If lawmakers returning to Washington this week are doing their homework, they'll realize Iran's nuclear deal isn't the only threat to international security at home and abroad. Our radical Islamic ally, Saudi Arabia, is also part of the problem, both in the Middle East and beyond.
It's rare that I write on religious matters. Yet, in analyzing what the Muslim world thinks about Iran's nuclear deal with the West, the subject of Islam constantly arises. Will Muslims ever question, as they should, where their faith is headed in light of Saudi Arabia's exaggeration of the threat that Iran poses? Do everyday Muslims wonder why Islam is stuck and unable to evolve as Christianity did over the course of history? Contributing to this lack of progress is, not surprisingly, a lack of honest debate beyond the pleasantries that tend to obscure atrocities committed in the name of Islam.
Two reasons now compel me to write about this religion in crisis. One has to do with the letter some 200 retired U.S. generals and admirals wrote to Congress urging lawmakers to reject the Iran nuclear agreement, which they say threatens national security. While their concerns certainly warrant legitimate debate, one particular aspect in their argument betrays not only ignorance but deception: that threats to America from the Middle East come primarily from Iran.
Like insightful globetrotting American columnist Thomas Friedman, I'm compelled to challenge the absurdity of this assertion. It needs to be called out.
Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a retired U.S. Air Force general and defense industry executive, argues: "What I don't like about this is (that) the number one leading radical Islamic group in the world is the Iranians. They are purveyors of radical Islam throughout the region and throughout the world. And we are going to enable them to get nuclear weapons."
What the general conveniently or ignorantly neglects is that the threat of radical Islam also comes from our supposed ally, Saudi Arabia. How can one forget that out of the 19 hijackers in 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia? While Iran's involvement (through its proxy Hezbollah) during the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marines barracks in Beirut is well documented, nothing has been more destabilizing than the puritanical Wahabism ideology that Saudi Arabia has promoted and continues to champion through its petro-dollars. This financial support goes back to 1970s when the decision in Riyadh was made to get rid of pluralism in Islam and replace it with an anti-western approach to Islam, one that included oppression of women, promotion of an ascetic lifestyle and the spread of religious Madrasas, which educate students on Islam to the calculated exclusion of other critical and enlightening subjects such as math and science.
One needs not look far to realize how al-Qaeda evolved, how ISIS' conquest in Iraq and Syria shows no sign of abating, how the al-Nusra group (an al-Qaida affiliate) in Syria is thriving. All these, to one degree or another, owe their genesis to our radical Islamic ally, the Saudis. These groups have never meant to promote education, civil society, moderate religious views and the basic tenets of human dignity. They are the outcome of the very Wahhabism ideology that Lt. Gen. McInerney and those like him fail to cite. Instead, they are packaging distorted facts and shoving these down the throats of Americans, many of us oblivious to the deadly ongoing struggle between the Sunni and Shiite halves of the Muslim faith.
To acquire insight, one should read the July 16, 2014, story in The New York Times: "For decades, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of its oil dollars into sympathetic Islamic organizations around the world, quietly practicing checkbook diplomacy to advance its agenda." Or there's a Dec. 5, 2010 report on BBC: "U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last year in a leaked classified memo that donors in Saudi Arabia were the 'most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.'"
My second reason for writing this column is more a question: Isn't it time for thinking, earnest Muslims to confront the reality of violence attributed to their religion? It's a challenging proposition to explain to outsiders how Muslims can be "the best people evolved for humankind," according to the Quran; yet, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, promotes hatred, extremism and a very twisted version of Islam. The Muslim world needs to wake up to the reality of how it's increasingly perceived around the rest of the world.
What is happening in the name of the faith ought to challenge the Muslim establishment from within. It should loudly protest Saudi petro-dollars dictating how the rest of the Muslim world needs to practice its faith. Yet this is exactly what some of our own politicians -- including, yes, some from our state -- fail to disclose to Americans so as not to upset the political establishment, derail funding deals and possibly lose the next election.
Time to question
Might an Iranian agreement with the West at last provide an opportunity for the Muslim world to question, in light of the Saudi fear propaganda involving Shia, just what its motives are? Is it time for an honest debate about where Islam is headed? I believe so. Times change, societies evolve and the Muslim world must change and evolve with it. The era of allowing an imam to suggest that Islam forbids girls from acquiring an education must end. The era of granting someone religious authority and status just because he sports a foot-long beard and recites the Quran should be over.
It's time to scrutinize who's funding extremism within the Muslim world. It's time to break down the barriers of religious hierarchy that was never part of the Islamic tradition. And it's time for the Muslim world to engage in a little self-criticism and refrain from blaming others for its own misfortunes and follies. Failure to take this long, discriminating look will obscure deeper problems than some Muslims are willing to admit.
Make no mistake: As I argue in my forthcoming book, "A Nuclear Iran: The New Geopolitical Landscape in the Middle East," the Iranian deal with the West will impact that chaotic region politically, religiously, socially and economically. However, arguing Iran's nuclear deal is the only threat to the region -- and to the United States for that matter -- is complete nonsense. All political correctness aside, let's state the obvious: Besides Iran, the radical ideology of Saudi Arabia is the source of tremendous instability in the region and beyond.