Israeli intelligence enthusiastically tracks efforts in the Arab world to promote a state-sanctioned version of Islam.
It reads like a report card for Islamic preachers, but the document’s authors are not Islamic scholars or jurists. “The Struggle of Islamic Regimes” is a top-secret document written by analysts from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, and was part of a digital leak to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
The report dated May 29, 2014 and classified as “top secret” assesses attempts across the Arab world to promote what it calls a “moderate” interpretation of Islam. The report does not define this “moderate” version of Islam that Israel would like to see promoted.
The report describes Arab governments relying on what for all practical purposes are rental clerics, whose Friday sermons become paid mechanisms of political control rather than explorations of religious scholarship, to reinforce their own rule.
In Egypt, according to the Mossad report, the thousand-year old Al Ahzar University sends it clerics on “indoctrination missions” in the Sinai at the behest of the regime.
Algeria sends imams to France in search of tools to preach the “principles of moderate Islam”.
Yemen, with the help of Dutch financing, runs an education campaign to encourage “enlightened Islam”.
Reporting approvingly on these efforts, Mossad’s spies give top marks to the Saudi Kingdom. “Most prominent is Saudi Arabia’s determination to conduct a comprehensive campaign against the global jihad ideology,” the Mossad’s spies write.
The report cites a “new strategy” developed in 2010 under the name “Ideological Security”, whose purpose is to “restrain the spread of Salafi ideology and to formulate a relatively moderate perception of Islam which will be inculcated with the population”.
The Mossad recognises the power of religion as a tool to shape politics, noting that Saudi Arabia “pursues the ‘brainwashing’ of thousands of al-Qaeda detainees in order to persuade them to give up their radical thinking”. The report also notes that the Saudi authorities are “increasing supervision of the internet and social media” to stop the spread of “radical Islamic ideology.”
These regime-sponsored efforts, according to Mossad, result from “a growing concern among Muslim states after the beginning of the Arab Spring in January 2011 about the ideology of global jihad, formulated by Al Qaeda and other extreme Islamic ideologies like those of Salafi and Muslim Brothers Organizations.”
Mossad notes how the late Saudi King Abdullah’s regime in March 2014 passed a Royal Edict outlawing “terrorist organizations”, including—for the first time—the Muslim Brotherhood. Like many Arab rulers, the Mossad appeared to be alarmed by the popularity of the ideas and policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, which have won democratic elections in Egypt, Tunisia, occupied Palestine and Algeria. In response, they publically associate Brotherhood groups with the likes of al-Qaeda.
The Mossad document may be as interesting for what it does not analyse.
The Israeli analysts fail to evaluate the effectiveness of Saudi Arabia’s own considerable efforts at “de-radicalization”. Analysts believe that thousands of the foreign fighters in the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant come from Saudi Arabia, even as the Kingdom has taken steps to suppress the flow of funds to ISIL from wealthy Saudi individuals.
Mossad similarly failed to consider the corrosive consequences of the cynical manipulation of faith by Arab autocrats of which it writes approvingly.
An officially-sanctioned version of Islam in an autocratic state that allows no room for dissent forces the genuine, vibrant debate about Islamic teachings necessary to counter the appeal of simplistic radical ideas underground, away from public and scholarly scrutiny. If anything, that makes it easier for groups such as the Islamic State to present themselves to those critical of Arab autocracies as the only guardians of genuine Islamic values.
Co-opting the Western “war on terror” narrative and directing it broadly against those who oppose Arab autocracy and Western policies in the region, actually suppresses the people of the Middle East from developing indigenous, sustainable answers to the region’s many dilemmas.
Though less than a year old, Mossad’s report may also be out of date. The death last month of Saudi’s King Abdullah, known for his anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments, has been followed by the arrival of a new and more pragmatic monarch, King Salman.
There are already signs of a shift in policy – the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud bin Faisal, raised eyebrows recently by declaring “Saudi Arabia does not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”.
That may not be news the Mossad will be happy to hear.
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