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Saudi Arabia: Has the Religious Establishment Succeeded in Countering Al-Qaeda’s Ideology? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- A jihadist website recently posted an audio recording by Sultan al-Utaybi, a man wanted by the Saudi security services who was subsequently killed in a clash.

In the recording Al-Utaybi addresses a crowd of his supporters and complains that he and his colleagues who were seeking advice were ignored by several clerics belonging to the official establishment. This drove them to rely on the religious edicts [fatwa] issued by the organization’s ideologues. This created a situation where Al-Qaeda’s theoreticians, like Sultan al-Utaybi, offered advice to the state’s official clerics at the same time that these clerics were trying to give them counsel. It became a war of mutual counseling.

Religious scholars gave counseling sessions to imprisoned extremists and persons involved in security incidents. At the same time the clerics of the official establishment were being “counseled” by extremists during the lessons they gave and in their private gatherings. The extremists were urging them to publicly oppose what the extremists considered “transgressions and instances of vice.”

Who Made Who

After the security services uncovered a cell consisting of 61 members who, standing in front of the Kaaba, swore allegiance and obedience to a man who deluded them into believing that he was the “Awaited Mahdi,” we find it necessary to ask a certain question. It took this man one year and three months to recruit 61 members have the clerics succeeded in containing, analyzing, and finding ways to neutralize extremist ideology? Or does the problem lie in the counseling language itself?

According to Dr Tawfiq al-Sudayri, under secretary at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Call, and Guidance, Saudi religious scholars and Shariaa institutions have played a role in enlightening young men through lectures and religious programs in the past few years. In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, he pointed out that it is necessary to continue this treatment for a long period of time and not deal with the phenomenon as one would deal with a transient illness or wait until the symptoms begin to appear.

Infiltration and Saturation

Regarding the speed with which Saudi youths are being recruited into armed extremist organizations; Al-Sudayri said that he believes that these groups have succeeded in infiltrating several establishments, enabling the recruiters to reach numbers of young men who are religious by “natural inclination.” He added that in order to handle this issue, one must expose the recruiters and remove the “false” Shariaa cover under which they hide.

Al-Sudayri asserted that some young men who joined an organization of this sort gave as their excuse the fact that official Saudi scholars were not responsive to them and did not engage them in a dialogue. He refuted this excuse by noting that they could reach the official religious scholars by attending the lectures and special lessons that the clerics give on a daily basis. He said that they joined illegal organizations because they had been indoctrinated by other people in a way that made them hate the country’s rulers and its official clerics, whom they described as “establishment Ulema.”

He said that as a result of being influenced by hard-line ideologues, they refused to listen to the clerics. This created a barrier between the two sides.

Speaking about the Ulema’s role, Al-Sudayri criticized the fact that the clerics speak too gently with young men whom they described as zealous, asserting that polite exchanges are unacceptable when confronting wrong behavior that breaks the law. He said that at this time everyone, both ordinary citizens and people of distinguished status in society, should avoid polite and timid treatment of this phenomenon.

An Anti-extremism Committee

The Islamic Affairs Ministry’s under secretary said that he supports the idea of establishing a higher committee to combat extremist ideology and called for conducting a thorough study into the reasons why young men adopt such an ideology, especially during a time when extremists are becoming bolder and louder everywhere and have infiltrated most countries.

Al-Sudayri recommended preventive action and said that it is necessary to explain to the public what a deviant ideology is and refrain from dealing “timidly” with any person who expresses such an ideology. He added that Saudi society now needs a comprehensive national project of cultural and religious enlightenment to eliminate the causes that led to the birth of this hard-line ideology. He urged all those who would be involved in this project to carry out their roles, draw up timetables, and periodically reassess their performance so that the project itself would not end up as mere ink on paper.

Al-Sudayri said that he supports debates between the Ulema on one side and young men and women on the other in the places where they gather. He said that judging by the experiences of other Arab countries, such debates are effective. He added that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs is willing to arrange these debates. He said that it is very important to train teachers to participate in such programs and in this respect it is necessary for the Education Ministry to back the effort to see how responsive the teachers are to help in the program and correct the ideas that their young students have.

Failed Concepts

For his part Saudi writer and Islamic affairs specialist Muhammad al-Mahmud affirmed that some religious scholars have failed to touch on or debate the basic concepts that extremists espouse including jihad, allegiance and disavowal, and similar terms that have become widespread. He referred to the spread of hard-line religious attitudes and their strong role in feeding extremist ideology. He said that this has created a fertile climate for the recruitment of growing numbers of young men who are mostly in their mid-20s. He gave the example of the “Awaited Mahdi” who succeeded in recruiting 61 young men into an armed Al-Qaeda cell in a year and three months. And he did that in front of the Kaaba.

