Saudi Salafism a Stronger Force in Islamist Militancy than Recanting Clerics

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 26

In the past month, the media have reported an attack on India’s embassy in Kabul, killing 41; an attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing 10; an attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, killing six; a raid by the Taliban and its allies on a U.S. firebase in Afghanistan’s Konar Province that killed nine American soldiers and a July 15 suicide bombing in Iraq that killed 28 Iraqi military recruits. While these events seem grim, fear not. The Western media continue to argue that victory is close over al-Qaeda and its allies. “Cheer up. We’re Winning this War on Terrorism,” says the London Times; “Turning Their Backs on Terror,” claims Der Spiegel; “Al-Qaeda’s Vietnam,” trumpets the New York Post (The Times, June 27; Der Spiegel, July 14; New York Post, June 17). How does one reconcile the former events with the latter analysis? And how pertinent is either to assessing the strength of Islamist extremism?

The war-against-Islamists-is-won media boom began in April, with articles by Western journalists claiming al-Qaeda is being destroyed by the recantations of former Islamist theoreticians (New Republic, June 11; New Yorker, May 26). The recantations, it was argued, are turning Muslims from al-Qaeda and its allies and persuading them to accept U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world and life under repressive police-state regimes. That the recanters’ words drew attention from Islamists is clear, but the argument that the recantations—delivered from Egypt’s prisons and the Saudi police state—spelled doom for Islamism seems overdrawn. A prominent Salafist cleric, Shaykh Husayn Bin Mahmud, put the point nicely. The recanting “is just acting forced by the prison guards,” Bin-Mahmud wrote. “Tell [the recanter] that we would listen to him when he tells us to retract when he is standing between Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, enjoying his freedom and safety and the safety of his family. How can we listen to him when we know he is in Husni [Mubarak’s] prison and knowing how Muslim prisoners in particular are treated?” (, November 25, 2007). Ayman al-Zawahiri put it more logically, asking: “Why is the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan an individual obligation, whereas in Iraq today, it is one of the cardinal sins?” (Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, December 16, 2007).

The recantations making a splash in the Western media are part of a bigger project conducted by several Arab states—led by Saudi Arabia—to make the United States and its allies believe Islamism’s strength is ebbing. Their campaign is made easier, of course, because the West desperately wants to believe such claims. The Arab regimes, in fact, built a cottage industry of recanting; earlier in this decade, Riyadh ran television shows featuring recanting jihadi clerics that earned the mocking name of “the series of repentance” (, November 25, 2007). Today, the Libyan regime is about to join the recanting caravan. Saudi-controlled media in Europe, for example, are publishing teasers about the coming renunciation of “armed violence” by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—long an al-Qaeda ally. Its now slickly groomed spokesman, Nu’man bin Uthman, says the group’s imprisoned leaders will soon publicly oppose violence (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 7).

Beyond recanting clerics, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Yemenis have trumpeted “re-education programs” they are running to “rehabilitate” captured Islamist fighters, while incarcerated, right-thinking, regime-paid clerics tell the former mujahideen that “religious deviants” led them astray and are taught regime-approved interpretations of Islam. They are also prepared to reenter society with classes in trades, art and music. This program of what the West might call “tough love” is being hailed by Riyadh, Cairo, and Sana as a success, these claims meshing with the West’s faith in reforming flawed human beings by therapy [1]. There are suspicions that re-educated graduates are released on condition they go to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight infidels, which was the method the Saudi and other Arab regimes used to unload firebrands during anti-Soviet jihad.

Finally, Riyadh has gone the extra mile to apply soothing eyewash to Western eyes by having its clerical hirelings claim—Quranically speaking—that black is white, as well as by engaging in a startling ecumenicalism: “Aggressions against Muslims and occupation of [their] land,” the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, said in July, “cannot be a justification for explosions…” Later in his statement, the Grand Mufti let slip the main point of his message, which was to protect the al-Saud family, not the West. “Obeying the Muslim ruler without sedition,” al-Sheikh said, “is a basic principle of Muslims who follow the path of the Prophet” (Reuters, July 3).

Later, Riyadh had the senior religious bureaucrat Shaykh Saleh al-Laheedan, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Supreme Judiciary Council, attack bin Laden: “Osama is a preacher of evil,” said Shaykh al-Laheedan. “If a man performs prayers in [the] night and then disobeys the rulers of his country, how can he be a good man? No doubt, such people are sinners.” Again, this cleric’s main message was that the Sauds must be obeyed (Gulf News, July 10). The Saudis also are calling for more cooperation among world religions and are mulling the opening of a Christian church in the kingdom. This month it even sent King Abdullah—who met Pope Benedict XVI last year—to open an interfaith conference in Madrid that was organized by the Saudis’ Muslim World League (AFP, July 14).

