Political Science

The Call


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Everyone talks about "Saudi money," but no one really knows what it is. Journalist Krithika Varagur, a longtime chronicler of religion and politics, tells the story of Saudi influence as it has never been told before, in a book reported across the breadth of the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia to Kosovo.

The Call connects the dots on Saudi Arabia's campaign to propagate its brand of ultraconservative Islam worldwide after it became oil-rich in the 20th century. Varagur visits diverse outposts of its influence, from a Saudi university in Jakarta to a beleaguered Shi'a movement in Nigeria. She finds that the campaign has had remarkably broad and sometimes uniform effects, from the intolerance of religious minorities to the rise of powerful Saudi-educated clerics. The kingdom has spent billions of dollars on its da'wa, or call to Islam, at many points with the direct support of the United States. But what have been the lasting effects of Saudi influence today? And what really happened to their campaign in the 21st century? Drawing upon dozens of interviews, government records, and historical research, The Call lays out what we really talk about when we talk about Saudi money.


You had to admit the optics were good. Two hundred thousand people, all dressed in white, radiated from the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Central Jakarta. In drone photographs the effect is serene: at the center is the socialist realist Welcome monument, punctuating a circular pool, and in the five broad roads branching o from it, like the avenues that radiate from the Arc d’Triomphe, protesters clog the streets for a mile in every direction. They went all the way up to the National Monument and beyond, to the Presidential Palace. They came on buses, planes, boats, and on foot from all across Java and even other islands to participate in the largest Islamist demonstration in Indonesian his- tory. The date itself was memorable: November 4, 2016, or “411.”

“We came to the Palace to enforce the law,” said the cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab, to rapt silence. “Desecrators of the Quran must be punished. We must reject the leaders of infidels—it is forbidden to accept the leadership of infidels, and of people of the Chinese race,” he said, exhorting the crowd to reject Ahok, the Chinese-Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital city. “If our demands are not heard, are you ready to turn this into a revolution?” “We’re ready!” screamed the crowd, breaking into huge applause. They added, spontaneously: “God is great!” And others: “Kill Ahok!”

It was a bizarre scene in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but is not really a “Muslim nation.” Officially, it is a multifaith country that protects six religions equally, where race and ethnicity have been tacitly elided from political discourse. An overtly Muslim political protest like this had no precedent.

Shihab, who is an Indonesian of Yemeni descent, appeared to the crowd like a small god, dressed in white robes and a jade- green turban, unaffected by the heat. Not a drop of rain hit Jakarta that day, which is unusual this close to the equator, and it seemed, indeed, like a sign from God.

The 411 rally was billed as an aksi damai, a peaceful protest. It may have been peaceful in format—it was fairly well organized and sta ed with thousands of volunteers—but it was virulently hateful in content. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), led by Shihab, organized the protest as a show of force against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as “Ahok,” the governor of Jakarta. They accused him of blasphemy against Islam and called for his ouster. The pretext was later revealed to be a bankrupt one, since the “evidence” for Ahok’s crime was a doctored video of him referencing a Quran verse. This was not really about Ahok, however, but about displaying the piety and political power of Muslim Indonesians—and for that, it worked. The city shut down all its major arteries that day. At the second “peaceful protest,” on December 12, the president of Indonesia himself joined them in prayer.

The FPI’s campaign was more successful than they could have dreamed: the Christian governor lost his bid for reelection, and on top of that, he was sentenced to two years in jail. This was a turning point for political Islam in Indonesia, which had never before pierced the public sphere to such an extent. The next presidential election was waged largely on the terms set by the events of 2016, and the vice president of Indonesia today was once its highest Muslim cleric. Both of the 2019 presidential candidates campaigned on their Islamic credentials, and both took whirlwind trips to Mecca just days before the election. Shihab’s ahistorical vision came to look like a portent.

So where is Shihab today? He’s not enjoying the fruits of his labor in Indonesia. He is actually in Saudi Arabia. After the gubernatorial election, he became embroiled in a sexting scandal and ed a warrant for his arrest to Mecca. It is actually not such an unusual choice of refuge, because Shihab’s ties to the kingdom stretch rather far back. As a young man in the 1980s, he studied Arabic at the Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia (LIPIA), a unique Indonesian university in South Jakarta built, funded, and fully subsidized to this day by Saudi Arabia. He went on to study for four years in Riyadh, where he networked with Saudi clerics and burnished his religious credentials. He came back to Indonesia when it became a democracy in 1998 and quickly consolidated his stature as a populist religious vigilante, raiding bars and brothels in Jakarta through his newly formed Islamic Defenders Front.