No Duality

However, Dr Muhammad al-Nujaymi, member of the prisons’ Counseling Committee, refused to accept that the country’s religious discourse, both in its social and political forms, has been the cause of the recruitment of young men who had no previous police records by armed organizations or what is called Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula.

According to Dr al-Nujaymi, there is no duality in the country’s religious discourse. He explained that the Shariaa rule over which no two clerics disagree is that the country’s ruler and the edicts released by the Committee of Senior Ulema are the sole sources of authority for declaring jihad. He added that any problems that pertain to the global order or other religious and social issues have no bearing on this matter.

Al-Nujaymi addressed the subject of Sultan al-Utaybi’s audio recording, in which Al-Utaybi criticized the official religious scholars’ failure to deal with the transgressions and instances of vice that they see in their society and their failure to listen to the young men’s views on this matter in order to deal with the problems that the young men saw. This caused the official Ulema to lose credibility and respect in the young men’s eyes. Al-Nujaymi admitted that until five years ago, this was truly the case but that the Ulema are now making a great effort to close the gap between them and young people.

The Counseling Committee member attributed the fact that young men have lost faith in the official clergy to the latter’s busy schedules and their involvement in carrying out their official duties, which occupy most of their time. A second reason, according to Al-Nujaymi, is that until a few years ago there were no teams of Ulema who were freed from all other duties to devote their time to debate and work with young men. He added that a third reason is that very few Ulema appear as guest speakers on satellite television stations to discuss and refute extremist ideology. He also said that the Ulema’s role even on local television stations has been reduced and they are not given enough time to discuss the issues of takfir [accusing others of disbelief], allegiance, and disavowal.

Al-Nujaymi said that he supports the idea of forming a national committee that draws its members from several departments to organize lectures and open debates at schools and universities under the supervision of the Interior Ministry and other ministries.

The Clerics’ Polite and Timid Talk

According to Sheikh Abdul-Mushin al-Obeikan, a Saudi mufti and adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Justice, the fact that Saudi youths are religious by natural inclination is one of the main reasons that they are susceptible to being recruited by extremist organizations.

Al-Obeikan explained that the excessive religious zeal shown by some religious scholars is a problem that needs to be solved. He stated that this is the method of some scholars however; Saudi society requires a “moderate religious discourse.”

Al-Obeikan commented on the fact that some religious scholars are too polite and hesitant in confronting hard-line ideology or explaining unclear ideas that some Saudi extremist groups adopt for example, explaining the extreme action of some youths. A case in point was when a number of young men attacked actors who were going to perform a play at the Al-Yamamah College. In another incident young extremists attacked the stalls at the Riyadh Book Fair. Al-Obeikan said, “Some clerics do not speak up simply out of politeness.” He urged them to be frank and refute every attempt by extremists to twist the meaning of various Shariaa laws, Quranic verses, and texts of Islamic jurisprudence to justify their actions.

Al Qaeda’s Propaganda – Who will Refute it?

Excerpts of Al Qaeda Literature in Saudi Arabia:

There are claims by some Muslim jurists that when the laws of disbelief prevail in a country, and the non-believers and their laws have the upper hand, then it is a land of apostasy. We believe that this description does not apply to residents when no Islamic state is in power and the apostates have the upper hand and control the country. This term is applied to a country where the laws of apostasy are observed even if the majority [of the population] is Muslim. A country is called a land of Islam even if most of its inhabitants are infidels as long as they are subject to Islamic rule.

-It is obligatory to rebel against the imams of disbelief, that is, the infidel rulers who control the lives and affairs of Muslims. They have abandoned religion by altering Shariaa, adding man-made laws to God’s laws, taking recourse to tyrants in the east and west as arbiters of their affairs, making the enemies of God their allies, and holding God’s religion and His pious subjects as enemies. It is every Muslim’s duty to change this condition, each according to his ability. He who is unable to bear arms should help in any capacity he can even if only by prayer and supplication to God. Material and moral preparation for this endeavour is a religious duty.

-There is no difference between a foreign infidel and a native infidel. This rule is based on a proper understanding of the concept of allegiance and disavowal and the foundations on which allegiance is sworn to a leader. Some people swear allegiance to their leaders because they are the descendants of certain clans. Some swear allegiance on the basis of affiliation to a certain homeland. Some swear allegiance on the basis of worldly interests. Shariaa has abolished all these foundations. It requires that Islam alone be the foundation on which allegiance is sworn.

-The evil coming from the infidels can only be averted by war. Hence, in order to put a complete end to the infidels’ evil power, it is necessary to engage in fighting and resort to military force.