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Preaching Hate and Sectarianism in the Gulf

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Foreign Policy

As Saudi Arabia expands its involvement in wars across the Middle East, the kingdom has given a platform to an extremist cleric who seems to believe this struggle is not just against the Islamic State or rivals in Yemen. Saad bin Ateeq al-Ateeq, a Saudi preacher with longstanding ties to the kingdom’s government, recently called upon God to “destroy” Shiites, Alawites, Christians, and Jews.

Saudi King Salman insists that Sunni-Shiite hatred only motivates intervention in Yemen by other “regional powers” — meaning Iran. Ateeq, however, tells a different story: Speaking to the Saudi state news channel al-Ekhbariya one day after Riyadh went to war, he argued that Yemen’s lands were designated “purely for monotheism” and “may not be polluted, neither by Houthis nor Iranians.” He labeled these groups “rafidis,” a derogatory label bashing Shiite Islam and ominously elaborated: “we are cleansing the land from these rats.”

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — the three most influential members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — have recently displayed surprising unity through their shared participation in multilateral military operations, first against the Islamic State in Syria and now against Houthi insurgents in Yemen.

Yet these three governments have another thing in common – each of them has provided a platform for the radical preaching of Ateeq, whose toxic incitement against other religions parallels the narrative of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. That America’s allies would tolerate a religious leader as extreme as this Saudi preacher poses a threat to U.S. interests and suggests the Gulf is failing to live up to its explicit commitments to repudiate the Islamic State’s hateful ideology.

It’s not like these Gulf states can claim not to know about Ateeq’s hate-filled rhetoric — he has been repeating it for years in prominent, government-affiliated places of worship. Earlier this year, Ateeq delivered a televised sermon at Qatar’s state-controlled Grand Mosque beseeching God to “destroy the Jews and whoever made them Jews, and destroy the Christians and the Alawites and whoever made them Christian, and the Shiites and whoever made them Shiite.” He also prayed for God to “save [the] al-Aqsa [Mosque in Jerusalem] from the claws of the Jews.”

Yet calling for the wholesale destruction of other religions appears to be one of the preacher’s favorite refrains. In February 2013, Ateeq delivered a Friday sermon at Qatar’s Grand Mosque using an almost identical formulation, once again urging God to destroy the Christians and Jews. Similarly, in October of that year, Ateeq declared from Qatar’s Grand Mosque that Jews and Christians were enemies of God, and this February he delivered another sermon, apparently from Sudan, calling for the destruction of Christians, Alawites, Shiites, and Jews.

When approached for comment regarding Ateeq’s views, Ali Saad al-Hajiri, the director of the media office at the Qatari embassy in Washington, D.C. said Doha “in no way endorses or supports this individual” and “rejects any divisions in Arab society along sectarian lines.” Hajiri added that Qatar “faces the challenge of balancing the needs of a free society and freedom of speech, with the need to take the strongest possible stance against terrorism and hate speech.” The Saudi and Emirati embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.Despite Ateeq’s unmistakable incitement of religious hatred, he is treated as an establishment figure in the Gulf. He regularly preaches in Qatar, addressing crowds in the gas-rich emirate on at least 13 occasions since 2010, typically as a guest of Qatar’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Notably, half of these invitations transpired after his 2013 sermon under government supervision calling for the destruction of other religions. He has spoken several times to different branches of Qatar’s security services: According to local media, one lecture in July 2013 to the Qatari navy, a frequent U.S. military partner in the Gulf, was attended by the commander of the Qatari Royal Navy Forces; that same month, Ateeq gave another lecture to security officials organized by the Qatari Interior Ministry’s airport security and airport passports departments. Qatar has invested billions of dollars in its airports in hopes of becoming a global aviation hub, and the Interior Ministry is Washington’s main interlocutor for discussing terror finance.

But it’s not just Qatar, which has long been accused of turning a blind eye to Islamist radicals, that has lent official legitimacy to Ateeq’s message. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has arrayed itself against Islamist forces in Egypt and Libya, has also given him a platform: In July 2014, the preacher was featured as a speaker at the Dubai International Holy Quran Award, a yearly competition promoting Quranic memorization and Islamic culture. The event was organized “under the sponsorship” of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE as well as the ruler of Dubai.

