On the same day when Saudi Arabia issued a royal decreecriminalizing Saudi citizens’ participation in the war in Syria (or joining Jihadi groups), the White House confirmed that President Obama will be visiting the Kingdom in March. It seems a reasonable assumption that during this visit, Obama will attempt to synchronize U.S. and Saudi diplomacy over two key issues: the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and the crisis in Syria.
The agenda of the meeting in Riyadh could in fact be reduced to a single conversation about Iran, since Iran is also a key ally of the Syrian government. Rather than focusing on these issues, however, the President should focus on convincing the Saudi rulers to abandon their reliance on violent sectarian warriors to exert influence in the region and around the world, especially their support of religious zealots attempting to overthrow governments the Saudis don’t like.
The Saudi rulers cannot escape responsibility from inciting religious violence by distinguishing between public and private dichotomies. Claiming that the Saudi government does not incite sectarianism and violence, but that private entities and individuals do, is not supportable by the known facts. A government that controls all aspects of public and private life, including limiting the rights of citizens to engage in mundane daily acts like driving a car, should certainly be able to control the speech and actions of satellite television preachers who broadcast bank account numbers for donors to support “jihad” against infidels, deviant sects, and secular regimes.
Asking the Saudis to end their support of religious zealots does not mean that Saudi Arabia, or any other country for that matter, should stop supporting peoples who rise up to demand that their governments respect their dignity, life, and property. It is a false dichotomy to argue that supporting the Syrian people, for instance, necessitates sending arms and fighters.
Using religious zealots in pursuit of foreign policy goals abuses the Islamic institution of jihad—the declaration of which has historically been the province of governments, not individuals with access to satellite television, a large number of followers on Twitter, or brainwashed youth in failed states. If the Saudi rulers are sincerely moved by the plight of the Syrian people, they should have the moral and political courage to send troops, so that there is accountability and clear line of responsibility. But when the Saudis look the other way while preachers incite young people from the Kingdom (including members of the Saudi armed forces) and from neighboring countries to cross into country and wage “jihad,” then they should be reminded that they are responsible for destabilizing the region and the world when they fail to put the Jinni back in the bottle.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.