STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
A scholar says Americans should not ignore some mistaken thinking about Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, whose king was just referenced there. Juan Cole is the author of a new book called "Engaging the Muslim World" and he wants his readers to think again about countries like Saudi Arabia. It's widely known that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. Juan Cole says some people abuse that fact to fuel suspicion of the Saudi government, or of the Saudi strain of Islam known as Wahhabism.
JUAN COLE: The implication I think is that the admittedly puritanical and rigid form of Islam that's practiced in Saudi Arabia, somehow is connected to the promotion of terrorism among Muslims towards the United States.
INSKEEP: Just in that one sentence, you've touched on a lot of things that concern people about Saudi Arabia, the way that they treat women, the general rules that are applied there and whether they're an ally of the United States or not really an ally of the United States.
COLE: I think you have to separate these things out. These concerns about the peculiarities of Saudi Arabia or how it is that they arrange their gender relations and what their idea of public morality is in so forth, can't possibly be a basis for ordinary everyday diplomacy.
INSKEEP: Well let's name another concern. The dominant form of Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia is described as Wahhabism. And if you just say Wahhabis, in many parts of the world, not just the United States, people immediately get an image of extremists about whom you need to very concerned.
COLE: Sure. And what I'm saying is that, actually, let's count up the terrorists and see where they come from and what they do - and we find that very few of them are Wahhabis.
First of all, you know, one of the major concerns of the United States is Hezbollah, which is the Shiite movement. And a very large proportion of all the suicide bombings that were being carried out before the Iraq war were by Shiites. And then you had groups in Egypt like al-Jamal Islamia of the blind Sheikh, that was implicated in the first World Trade Center bombing; or the Egyptian Islamic jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri that went on to be part of al- Qaida. Nine of the 12 directors of al-Qaida are actually Egyptians. So when you start looking into or in counting up things, actually the Wahhabis aren't disproportionately present in the ranks of terrorists.
INSKEEP: So who are they?
COLE: Well, they began as a mid 18th century reform movement in Islam and a lot of people have suggested that there are some similarities between the Wahhabis and the European Protestant movement. But even so...
INSKEEP: You're talking about the original Protestants: Martin Luther, the reformation, that sort of thing.
COLE: Yes. The Wahhabis originally rejected any intersession or intermediary between the human being and the divine. There should be no shrines, no saints, no iconography. Well, you know, that's, that's not such a foreign set of ideas.
INSKEEP: So Juan Cole, you're arguing for a different perception - not an entirely positive one - but a different perception of Saudi Arabia and of it's dominant religion. People talk about American soft power, whether it's cultural influence or goodwill or economic aid. I'm thinking of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, where there is a colossal mosque that was paid for with Saudi money and there are establishments like that all through the region. Is it really the Saudis who have soft power in those countries and who could deploy it if properly engaged?
COLE: Well the Saudis certainly have soft power and that's one of the reasons that they promote their form of Islam in other countries - that becomes a form of soft power for them. And because they have street cred with some of the more hard line religious factions, the Saudis you know are in a position to foster dialogue, to settle disputes, to mediate amongst parties that are - have fallen out with one another. And it has been one of the roles that the Saudis have been playing in recent years with some success.
INSKEEP: Juan Cole is author of "Engaging the Muslim World." Thanks very much.
COLE: Thank you.
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