Last month, Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed a blockade on Qatar, arguing that the country was promoting terrorism. The irony is that Saudi and elite groups of nations in the Gulf have also been supporting Salafis and jihadis for a long time. While Riyadh fights against al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Saudis have been accused of financing Pakistan-based groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network. In 2008, among the personalities the US Department of Treasury designated as LeT leaders in a cable revealed by Wikileaks, were two men with a Saudi connection. Mahmoud Mohammad Ahmed Bahaziq, a Saudi national was “credited with being the main financier behind the establishment of the LeT and its activities in the 1980s and 1990s. He has also served as the leader of LeT in Saudi Arabia. In 2003, Bahaziq coordinated LeT’s fund-raising activities with Saudi NGOs and businessmen… As of mid-2005, Bahaziq played a key role in LeT’s propaganda and media operations.”
The other man was Haji Muhammad Ashraf, LeT’s chief of finance since “at least 2003” and who “travelled to the Middle East, where he personally collected donations on behalf of LeT. In 2003, Ashraf assisted [the] Saudi Arabia-based LeT leadership with expanding its organisation.” In 2009, a cable attributed to the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Wikileaks assessed that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In 2012, a Wikileaks revelation dealt with the meeting between the Saudi ambassador and Nasiruddin Haqqani, a major figure in the Haqqani network.
But the triangle of Saudi donors, Pakistani rulers and jihadi groups is not free of tensions. First, the jihadis are not a block and do not relate equally to their donors. For instance, the LeT and Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JAH), a religious party representing the Ahle Hadith in Pakistan, compete for Saudi funds. Second, the Saudis resent the violent action of some Pakistanis based in their country. The suicide bomber who targeted the US consulate in Jeddah in July 2016 was from Pakistan. Of the 19 terrorists who were arrested because of this attack and another one in Medina that took place at the same time,12 were Pakistani. Third, the Saudis sometimes cultivate “their” Islamists without the blessing of the Pakistani state. Riyadh uses some of them to put pressure on the Pakistani government when it resists Saudi injunctions.
In 2015, for instance, when the Pakistan parliament refused to send troops to Yemen, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat members demonstrated, asking for “unconditional support to Saudi Arabia”. The Saudis have sponsored organisations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), one of the most violent Sunni militant groups that the Pakistani state (including the army) has tried to contain. In 2012, a Reuters reporter who was interviewing LJ leader Ahmed Ludhianvi saw him “and his aides st[an]d up to warmly welcome a visitor: Saudi Arabia-based cleric Malik Abdul Haq al-Meqqi”, known as one of the middlemen between Arab donors and the LJ. In 2015, Pakistan minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada accused the Saudis of destabilising the Muslim world by distributing money to promote Wahhabism.
The Saudis are also using more benign conduits, like TV channels, to promote their version of Islam. In Pakistan, Paigham TV (broadcasted in Urdu and Pashto) is a case in point. It was inaugurated in 2011 by Abdul Rahman Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
On the Indian side, a similar development has taken shape with the creation of Peace TV by Zakir Naik, who reached a reported 100 million viewers. Naik spoke against Sufi devotions and Shiism in more or less explicit terms. He once declared that “seeking the intercession of sacred Islamic personalities, including that of Prophet Muhammad, with God is heresy”, a remark he withdrew subsequently. He also praised the murderer of Imam Husayn, offending the Shias. Naik has been censured by several Indian Muslim clerics, but praised by Gulf leaders. In 2013, Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktum, vice president and prime minister of UAE and ruler of Dubai conferred on Naik the Dubai International Holy Qur’an Award’s Islamic Personality of the Year. In 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud awarded him the King Faisal International Prize for “service to Islam” — $2,00,000 — in Riyadh.
The Saudis are supporting Salafi enterprises in South India, including in Kerala. According to a Saudi embassy cable in Delhi, millions of riyals have been reserved for the Islamic Mission Trust of Malappuram (Kerala), the Islamic Welfare Trust and the Mujahideen Arabic College in Palakkad. Two Islamic organisations have benefited from Saudi financial support: The Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India. Their names do not reflect their religious overtone, but they are propagating a Salafi version of Islam.
While one of the oldest Salafi madrasas of India, the Jamia Salafiya, is located near Varanasi, Kerala is probably where Salafism is gaining momentum more vigorously. This pan-Islamic orientation is more pronounced among those who were already part of local reform movements like the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM),formed in 1950. This movement developed through connections with the Arabian Peninsula, but also from the dynamics of the local society. Similarly, today, the draw of Salafism increases with education, so much so that the cult of saints and Sufism is associated, according to Filippo and Caroline Osella, “to ignorance, superstition and uncouthness; it is seen as characteristic of either rural (Mappila) or poor Muslims”.
By the end of the last century, the chief of the Nadwat al-Ulama, Sayyid Abu’l-Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914-1999), dared to attack the Arabs in the name of South Asian Islam: Arabs had betrayed the other Muslims of the world by indulging in nationalism and losing faith in religion, in contrast to the Indian Muslims. Nadwi emphasised in 1975 that these Indian Muslims’ “culture, which has taken centuries to evolve, is a combination of both Islamic and Indian influences”.
Today, Nadwi would not be in a position to say the same thing so easily. On one hand, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India is gradually transforming Indian Muslims into second class citizens, on the other the South Asian brand of Islam has lost some of its “autonomy” because of the growing influence from the Gulf. The Indo-Islamic civilisation has shown great resilience but may follow one of the most aggressive routes of Pakistani Islam today, not only because of the Hindutva push, but also because of factors drawing inspiration and finances from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Sufism is already under attack in Pakistan, where sectarian and jihadi repertoires are gaining momentum.