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Reflecting Calmly on Violent Religious Discourse - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A few days ago, as Saudis enjoyed a light meal in the early hours before beginning their fasts, the Royal Court issued a statement announcing that the Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Prince Mohammed Bin Naif had been subjected to an assassination attempt by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber who had planted a bomb in his stomach. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, the prince miraculously survived the attack.

This time, the Al Qaeda operation was shocking in terms of both its method and its target; the man’s stomach was used as a bomb and the target was Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, the number one field commander in the fight against Al Qaeda, who has always shown determination and resolution in this fight.

Among other things, this shocking incident reveals the advanced methods that have been adopted by fundamentalist terrorists in Saudi Arabia, and their die-hard ability to confront, transform and adapt to all conditions, as well as to create new ways of operating and continuing on their pursued paths. This adaptation was able to outdo the diverse security measures adopted by Saudi security bodies in the fields of monitoring, data collection, declared and undeclared arrest operations, and last but not least, regional and international coordination in order to tighten the grip on wanted suspects outside of Saudi Arabia. In brief, these are just some of the tough methods that the Saudi Ministry of Interior adopted. There are also soft methods to confront terrorism such as giving advice, reducing the penalties given to those who turn themselves in, facilitating family visits for prisoners and even issuing temporary release for some detainees based on humanitarian grounds or because of social obligations. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif has personally contributed to this softer method by attending the weddings of some released detainees and helping them financially on behalf of the Ministry of Interior or by personally meeting those who want to surrender themselves, as a sign of reassurance. However, Prince Mohammed would have lost his life during one of those gatherings had it not been for the grace of God.

Despite the efficiency of the Saudi security bodies, terrorism has not been defeated and the “deviant group” – a term used by the Saudi Interior Ministry – still exists. Furthermore, it is still recruiting new members, developing its techniques and adapting to the ever-changing variables. Suffice to mention the [arrest of the] list of 44, which was announced just days before the failed attempt on the prince’s life and statement that the Interior Ministry made about the group’s ability to create an electrical circuit that could be detonated from afar or even from overseas.

This means that terrorism in Saudi Arabia is yet to raise the white flag. This reminds us of a comment made by King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz when the security clashes [with terrorist groups] first began. He said that the war on terrorism could last 30 years.

Where are we heading in this confrontation?

An intelligent individual told me that what is happening in Saudi today resembles, to some degree, what happened in Egypt in the past. Religious violence in Egypt began with the targeting of foreigners before expanding to include financial and economic institutions, small banks, jewellers, state officials and intellectuals as their targets.

Interestingly, he said that the beginning of contemporary terrorism in Egypt was in 1988, when the first tour bus was attacked on the Cairo-Ismailia desert road. Shortly before that there was the assassination attempt of former Minister of Interior Nabawi Ismail in 1987. There was a series of attacks on public utilities and then the assassination of the Egyptian thinker Farag Foda in 1992, the assassination attempt on former Prime Minister Atef Sedki and Minister of Interior Hassan al Alfi in 1993 and the assassination attempt on Naguib Mahfouz’s life in 1994, as well as the bombing and robberies of banks in 1995. Terrorist operations in Egypt reached a climax in the assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. The situation calmed down slightly only to flare up again after a group of fundamentalist militants attacked a tour bus in Luxor in 1997 and opened fire on the foreign tourists on board, killing most of them. Terrorists in Egypt diversified their targets and targeted Egyptian interests abroad, and this was demonstrated by the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan in 1995 (perhaps Saudi terrorists followed suit by targeting Saudi interests abroad and this is something that should be given attention). The story does not end there.

