RIYADH,(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s top security official has pledged to tackle extremist clerics whom he blamed for enticing young men to join Islamic militants sworn to toppling the kingdom’s U.S.-allied monarchy.
“Those who consider themselves to be guides or muftis have to stop doing this and return to their senses,” Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz said in remarks published in newspapers on Monday.
“The authorities in charge are on their back and will not leave them alone. We see in them a greater threat than that coming from those who perpetrate the acts.”
Prince Naif last week said the “virus” of extremism was still alive in Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter, despite success by authorities in curbing attacks led by al Qaeda sympathizers.
Radical clerics in the kingdom and abroad have in the past issued edicts that likened to jihad or holy struggle any attack against the Saudi government and Western residents in the birthplace of Islam.
Militants loyal to al Qaeda launched a violent campaign to topple the U.S.-allied monarchy in 2003, carrying out suicide bomb attacks on foreigners and government buildings, including the oil industry.
Tough security measures helped curb the violence but analysts and diplomats say radical Islamic ideology and anger at Western policy remain strong.
Prince Nayef urged the official religious establishment and researchers to avoid the spread of extremist views.
“If there is no efficient and positive action from our scholars, clerics, mosque imams, thinkers, newspapers and television channels to develop and strengthen ideological security, we will have a deficiency,” he said.
Western diplomats say any effort by Saudi authorities to fight extremist clerics may be hampered by its adherence to an austere brand of Islam and the significant influence this has on the education curriculum.
The kingdom maintains, for instance, strict gender segregation and bans a sizeable non-Muslim expatriate community from publicly performing religious rites and celebrations.
Asked by a female journalist if he supported the idea of having conferences dedicated only to women professionals, Prince Naif said he did not think it was a good idea.
“I hope we don’t strengthen the idea of segregation in our society,” he said.