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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) gestures next to Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (left) and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the end of Syria peace talks on Oct. 15, 2016 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Getty Images) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) gestures next to Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (left) and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the end of Syria peace talks on Oct. 15, 2016 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) gestures next to Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (left) and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the end of Syria peace talks on Oct. 15, 2016 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Getty Images)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher October 21, 2016

Russ Feingold says U.S. ally Saudi Arabia exports extreme Islam that teaches Americans are the devil

Near the end of an hourlong interview at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 7, 2016, Russ Feingold was asked about his criticism of Saudi Arabia in the fight against international terrorism.

The Wisconsin Democrat, who is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, gave this answer:

"Here is a country that is a friend; at least an ally. A country that we have a good relationship with, that can help us in a lot of ways -- not just with oil, but in military situations such as what’s going on in a number of places in the Middle East.

"Having said that, though, this regime has embraced Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an extreme form of Islam that they have paid to export throughout the world.

"This Wahhabism is the principle force -- going from Pakistan to Ethiopia to Mali and now to Kosovo -- that is turning perfectly moderate Muslim peoples, peace-loving peoples, into people who adopt an extreme religious approach where the women are all covered up and they are basically taught that Americans are the devil.

"How can we allow a country to be perceived as a friend -- across the board, without any questions -- when they are doing such a terrible thing?"

So, has a U.S. ally "paid to export throughout the world" Wahhabism -- "an extreme form of Islam" that basically teaches "Americans are the devil"?

Saudi is an ally

As Feingold intimated, Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, even if the relationship is sometimes uneasy.

Saudi Arabia has been a close ally in the Middle East since World War II, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in April 2016, even as differences on issues such as Iran have strained the relationship.

In testimony before a congressional committee in May 2016, a Middle East scholar from the Brookings Institution led off by saying: "On the one hand, the Saudi government is a close partner of the United States on counterterrorism. On the other hand, Saudi support for an array of preachers and non-government organizations contributes to an overall climate of radicalization, making it far harder to counter violent extremism."

Politico Magazine was more blunt. In 2014, it named Saudi Arabia No. 2 on its list of America’s 25 most awkward allies, saying: "No country buys more U.S. weapons than the autocratic, oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchy, and no country — with its obscurantist interpretation of Islam, medieval punishments and harsh treatment of women — makes for a more embarrassing U.S. ally."

It paid to export Wahhabism

Estimates on the dollar amount vary, but there is widespread agreement that Saudi Arabia pays to export Wahhabism.

UCLA history professor James Gelvin, whose research specialties include Social and cultural history of the modern Middle East, told us it’s been estimated that since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has spent $100 billion spreading Wahhabism through schools, mosques, the media and other means.

Saudi expert David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focused on foreign policy and national security, told us he’s not convinced the amount is that high but there’s no question billions have been spent.

And an August 2016 news article in the New York Times, in which three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries were interviewed, stated there has been "lavish spending on religious outreach for half a century, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars."

Wahhabism is extreme

The Times article said Wahhabism, the Islam taught in and by Saudi Arabia, is named after an 18th-century cleric who founded it and is a "literalist, ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam" whose adherents "often denigrate other Islamic sects as well as Christians and Jews."

Westerners typically understand Wahhabism to be an austere form of Islam based on a literal reading of the Koran, as PolitiFact National noted in rating as Pants on Fire a claim that a school President Barack Obama attended in Indonesia taught Wahhabism. Indeed, the Islamic State adheres to strict, literal interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings that are rooted in Wahhabism, which is the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, as PunditFact has reported.

William McCants, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, told us Wahhabism "is one of the most intolerant forms of Islam." And in Gelvin’s view, Wahhabism "has squeezed out other, more moderate forms of Islam and in many places in the Middle East, it is the only game in town."

Americans are the devil?

Thie final part of Feingold’s claim is more debatable.

"I would agree with everything except the ‘Americans are the devil,’" Islamic specialist Khaleel Mohammed, a religious studies professor San Diego State University, told us. "Having studied there, I must say I never found any insinuation as such. But, I would agree that Wahhabism promotes ‘occidentophobia’ (anti-Western sentiments among Muslims)."

Weinberg, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called that part of Feingold’s claim debatable and other experts use different characterizations.

The Brookings Institution’s McCants told us that "official Saudi textbooks teach that Christians are seeking to destroy the religion and must be hated as a consequence."

Calling Feingold’s devil reference "a bit of an exaggeration," Gelvin said Wahhabism conflicts with American values such as equal rights for women and popular sovereignty, "and acts as the gateway drug for many who go on to become jihadis."

Our rating

Feingold says Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has "paid to export throughout the world" Wahhabism -- "an extreme form of Islam" that basically teaches "Americans are the devil."

Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, albeit sometimes with strained relations. It has paid to export Wahhabism and Wahhabism is an extreme form of Islam. But it’s not clear that Wahhabism teaches that Americans are the devil.

We rate Feingold’s statement Mostly True.

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Says Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has "paid to export throughout the world" Wahhabism -- "an extreme form of Islam" that basically teaches "Americans are the devil."
In an interviewq
Friday, October 7, 2016

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, video (1:03:00) of Russ Feingold interview, Oct. 6, 2016

Email, Russ Feingold campaign spokesman Michael Tyler, Oct. 11, 2016

PolitiFact National, "Obama attended an Indonesian public school," Dec. 20, 2007

PunditFact, "Why Obama won't label ISIS 'Islamic extremists,’" Feb. 22, 2015

Politico Magazine, "America’s 25 Most Awkward Allies," March/April 2014

New York Times, "Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists
and the Firefighters,’"
Aug. 26, 2016

Council on Foreign Relations, "U.S.-Saudi Relations," April 21, 2016

Email, San Diego State University religious studies professor Khaleel Mohammed, Oct. 17, 2016

Brookings Institution, congressional testimony, May 24, 2016

Email, Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World director William McCants, Oct. 20, 2016

Interview, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow David Andrew Weinberg, Oct. 20, 2016

PolitiFact National, "Obama attended an Indonesian public school," Dec. 20, 2007

PunditFact, "Why Obama won't label ISIS 'Islamic extremists,'" Feb. 22, 2015

Email, UCLA history professor James Gelvin, Oct. 19, 2016

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Russ Feingold says U.S. ally Saudi Arabia exports extreme Islam that teaches Americans are the devil

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