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The Holy Battle Of Ideas

9/11 was a great embarrassment for the Saudi leaders, but terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2003 underlined the need for the kingdom to reinvent itself from an incubator for terrorists to promoting a more pluralistic view of Islam

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The Holy Battle Of Ideas
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WASHINGTON

Since the September 11 attacks in which 15 of the 19 terrorists hailed from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom and its religious policies have been the focus of Western criticism.

But Saudi Arabia has also clamped down on extremism and been victim of a series of violent terrorist attacks. Foreign observers wonder whether the kingdom, founded on its duty as the guardian of Islam and deeply influenced by Wahhabist thinking, can effectively fight extremism or open the political space without allowing Islamic radicals to ride on ballot boxes to power as in Algeria or Palestine. In the past three years, Saudi Arabia has undertaken measures to address the extremist challenge, not just by use of force but through a holistic approach. Stability of the kingdom and its role as the principal supplier of energy to the world hangs on the success of the policy experiment underway.

Depending on whom one asks, Wahhabism is either a puritanical brand of Islam that adheres to a strict interpretation of the Koran and Sunna, the life of the Prophet, or it's a radical interpretation behind the rise of Islamist militancy and terrorism worldwide.

The central region of Najd has been a stronghold for Wahhabism since 1744, when the Saudi patriarch Muhammad Bin Saud concluded an alliance with a religious reformer, Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab. Abdul Wahhab was on a quest to spread an interpretation of Islam that emphasized Tawhid, or the oneness of God. His mission entailed eliminating many of the common beliefs and rituals which he regarded as apostasy. He found a willing partner and able leader in Muhammad Bin Saud.

The founder of the modern Saudi State, Abdul Aziz Bin Saud not only adhered to his ancestors' vision, but made it a reality. Today, the kingdom is committed to both protecting holy sites in Mecca and Medina and to the Dawa, or call to Islam of Abdul Wahhab. Islam remains the prism through which everything is seen in the kingdom.

Militants' interpretation of Islam, whether based on Wahhabism or other doctrines, justifies terrorism as a means to let "true" Islam reign in Saudi Arabia and the wider Muslim world. 

Like other militant groups across the globe, Saudi militants never fully articulated a political program. Clearly they despise the West in general and the US in particular, whom they see as spearheading a global campaign to oppress if not annihilate Muslims. They also consider the Saudi government as nothing more than a pawn of the US that had abandoned its Islamic roots long ago. Militants strive to expel the US from Muslim lands and replace US-friendly regimes with a truly Islamic caliphate by force.

The announcement by the Saudi interior ministry in early December 2006 of the arrest over the previous months of 136 Islamist militants who were in different stages of planning terrorist attacks inside the kingdom indicates an ongoing threat from terrorism. It also confirms what many security analysts have concluded, mainly that increased funding and training for the internal security apparatus has given the government the upper hand, in thwarting recent attacks and apprehending many militant leaders during security operations.

The 9/11 attacks on the US were a great source of embarrassment for the Saudi leaders, but terrorist attacks inside the kingdom in 2003 made it clear that the kingdom had a serious problem as an incubator for terrorists.

The quest to find the roots of Islamist militancy led the Saudis to undergo a healthy process of critical self-evaluation. The end result was a comprehensive and multi-dimensional campaign that is both a security operation and a public-awareness program. Much more than winning a conventional war, the Saudis realized that they can prevail only by presenting a more hopeful vision for the future of Saudi youth, one in stark contrast to the apocalyptic and foreboding scenario offered by militants. Using religious principles and nationalist ethos, the government has embarked on what it describes as an unprecedented campaign with the inescapable message that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and mercy.

Shortly following the 2003 attacks, authorities began to address the political, social and economic conditions that had allowed Islamist radicalism and by extension, militancy, to flourish in the kingdom. Although some Saudis refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of extremism among their youth, convinced instead that the problem is not homegrown, rather fueled by groups based outside the kingdom, the extensive initiatives indicate that the government has no illusions about the pervasiveness of the problem.

Given the vital role Islamic clerics and Imams play in Saudi society, the government took measures to curb the extremist rhetoric coming from some religious authorities. Hundreds of radical imams and clerics were dismissed, others were "retrained," and those who supported terrorism were imprisoned. Three prominent clerics were arrested for their support of terrorism, who then recanted their views on Saudi television for millions to see.

However, radical clerics continue to issue edicts in support of the insurgency in Iraq and against Shia Muslims. The government must put a stop to these edicts, especially given the rising sectarian tensions that can potentially engulf the region.

It is worth noting that in their "war" on terror, Saudi authorities distinguished between hardened criminals and those who merely sympathized with the cause, not engaging in actual operations. Militants who carried out attacks were imprisoned and even executed, but other radicals were given a chance to turn themselves in and receive amnesty. Although the amnesty program offered in 2004 netted few militants, it provided a stark contrast between the government's conception of Islam and that exhibited by militants whose rhetoric is filled with rage and actions demonstrate no mercy.

Other moderate clerics have reached out in person and through Islamist websites to radicals and militant sympathizers to convince them to renounce violence and embrace moderate, mainstream Islam. The government has also promoted "moderate" Islam through a comprehensive media campaign. Newspapers, television, radio and billboards expose Saudis to firsthand accounts from ex-radicals who described how their ignorance of "true" Islam made them easy prey for militant recruiters. The Saudis also used many prominent clerics to debunk the militants' religious claims.

Just as importantly, the Saudis realized that their schools and curricula needed serious reevaluation. Saudi writers, academics and some officials acknowledged that parts of the curriculum promoted intolerance of non-Muslims and propagated extremist interpretations of Islam. Some teachers were radicals themselves and were either removed or retrained. Officials report that they are in the process of revising curricula after scrutiny by Saudis inside the kingdom and outside organizations. In addition, they explore ways to introduce new teaching methods to promote critical thinking among Saudi students as opposed to simple rote learning. Saudi youths learn that Islam has different schools of interpretation, or mathhabs, which should promote a more pluralistic view of Islam and delegitimize radical clerics who practice excommunication.

The shooting of four French tourists in late February leaves little doubt that Saudi Arabia will continue to battle Islamist militants for the foreseeable future. The Saudi government has undertaken a range of first steps to win the ultimate battle for the hearts and minds of the Saudi people. Not only peace and stability of the kingdom but to a large extent the prosperity of the oil-hungry world hangs by the thread of Saudi success.


Fahad Nazer is a fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, DC, and coauthor of an upcoming monograph entitled Inside the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's people, Its Politics and Its Future, to be published in late 2007 by the American Enterprise Institute. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online.


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