That his organization and vision became so powerful is just one example of how Saudi Arabia influenced many of the conservative religious figures who went on to shape modern Indonesia. Another infamous example is the Bali bombings of 2002, which killed 202 people, mostly tourists, in the world’s most deadly terror attack post-9/11. The attacks were planned by a circle of jihadists based at the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Central Java, which was founded with a gift from the Saudi king in 1972. A dense jihadi network coalesced around the school, which was the alma mater of four of the Bali bombers.

Beyond such flagship investments, more than fifty years of Saudi proselytizing in Indonesia also seeded the virulent intolerance of religious minorities that plagues the country today. In addition to the show trial of its most prominent Christian politician, Indonesia is also now a country where there is a national “Anti-Shia” league and where Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven from their homes by mobs into refugee camps.

As the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and a developing, postcolonial state, Indonesia has been subject to the full spectrum of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious campaign of proselytization. And while Saudi investments peaked at least a decade ago, as they have in most of the world, their legacy effects are copious. Today, there is a thriving ecosystem of ultraconservative Sala s not just in Indonesia but across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to the Philippines. Saudi investments have fueled jihadis, helped consolidate Indonesia’s leading Islamist political party, and produced dozens of ideologues like Habib Riziq Shihab. The Saudi soft power apparatus in Indonesia is unrivaled and includes a dedicated university, large embassy, and powerful, stand-alone “religious attaché.” Saudi charities also helped put thousands of students in a still-developing country into school and university and helped rebuild devastated regions, like Aceh, after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

It’s not for nothing that Barack Obama, who spent years in Jakarta, pointedly remarked on the “more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation” of Islam that he perceived when he returned there as an adult, which he attributed to Saudi influence. In doing so, he joined an already flourishing discourse of Arabisasi.

Arabisasi was one of the first Indonesian words I learned after I moved to Jakarta in 2016. It is a neologism meaning “Arabization” in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) and it connotes a whole class of developments: the rise of political Islam, blasphemy charges, the growing popularity of hijabs and burqas, new mosques, louder mosques, new schools, the persecution of religious minorities, sharia bylaws, and an overall new, visible centrality of Islam in the cultural and political life of a big democracy that was, until 1998, a tightly controlled military dictatorship.

The underlying claim of Arabisasi is that five decades of Saudi Arabia’s religious influence in Indonesia had in some way caused all these diverse phenomena. Regardless of how true or false this is, the word points to a generalized anxiety over “Saudi money,” in Indonesia as in the rest of the world. It seemed to neatly explain how a tropical archipelago reputed for its tolerance and syncretism was, by the time I got there in 2016, a theater for hardline Islamists, begrudging at best and violent at worst toward religious minorities, and even the home of a few hundred foreign fighters to ISIS.

Saudi Arabia did not cause the conservative turn in Indonesia. But I learned, through a sustained inquiry, that it had indeed helped with quite a lot of its component parts, quite a lot of the time. What surprised me was the scale, breadth, and personalized outreach behind the Saudi campaign in Indonesia, which started in the 1960s when a disgraced politician, sidelined by the secular new nation, found a sympathetic ear in Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, who was simultaneously proto- typing his idea of a foreign policy driven by “Islamic solidarity.” What impressed me further was the range of this campaign’s effects: not merely superficial conservatism in dress and practice, but also strident campaigns against minority Muslim sects, the consolidation of a highly organized Islamist political party, and the influential alumni roster of a single, small Saudi-funded university.

I traveled through much of the Indonesian archipelago, from Aceh to Sulawesi, and was continually impressed by Saudi actors’ broad vision of combining aid and proselytization, from tsunami relief in Banda Aceh to a homegrown Sala group called Wahdah Islamiyah in Makassar. The line was always blurred.

This book began as a personal exploration and investigation of the country where I lived for two years and expanded in scope when I realized Saudi Arabia’s export of its religion was a global project. The reason Salafis on six continents today read the same books is because they can, and a reason they can is that Saudi Arabia printed and shipped out those books around the world over the last half-century. So, I expanded my inquiry to two more places in the wider Muslim world: Nigeria and Kosovo. Three continents, three case studies. It could have been replicated with three different countries, several times over, and I hope it is. There is official Saudi dawa, or proselytization, activity in two dozen countries and unofficial Saudi proselytization in many more.

Saudi Arabia’s global export of Wahhabism, sometimes dubbed “petro-Islam,” because it dovetailed with its explosion of its oil wealth since 1973, has been an irresistible phenomenon to cite in the post-9/11 world, where religious conservatism is often collapsed into extremism and terrorism, and they are all jointly seen as a problem to be solved. But because“petro-Islam” is such a blunt rhetorical cudgel, the actual effects of Saudi prose- lytization are poorly understood and are rarely connected across specific contexts. For instance, it’s not just “the Saudi government” that spreads Wahhabism; international Saudi actors include universities, an Islamic A airs ministry, several state- adjacent global charities like the Muslim World League, one-off regional relief efforts, and independent businessmen.