According to Sheikh Mohammed’s official website, his advisor for humanitarian and cultural affairs — who chaired the contest’s organizing committee — announced that Ateeq would be attending as one of the “elite group of scholars and preachers” hosted by the event. Ateeq singled out the advisor in the audience by name, saying that he deserved the “thanks of God,” and the two were photographed shaking hands on stage.

Yet it is Saudi Arabia where Ateeq has most firmly embedded himself within government institutions. According to the biography on his website, he serves as a “supervisor for Islamic awareness” at the Saudi Education Ministry and directs an Islamic awareness council at the Riyadh regional government’s Department of Education. His involvement with Riyadh’s education department apparently goes back to the days when Saudi Arabia’s current king was the region’s governor. Ateeq has regularly been involved in educational events in the region, including lecturing to children.

Ateeq also exerts an influence over the next generation of the Saudi armed forces, serving as the director of the Guidance Office for housing at King Khaled Military Academy (KKMA). The academy is classified by the Saudi Arabian National Guard Ministry as one of its “departments and units,” and graduates of the academy automatically earn the rank of lieutenant. His role as a preacher at the university goes back to 1994, when Saudi Arabia’s late — supposedly reformist — King Abdullah was the commander in charge of the National Guard.

Ateeq also has contributed in other ways to shaping the ideology of members of the Saudi security forces. In 2013, the Interior Ministry’s Facilities Security Force (FSF), which is in charge of protecting Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, hosted Ateeq at its headquarters to run a seminar under the direction of the FSF’s commanding general regarding the hajj, including how to treat pilgrims properly. The Interior Ministry is under the control of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was just promoted to next in line to inherit the Saudi throne.

Further, Saad al-Ateeq’s biography states that he chairs the board of a quasi-governmental Saudireligious authority known as the Cooperative Office for Preaching, Guidance, and Direction in the Neighborhoods of West Naseem in Riyadh. Such cooperative offices around Saudi Arabia have sponsored dozens of Ateeq’s lectures throughout the country, with fliers featuring the logo of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which supervises the government-subsidized offices. Saudi Arabia’s official news wire has similarly promoted dozens of lectures by Ateeq, going back as far as a decade.

This March, Ateeq delivered a lecture at Riyadh’s King Khaled Mosque. The mosque’s “religious and social activities” come with the “sponsorship” of the King Khaled Charitable Foundation, the board of which is overseen by six princes and princesses fathered by the late King Khaled. Fliers used by the mosque to promote Ateeq’s lecture included logos of the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry and the late king’s foundation, and the foundation’s logo was also prominently featured behind Ateeq during his talk. The King Khaled Charitable Foundation did not respond to requests for comment on its involvement with Ateeq.

It is perhaps an irony of the Arabic language that Ateeq’s last name translates to “archaic” or “antiquated,” since he embodies the Gulf’s most backwards impulses. But the Saudi preacher’s obvious incitement is far from an isolated case: The kingdom systematically indoctrinates its youth with hateful views in official, government-published school textbooks. Recent government-published textbooks state that those who renounce Islam to convert to another religion should be killed, and that the most important debate about homosexuality was how gay people should be murdered. That is unlikely to change anytime soon so long as religious hardliners such as Ateeq are granted influence over the Saudi education system.

As the region’s superpower patron, it is up to Washington to voice its displeasure about the continued flow of state privileges to preachers of hate. Such incitement undoubtedly poses a long-term threat to the fight against terror and to U.S. national security.

President Barack Obama should say as much when he sits down with GCC leaders at Camp David later this month. The president himself warned recently that the Gulf states face an internal threat from a “destructive and nihilistic” ideology; when he meets with the Gulf leaders, he can argue that tackling this sort of religious incitement is in these regimes’ best interest. By providing an official platform to hate preachers such as Ateeq, Gulf rulers are feeding an ideological chimera that threatens their ultimate survival.