During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe in May, U.S. President Donald Trump inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI) in Riyadh -- an endeavor that its appointed secretary-general, Nasir Al-Biqami of Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, described as the "fruit of collaboration between Muslim countries that believe in the importance of combating terrorism."
However admirable a goal from the point of view of the West, this initiative has little chance of success, given the repressive regimes involved and the extremist worldview of the individuals who will be funded to promote it.
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, May 21, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
As Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and top adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush, wrote:
"Partnerships with repressive regimes may in some cases exacerbate rather than solve the problem for us. Gradual reform is exactly the right approach, but will we see President Trump pushing President Sisi of Egypt (with whom he is friendly), or Erdogan of Turkey, or the Bahrainis, for gradual reform?"
Pointing to the weakness of Trump's praise of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for "working to undermine... radicalism," Abrams stated:
"This is quite wrong. The Sunni royal family's oppression of the country's Shia majority is in fact creating a breeding ground for radicalism and opening a door for Iranian subversion. ... Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism. All around the world, Saudi money is being used to suppress indigenous forms of Islam. Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach that local and moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version: the Saudi Wahhabi version. But that version of Islam treats unbelievers with contempt and often hatred, oppresses women, and opposes democracy."
Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the CFR, highlighted a different problem with the U.S. administration's approach and establishment of the GCCEI, writing:
"The new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology seems to be the logical extension of Obama's efforts in the same area. In February 2015, the United States hosted a summit on combating violent extremism, which produced follow-up regional meetings to tackle various aspects of this phenomenon. It may have amounted to little more than extended speechifying..."
Cook referred to Trump's efforts as "picking up where Obama left off." He continued:
"Even on Iran, which Trump identified as the source of extremism and instability in the Middle East, the White House issued waivers on May 17 regarding Iranian sanctions, in keeping with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (know more commonly as the Iran nuclear deal)."
The only way, therefore, that the GCCEI can become more than simply another heavily-funded, failed organization -- and contribute credibly to the war on global extremism and terror -- is for its member states to engage in genuine introspection and undertake serious study of the roots of radicalism.
The GCCEI needs to examine, among other things, the way in which its patron, Saudi Arabia, has participated in, if not spearheaded, the very extremism that it is claiming now to combat: the connection between Wahhabism and terrorism; the hostility of its regime to democracy; the abuse of human rights; and the suppression of moderate interpretations of Islam.
The other Muslim/Arab states taking part in the initiative, too, must address the possible correlation between their regimes' repression, humiliation and torture of their people and the adoption of violence on the part of individuals. Only after acknowledging and scrutinizing these questions can internal reform take place.
Is the GCCEI interested, willing or able to undertake such measures, or will it serve as an arena for Saudi propaganda and short-sighted state-security work? The latter is more likely, for a number of reasons.
First, Muslim/Arab leaders have come to learn, from past experience, that much of the White House's approach to the Middle East begins and ends with lip service. Second, when Trump stated that fighting extremism and terrorism "transcends every other consideration," he was, in effect, giving them unwritten permission to continue cracking down on their citizens.
Third, according to its website, the GCCEI -- called Etidal ("moderation") in Arabic -- will be managed by a board of 12 directors appointed every five years, and the number of directors from each member state will be based on that country's financial contribution to the center. In other words, the center will be ruled by -- and further the interests of -- wealthy absolute monarchies.
Finally, GCCEI research on how terrorist groups function, coupled with innovative monitoring techniques that the center develops, will provide additional fodder to the arsenals employed by member states not only to tackle terrorism committed by groups they oppose, but to enhance the political stronghold of their regimes.
A.Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.