The Saudi scene remains confused when confronting extremism and terrorism. This is only natural after many years of trying to understand and define the phenomenon. The threat to the Kingdom from extremism and terrorism has been clear, from the infamous Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979 to the deaths of our people at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Nusra Front, and other affiliates of the warped Al-Qaeda ideology.
It has been pointed out that there are Saudi nationals fighting in every global hotspot. This is because they are worth more than just their fighting capabilities to extremist groups—they also serve as excellent publicity tools helping to attract new trained fighters and finance to the militants’ cause, sometimes—unfortunately—from members of their own families acting out of ignorance or fear. Normally, families will only approach the authorities after they have lost contact with their son, or in some cases only until after news of his death.
Today, the debate is not about how to describe terrorism. Indeed Saudi society passed that stage a long time ago, following a long period of violence in the country when the government made combating terrorism one of its top priorities. This war, as King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has said on more than one occasion, is ongoing. Rather, today the debate is about which tools and weapons to use to combat extremism. However, that debate has moved from being one driven by a desire to rehabilitate and reform those who have been snared by these ideas to being used as a political football.
Political Islam and the main figures of the “Islamic Awakening” exploit terrorism as a last resort. When facing difficulties or challenges, or the weakening of their own social and political standing, they support and justify terrorism in a bid to embarrass their governments. This includes issuing endless statements calling on the people and government to support these Islamist causes, but they fail to even question the ideology or modus operandi of these extremist groups. Have you ever read a single statement from such groups questioning the actions of extremist groups in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria? What about extremist takfirist groups calling on the youth to go and fight in these areas? Shouldn’t this [calling for jihad] be a “religious” duty, not one undertaken by political factions or agitators?
All Muslims—including the Islamists—agree that jihad can only be legal when it is called for by the Wali Al-Amr (Islamic term for ruler). However this term is subject to different interpretations, particularly as terrorists do not recognize the state as a national entity and instead pay homage to warlords. Therefore, they find it very easy to find and exploit loopholes in Islamic Shari’a law in this regard. This is made even easier by the lack of general knowledge regarding the interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law, particularly the differences between the modern interpretation and the classical interpretation dating back to the Caliphate era, especially those relating to jihad and war.
Terrorism is an extremely complex phenomenon incorporating diverse social and political elements, as well as psychological determinations and economic conditions. We lack the sophistication to deal with this dangerous phenomenon which has not and will not be solved by employing counter-arguments based on the same sources that those advocating terrorism use, particularly when both sides are trying to use old sources to address a new reality. This is something called Fiqh Al-Nawazil (issuing Islamic Shari’a law decrees addressing unprecedented occurrences), an area of research which has long stagnated following the decline of the four major Shari’a schools and the death of their major scholars. This is not to mention the failure of religious research institutions in developing a new vision to deal with these kinds of issues.
The fear of conducting a serious and genuine review of Islamic Shari’a law is based on the fierce attacks that have been launched by conservatives on external attempts to renew religious discourse over the past decades. The conservative tendency consider such endeavors an attack on religion itself. This is part of a clever bid to hide behind the “holiness” of religion, with religious figures claiming a kind of secondary “holiness,” and this is something that we are paying the price for today.
In summary, fighting the modern phenomenon of terrorism can only take place through adopting a religious counter-argument and Ijtihad (a personal interpretation of Shari’a law independent of any established jurisprudence schools). Political Islam has helped to revolutionize the Salafist discourse which remained socially extreme but ultimately peaceful. In my view, throughout its history political Islam has acted as a guarantor for political legitimacy. It is impossible to fight terrorism so long as we fail to recognize this new reality.