Book Review: Extremism Is Riyadh’s Top Export

Source: Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia is fighting for a dangerous monopoly on Islamic thought

By Farah Pandith, who is the former (and first) Special Representative to Muslim Communities a the US Department of State and author of How We Win. Twitter: @farah_pandith

Farah Pandith’s new book, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat, provides insights and observations often missed in the larger conversation about extremism. In a detailed chapter, condensed and adapted here, she investigates Saudi global influence—including imam training, free Saudi-translated Qurans, textbooks, destruction of human cultural heritage sites, and more—she saw in almost 100 countries while working for the U.S. State Department, and it dissects how and why Saudi Arabia has had an influence on identity for Muslims worldwide.

In March 2010, while serving as the State Department’s first ever special representative to Muslim communities, a position created for me by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to connect to and engage with Muslim millennials globally, I managed to get a visa to visit China even though the State Department’s Human Rights Reports regularly called out China for its treatment of its minority Muslim populations, and one ethnic group in particular, the Uighurs. China saw the Uighur issue as a domestic terrorism problem and our public highlighting of it as an affront. Still, an opportunity had arisen—and, working with our embassy, we designed a trip that would allow me to talk to young Chinese Muslims in Shanghai, Nanking, Kunming, and elsewhere.

A highlight of the trip turned out to be a visit to a small town I had never heard of: Shadian, in the southern part of the country, about 150 miles from Kunming, where a population of Hui Muslims have lived for more than a millennium. My team and I drove for hours through lush countryside, cruising along dusty roads through villages replete with mom-and-pop storefronts and skinny white lampposts. Grocers sold fresh produce on the side of the road, their apples and leafy vegetables piled in perfect pyramids. Chinese-language signage promoted medical products.

Our arrival in Shadian jolted me. Turning a corner, we came face-to-face with a glorious pedestrian boulevard with rows of majestic palm trees planted down the middle. At the end of those trees stood a huge, modern structure made of what appeared to be white marble and topped off by a light green dome. Fountains and two tremendous Jumbotron screens framed its entrance. I was mesmerized. What was all this? Then I glimpsed what seemed to be minarets flanking a prayer hall, and I knew: It was a mosque.

The next day, a professor at a local Islamic university, an ethnic Chinese man who identified as Hui, graciously hosted me for lunch at his home. Throughout the meal, my host talked about Islamic education—how important it was for Muslim kids to learn about the religion and mix with other Muslim students, and how few proper Muslim universities existed.

Throughout the meal, my host talked about Islamic education—how important it was for Muslim kids to learn about the religion and mix with other Muslim students, and how few proper Muslim universities existed.

He also related that local youth sought to learn about Islam by studying in Persian Gulf countries. The clock on the television set was set for Mecca time as well as local time, and the television was tuned to a Saudi channel.Later, I toured the large mosque I had seen when I first arrived. It cost $19 million to build, funded entirely by private donations. My host seemed excited and proud to show the building to me. I asked him if Saudi money funded the mosque. He demurred.

I was pretty sure I already knew the answer, so I asked if he could take me to see a more traditional mosque from this region of China.

After much prodding, we got in the car for a short drive. When we got out, all evidence of the Gulf had vanished. I stood on a dirt road lined with modest houses and shops. My host pointed toward a compound surrounded by a tall wall covered over in painted terra cotta. “Here it is.” We proceeded through the entrance into a small courtyard, an oasis of fruit trees and flowerpots, the perfect site for prayerful contemplation.

The mosque itself was much simpler than the Gulf-style mosque had been, made of wood and reflecting the themes of traditional Chinese architecture. The structure’s roof curled outward at its edges, while its open doorways permitted a view of the faithful praying inside. The religious services it housed conformed to what I was told was the ancient Sufi devotion mingled with traditional indigenous Chinese customs.

At the entrance to the open-air prayer room, dozens of pairs of shoes belonging to the faithful had been placed in a neat line. I approached a group of elderly women sitting nearby. Instead of long black robes, they wore loose-fitting cotton pants and simple, tuniclike shirts as well as loose headscarves. I told them I was visiting from the United States and that I was interested in learning about the clothes they wore to pray. They indicated that they wore the traditional garb of Chinese Muslims. And what about the shiny mosque around the corner? “Oh,” they said, “that is foreign Islam.”

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