Concerned about Saudi Arabian influence on American religious life, a Washington-based international watchdog group visited 15 American mosques to check for Saudi-published tracts, magazines and books.
The researchers found the literature in all 15 mosques, including the Muslim Community Center on the North Side. In all, they documented more than 200 pieces of literature promoting Wahhabism, a puritanical Muslim movement that dominates Saudi Arabia, denounces democracy and criticizes other faiths, including moderate forms of Islam.
The Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom conducted the study to examine one way by which the Saudi kingdom promulgates its unique brand of religious ideology. The literature is objectionable, the group says, because it promotes armed violence and alienation from American society.
“Our concern is what a foreign government is distributing in the United States,” said Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House who contributed research to an 89-page report. “We have made no claims about the overall pattern of literature in American mosques. Our focus is on the question of what the Saudi Arabian government is doing.”
But Muslim leaders and scholars in Chicago call the study an amateur and unfair attack on American Muslims, saying the Saudi texts quoted in the report do not reflect the prevailing ideology of the American Muslim community or that of the 35-year-old North Side congregation.
“We don’t receive any books; we don’t receive scholars; we don’t receive any funding [from Saudi Arabia],” said Mohammed Kaiseruddin, president of the Muslim Community Center, 4380 N. Elston Ave. “If we received anything, we’d look at them, we’d review them. If they are contrary to our practice of promoting harmony between faiths, then we will not use those books.”
He said mosque members have so far been unable to find any of the titles allegedly discovered at the Chicago center. If they do, they will conduct their own study of the books and their content before returning them to the shelves, he said.
The researchers sought literature that was distributed by the Saudi embassy, published by a government ministry or disseminated through a Saudi-supported mosque. They also looked for materials that contained commentaries by Saudi state and religious authorities or reflected Wahhabi ideology.
One book allegedly found in the Chicago mosque offers a Wahhabi critique of moderate Muslims, including a passage stating that “they openly declare the permissibility of unbelief and leaving Islam, under the call to the freedom of beliefs.”
According to the study, Saudi-published texts were found on the shelves of 15 metropolitan mosques in California, Texas, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in December 2003. Similar materials were found on return visits in December 2004.
Marshall, who has studied Saudi Arabian influence in Africa and Asia, said the study was intended to illustrate the wide geographic reach of Saudi Arabia’s teachings. The group has already asked the U.S. government to issue a diplomatic protest against Saudi Arabia for propagating its ideology within the United States.
Yaser Tabbara, executive director of Chicago’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, questions the motivation and methodology of the study.
“Are there Muslims who espouse bigoted views? The answer to that question is `yes,’ just like any other minority of any other faith,” said Tabbara. “What Freedom House is doing is unfortunately smearing all mosques in the United States and all mosque-goers by extension.”
If the researchers broadened their study, controversial literature would likely also turn up in other houses of worship, Kaiseruddin suggested.
“We are aware that there are books written with a little inflammatory language,” he said. “I don’t think books on Islam have a monopoly on those. There are books on other faiths that use inflammatory language. I don’t know that they can be classified as promoting hate.
“The only thing we’ve received from Saudi Arabia is a package of dates during the month of Ramadan,” he added. “We don’t reject that. We distribute it and we eat them. I don’t know that promotes any hatred among anybody.”
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