Modern-day terrorism in Saudi Arabia began by focusing on targets that were “semi” foreign in the eyes of extremists, such as the headquarters of the National Guard training centre in Riyadh in 1995, or the housing compounds where Saudis, Arabs and foreigners lived such as Al Hamra and Granada housing complexes at the beginning of May 2003. After that, terrorism targeted purely government bodies such as the Emergency and Traffic Department headquarters and began targeting high-ranking security officers. In the end however, terrorism got within close reach of the dynamo of the security institution, Prince Mohammed Bin Naif. We hope the evil hand of terrorism stops here and does not strike soft targets such as writers and intellectuals.

Some people strongly rely on the concept of “revisions” amongst these fundamentalist groups. However, we must not exaggerate.

It is worth mentioning that that there have been cases of “revisions” in Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt. Despite the fact that I believe that some of them are sincere and others are not, I do not think that this is the source of the problem. Changing one’s viewpoint and reconsidering an ideology is something that a person should take credit for, especially if the decision is completely self determined. This goes for all kinds of trends and ideologies such as Communist and nationalist extremists. But all these cases of repentance do not mean that the problem has been solved. So what is the solution?

This is a big question. I believe that there should be debate on the basic points that make up the foundation of religious violent discourse. Restricted ideas regarding Sharia law and the duty of a Muslim are based on this foundation, and human activity is confined to a religious concept that goes beyond any borders and cancels out the concepts of statehood and citizenship. It ignores the concept of statehood and turns it into a pagan practice and sanctifies the concept of the Islamic state and links all forms of legitimacy and existence to this one and only bond i.e. the bond of religion. However, of course, this depends on the discourse’s own definition of the state. For example depending on the definition, terrorist attacks should not be carried out in Saudi Arabia because “it is where the two Holy Mosques are located” or because “there are many good people in the country” or because “the preaching of Islam is widespread there” or because “its mosques are always full” in which there are “people who pray, fast and make supplications to God” and all other kinds of pretexts provided to express disapproval of the conduct of terrorists in Saudi Arabia.

But what does this mean? And what is its underlying message?

It simply means that the “legitimacy of the state” from this perspective is of no significance unless certain conditions and specifications have been laid down by those fundamentalists. The underlying message in this discourse is that if those conditions and specifications are not met, then resorting to terrorism would be an option or even a requirement if it is within reach. Such an act would then be classified as Jihad and not as terrorism according to their own ideology. Of course, all this reflects a terrifying sense of deterioration with regards to establishing the concept of statehood within the fabric of our cultural discourse.

Naturally, it would be incorrect to say that the sheikhs and preachers who voice this opinion actually mean to convey that underlying message. In fact, most of them do not intend to do that and needless to say, they are no less disturbed as others by all the killing and destruction that is taking place in the country. But what they mean does not count here; what really counts is the impact of the words and how effective they can be in eliminating the discourse of religious violence from the core.

It seems that the cure to the discourse of religious violence is not preaching or provoking emotions and turning the youth from human bombs into either ineffective people with no thoughts or people who tend to preach to members of society without resorting to violence. I do not think that the cure lies in avoiding discussions on the discourse of religious violence. Those fundamentalists are against the concept of the state and those who are for the state because they think it does not implement Islamic Sharia law and does nothing for Jihad for the sake of God. This is how they are able to convince the youth. Those fundamentalists do not tell the youth things that are completely alien to them or far removed from what they hear with regards to the spread of deviation and immorality and about those who do not live according to the Quran and about those who sign international agreements and pacts. If immunity to self-criticism has been lost then all we need is a young man who has nothing to fear for or a mature man who has lost all his interests and has nothing more to lose. Discussing these ideologies is not only a detailed juristic debate but is created through a profound humanistic discourse.

I believe that what is required in Saudi Arabia and in every society that is being stung by fundamentalist violence is to confront extremism and not terrorism, because what we all agree on confronting i.e. terrorism is not a controversial issue. However, what we really need to discuss as a society are the things we disagree on i.e. extremism, provided that we do not gloat over each others’ defeat. If sedition breaks out, nobody will be spared so let us open up our hearts and minds and reach a consensus for the sake of national unity and stability.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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