This book is about the effects of Saudi proselytization in three peacetime, democratic Muslim-majority countries out- side the Middle East: Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kosovo. From considering these countries together, some key themes emerge about what Saudi proselytization does abroad. It typically encourages Sala communities, consisting of conservative Muslims who follow the revivalist movement to return to the traditions of early Islam. Saudi proselytization tends to cultivate a learned Sala class of scholars and ideologues who then shape their local religious landscapes. It leads to the often-violent intolerance of Shia and Sufi Muslims, as well as minority sects like the Ahmadiyya and other faiths like Christianity. It is linked to a greater popular consumption of Salafi books, TV, radio, and online media. Saudi outreach is always multilateral. In its early years, it’s usually also personal and depends on close, in-country contacts. And perhaps most important: as many of their effects are incidental as they are intentional. Even though Wahhabism has a strict, literalist, fundamentalist approach to matters of theology, its expressions in Saudi foreign policy have been rather like—not to put too fine a point on it—throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks. Still, in its ambition and global reach, the Saudi project has been unparalleled in the Muslim world.

Sometimes the communities that arise out of Saudi dawa provide a ready-made base for Salafi-jihadism, which has been their most notorious effect today. This was, in distinct ways, basically the case with Boko Haram in Nigeria and with ISIS foreign fighters in Kosovo. Especially in the pre-9/11 era, unchecked money owed out from the kingdom, often from independent businessmen, supporting sundry terror groups from Somalia to Syria. But it’s sometimes hard to draw a direct connection. For instance, a lot of Saudi support for people who would eventually become terrorists was wrapped up with the Soviet-Afghan war effort, which was also heavily supported by the US. It’s hard to imagine that they knew the Indonesians who fought in the Afghan mujahideen would go on to conduct several high-profile bombings in Southeast Asia.

The Saudi project can be chaotic and full of contradictions, both supporting and rigidly denouncing Muslim Brotherhood activists, or simultaneously funding shady charities and counterextremism centers that work within miles of each other. It’s not so unlike America’s international exploits during the Cold War, which took forms both serious (coups) and unserious (the Paris Review), and was decentralized across various actors (the CIA, State Department, the Army, NASA) in service of a vague goal.

Not to mention that the country doing all this exporting is one of the world’s strangest societies: an extremely religious, absolute, hereditary monarchy with thousands of royals, no set line of succession, and a state apparatus built from scratch in the last hundred years. It is a kingdom with a looming class of fearful Wahhabi clerics whose power waxes and wanes unpredictably, but whose support is essential to the ruling dynasty.

The Call is a window into a world changed by that kingdom and its oil money. It’s the story of how one nation has tried to systematically transform the Muslim world, and Muslims in the world, in its image. Since the middle of the previous century, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to propagate its puritanical brand of Islam abroad to chaotic but also patterned effect.

Since 9/11, two aspects of Saudi dawa have been most studied: terror nance and textbooks. The terrorism concern is valid but limited, because in any country, terrorists are a tiny minority. And textbooks are a concrete subject of study, which is why American officials have periodically targeted them, but in the grand scheme of dawa materials, they are only a small component. We rarely talk about the other massive effects of Saudi dawa in terms of intolerance, fundamentalism, and Sala leaders, which can reshape the cultural landscape of huge countries from within and create great religious and cultural strife. In Nigeria and Indonesia, both Saudi alumni and Saudi-influenced Sala s have taken powerful roles in government, whereas in Kosovo, religious leaders stand mostly at odds with an insistently secular government but command huge grassroots audiences.

Finally, we must not overstate what Saudi money has done or can do. When you talk about such a huge, multi-armed project, it never works out the way you think it will, and especially not today, when its spending power is much diminished. Much of the discourse on Saudi proselytization seems like it ossified ten or twenty years in the past and rarely takes in the whole project in its full geographical scope. This book is a corrective to that and to the reflexive ascription of any conservative religious trend, from more women wearing hijabs to louder mosques to “Saudi influence.”

Understanding the Saudi dawa project is crucial to understanding the 20th century. The project is entangled with the Cold War, the Third World, and fundamentalisms. As it slowly spun out from a personal project of the highest Saudi monarchs into a diffuse effort with thousands of funders and beneficiaries, it became harder and harder to control and predict, encompassing everything from terrorist incubation to disaster relief. But all of this must be part of what we talk about when we talk about Saudi money.

About the author

Krithika Varagur is an award-winning journalist who has reported widely from Indonesia and the region for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and more. She is a National Geographic explorer and graduated from Harvard University and was a Fulbright scholar at SOAS University of London. view profile

Published on April 21, 2020

Published by Columbia Global Reports

50000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Political Science

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