Just as reality is juxtaposed with over-optimism above—Islamist attacks contrasted with claims al-Qaeda and its allies are losing—the Saudi-led Arab campaign to make the West see a mirage of a fading-Islamist threat is marred by reality. In Egypt, for example, President Mubarak’s security forces continue to harass and arrest members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, President Salih is confronting attacks from both al-Qaeda-in-Yemen and hostile Shia tribes, and it is clear the Islamist tide in Saudi Arabia is not receding. So far in 2008, Saudi security services have arrested more than 700 Islamists suspected of planning attacks on oil, security, and industrial facilities and Riyadh is forming a 30,000-man force to protect these targets. In addition, Saudi officials admit they have neither won the ideological battle with “religious deviants” nor stopped terrorist fundraising; they also say Islamist cells exist across most of the country. Adding to internal frictions are simmering animosities between Sunnis and Shias, after leading Sunni scholars in June ascribed “infidel principles” to Shia doctrine (Saudi Gazette, June 27; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 18; Reuters, July 2).

Again, how can the foregoing contradictions be reconciled, and an assessment made about the strength and future viability of the Islamist threat? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this issue is to understand that much of the above—the attacks, the recanters, the re-education camps, Riyadh’s ecumenical outreach—is a diversion from the key variable in the future vitality of Islamist militancy: The doctrine of Salafism and its continuing proliferation. Bin Laden and his allies are overwhelmingly Salafist; men and women who profess an austere, semi-martial brand of Sunni Islam based on the Quran, the Sunnah and the traditions of the “pious ancestors,” the first four generations of Islamic leaders. Salafism is Saudi Arabia’s state religion; it is taught at all levels of its school system to Saudis and others who come from abroad to study or are the children of immigrant Muslim workers and it is the faith Riyadh exports to all areas of the world via a large, well funded proselytizing program staffed by Salafi clerics educated in the kingdom. Salafism is the engine of contemporary jihad; its base is in Saudi Arabia; and no amount of jihadist recanting or damning by the “king’s clerics” will stunt Salafi jihadism as long as the doctrine is taught and continues to grow in popularity:

“In Kuwait, followers of the Salafi current won a majority of parliamentary seats in the 17 May [2008] elections. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood elected a [Salafi] conservative, Hammam Said, to be their general guide. He is the first Jordanian of Palestinian origin to lead the group since it was founded in 1946. In Egypt, [Salafi] conservatives running the Muslim Brotherhood show no intention of allowing a new generation of younger reformers to take over. In Palestine, Hamas’s hawks have been consolidating their position since the movement seized Gaza a year ago, while ‘pragmatists’ are being increasingly sidelined. Wherever you look in the Arab world, Islamist conservatism of the brand known as ‘Salafist’ is gaining ground while moderates seem to be running out of steam. Even regional television stations seem more interested in conservatives than in mainstream or opposition moderates. Also, many social institutions have fallen into the hands of the Salafis.

“Recently, the Salafist trend has widened its appeal to the Arab public. No longer confining themselves to conventional preaching places, such as the mosque and home gatherings, conservatives are using hi-tech methods, including blogging and Facebook. I have met a few young Salafist men who haven’t the slightest interest in updating the content of their beliefs, but nonetheless are computer savvy and networking online all the time. The moment has come for their brand of Salafist discourse, they believe. And they are using the latest technology to connect with thousands of their generation” (Al-Ahram Weekly, July 10-16).

As Salafism spreads, it is vital that the West sees that the Salafism taught in the Muslim world is not an aberrant form of Islam; it is a respected—indeed, honored—set of beliefs and is being taught accurately. A 2004 essay mounted on the Saudi dissident website Al-Hijaz makes this point; the essay merits more attention than it has received. The anonymous author writes that the Salafi mujahideen are a huge problem for the Saudi and other Arab governments because they are the true voice of that version of Islam. While the regimes may be stronger in military terms, the author argues they will ultimately be defeated by the Salafists:

“In our opinion, the Saudi government is losing on the ideological front, although it may win temporarily on the front of confrontation by security means. The reason is that the dominant ideology feeding the current of violence is an indigenous ideology, not an intruder into the kingdom. It is an ideology that the official religious establishment espouses and that it considers a sound standard for the entire world, except when it comes to applying it to the Saudi case and to the al-Saud family. Thus the graduates of the Salafi school, who have embarked on violence have added nothing to this ideology; they simply have applied it. They have been honest in using it and faithful to their belief… It is not correct to maintain that the ideas held by the [Salafi] practitioners of violence are eccentric or [applying a] false doctrine. In fact they are the prevailing view among the Saudi Salafi religious current in the kingdom. If members of the official current use this ideology, it is called sound; if the practitioners of violence use it, it is called eccentric” (Al-Hijaz, August 15, 2004).

The author warns that seeing Salafists as deviants is self-defeating because their violence is “authenticated … on the basis of texts, pronouncements and fatwas by senior scholars. These are clear texts subject to no ambiguity or misreading” (Al-Hijaz, August 15, 2004). The answer to whether al-Qaeda’s ideology can be defeated is not, therefore, to be found in recanting clerics and reeducated militants paraded by the Arab regimes. It will be answered by their willingness to remove Salafism from schools and missionary activities. To date, the evidence is that Salafism has over the last decades—and especially since 9/11—experienced a Saudi-sponsored expansion from the Arab heartland to rest of the Muslim world.


1. The chief of the Saudi Senior Islamic Scholars Commission, Shaykh Abdullah al-Motlaq, recently briefed the media on the “success of the ongoing counseling program,” and asserted that “Saudi scholars are in the forefront of those carrying out [the] intensive campaign against extremists in the kingdom” (Gulf News, July 10).