by Sheeva Seyfi
On January 16th, nearly two months after Islamic terrorists of European citizenship killed 130 people in the city of Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron authorized an investigation into the funding of extremist groups within the United Kingdom. According to the Guardian, the Liberal Democrats instigated the inquiry, promising in exchange to support airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Although it began merely as an internal investigation, concerns regarding foreign influences on European Muslims resonate with the entire European continent.
Although diplomats are shy to address the matter, Saudi Arabia’s government is indeed known to fund the global dissemination of their official state religion, Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam that stresses, among other things, intolerance toward non-Wahhabis. Examples of Saudi-backed financing can be found throughout the world. In Bosnia, the Saudi Kingdom has backed the construction of new mosques and cultural centers since the end of the Civil War in 1995. In India, some estimates put Saudi expenditures on mosques and madrassas at more than USD 244 million, and scholarships to attend the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia have been established as a means of attracting European Muslims to study under a Wahhabi institute.
The true extent of financial support from Saudi officials is difficult to determine, however. With regards to the murky financial conditions surrounding the construction of nearly 150 mosques in France between 2011 and 2015, the United States government suspects that much of the Saudi’s funding is funneled through difficult-to-track chains of bank accounts and face-to-face cash transactions.
This ambiguity has not prevented Germany’s vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel from responding critically to the Saudi offer to build 200 mosques for Germany’s newly arrived Muslim refugees in December. Instead, Gabriel retorted that “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia,” and that Germany’s “time of looking away is over.” An unusual move for a European leader whose state considers King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi a key Arab ally.
Although unusual, the sentiment is not unprecedented. In 2015, Austria banned mosques from receiving funding from abroad. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz defended his reforms by stating, “What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad, and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values.” This speaks strongly to the current debate in Austria and throughout Europe regarding Islam’s compatibility with, among other “European values,” the full rights of women and homosexuals.
In the UK also, it seems the time of looking away is over, which does not bode well for official UK-Saudi relations. The inquiry is sure to produce results implicating Saudi officials, however indirectly, in the radicalization of British Muslims via Wahhabi mosques or organizations. An identification of the sources fueling extremist Wahhabi ideology in the UK may force Cameron’s government to face facts that had hitherto been purposefully overlooked, resulting in a weakened bond between the two kingdoms. Whereas the UK’s benefits from their (heretofore) strong relationship are largely economic in nature, Saudi legitimacy in international affairs relies heavily on keeping up credible relations with Western powers.
The investigation and its findings will likely highlight the fact that the UK’s historically healthy relationship with the Saudi government is no longer one of irreplaceable importance. With the price of oil weakening and Iran’s re-entrance into the international arena, offering the West a promising new economic partner with a comparatively liberal political trajectory, the UK and other European states may be incentivized to shift their support, and with it the regional balance of power in the Middle East, toward the Persians.