xenophobes peddle conspiracy theories about Muslims insidiously plotting to impose Islamic law in DC and beyond. It is nothing more than the politics of fear, with Muslims (like communists before them) providing the necessary bogeyman for such a strategy to succeed.

But, these false arguments about the nature of the Islamic threat only serve to obscure from the American public the true evil we face — the existence of a legitimate theological position in the Islamic world that made it ok to kill Amjad Sabri. Amjad was not an enemy of Islam — he dedicated his life to it and was a peaceful ambassador of the religion to other faiths and cultures. But for the Taliban and their ideological masters in Saudi Arabia, how he loved Islam was wrong, so they killed him.

An ideology that justifies murdering a man for how he loves his God is the same ideology that can inspire an endless parade of suicidal murderers to attack innocent people around the world. It cannot be reasoned with and must be destroyed.

ISIL, Al Qaeda and the Taliban all follow this twisted Saudi-based form of Islam, and the Saudis have been exporting it for decades. This Wikipedia article estimates that the Saudis have spent over 100 Billion dollars on initiatives to export Wahhabi Islam outside of Saudi Arabia, a huge figure that is estimated to have covered over 90% of the Islamic world’s religious expenses. Much of the money has gone in to the building and operation of thousands of schools set up in poor Muslim countries to brainwash poor boys to believe in the Saudi form of Islam — absolutely frightening.

If we want to see a peaceful Earth for all, then we cannot allow Wahhabi Islam to proliferate. And although ideological responses must come from within the house of Islam, America has a role to play. Just as the Marshall Plan provided a grand vision of how Europe could rebuild itself after the war, America should construct a plan of similar scale aimed at spurring education and economic advancement while slowing the advance of Wahhabi doctrine in the Islamic world. From the perspective of America’s long term security, it can be argued that combatting the spread of Wahhabi ideology in the 21st century is just as big a strategic imperative as it was to rebuild Europe post WWII, so such an expense should and can be easily justifiable.

A good starting point would be to massively fund education advocates in the Islamic world like The Malala Fund to build schools, curriculums and teacher training programs focused on the empowerment of women and children. If we can help educate the next generation of Muslims to think for themselves and to embrace universal values like pluralism and human rights, then we have a great chance to delegitimize the Saudi worldview in the long term.

Since the turn of the century we’ve been at war, and it feels like we are no closer to ending it. The first step to victory is to reframe exactly who the combatants are — it is not Islam versus the West, but it is the Wahhabi form of Islam against everyone else. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we can begin the long and arduous path to victory.