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sheikh nasser al-omar

A Wahhabi fundamentalist, Sheikh al-Omar has opposed the rewriting of Saudi religious textbooks to eliminate anti-Western, anti-Jewish teachings and he recently was one of 26 prominent Saudi clerics who signed a fatwa saying that Iraqis should rise up and oppose the Americans in Iraq. He denies this fatwa could be interpreted as encouraging all Muslims to go fight the Americans. Sheikh al-Omar says all his statements and actions are about a fundamental opposition to the West's -- specifically America's -- interference in Muslims' lives, culture, and beliefs. "I believe that America is interfering in the essentials of our religion and in the fundamentals of our relationships. … Did we ever interfere in the American curriculum, which includes direct hostility to Muslims and specifically to the kingdom? Did we ever interfere in American affairs knowing that the American social affairs are abundant with flaws and need to be altered?" This interview, translated from Arabic, was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Dec. 17, 2004 in Riyadh.

…What was the effect of the oil boom on the traditions and religion of Saudi Arabia?

It had positive and negative consequences. The positive consequence is … the Kingdom was able to invest in its governors and citizens -- that's the economic side.

And also to focus on its scientific, political leadership, it started at the "Al Maamura" region where they have Islamic centers sending preachers to teach the true religion that Muhammad brought.

And in addition came financial support to host those coming from outside and helping them in their own countries by hosting and teaching them this religion. That's the positive side.

Unfortunately, because of our need to extract the petrol, the West did not only bring its technical support but also its traditions, behaviors and education and wanted to force it on our country in a way or another. And what is sad is that in some families, things are interfering badly with religion.

It is very hard to control people and as I told you what came from the West led to some negative consequences.

photo of sheikh nasser al-omar
We opposed the change of the curriculum because America is interfering in our religion, in our traditions, and in our privacies.

| Read more about the spread of Islamic centers teaching the Wahhabism form of Islam on FRONTLINE's Web site "Saudi Time Bomb?" (2001).

In the 1980s there was a religious revival, a religious retrenchment that followed the 1979 taking of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. What contributed to this retrenchment?

As I told you, the petrol had some effects, some direct and some indirect. Some years ago, in the 1970s, [was] a social change in the Kingdom because of the West's influence. So when "al-Haram" occurred [the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979], the nation and the society was warned that the ship has drifted.

Al-Haram was a warning bell to the society first and to the nation second. That's why the society was awakened, came back to God and paid close attention to the reasons that might cause a worse catastrophe. The positive effect, not wanted by people who started it, was that people changed and got closer to God and the mission expanded.

What was your reaction to the arrival of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990?

I guess this is the biggest mistake committed by America … that caused it all that hate and hostility. It is now reaping what it sows. I am not saying that only the Muslim world will now hate America, but the whole world [will], because America felt that people of the region are weak and cannot defend themselves, so it came with a view that you know more than others and their bad interference that did not stop by getting Saddam out of Kuwait. This was the excuse they gave for their coming. They came with their traditions, army and unfortunately with their behaviors and wanted to force it on Muslims. I don't recall anytime when America was hated more in the world and especially by Islamic countries as it is now.

You will be surprised if I tell you that two weeks ago, I went for a visit to Kuwait and found that the people whom America pretends it came to save have a big hate toward America because it is forcing its education and behavior on them with the excuse that it is the one that brought Kuwait back to its rulers and citizens.

The United States is an ally of the government of Saudi Arabia. How do you reconcile the fact that there is so much anti-American feeling in Saudi Arabia with the fact that the government has chosen to make the U.S. a chief ally?

This question is two-sided: The political side concerns the rulers who signed this alliance. It is not in my prerogative to discuss it, as I am neither a member of the ministry nor a chief in the government.

America is proclaiming that it is an ally for some countries of the region; however, it is acting as the master toward his subordinates, imposing what it wants and interfering with issues like education and social affairs and also their religion. This is the reason behind this hate and the feeling of tyranny and deprivation felt by the Arab people.

Yes, I believe that the regional countries are in disharmony toward the American hegemony and some disagree. But what I am discussing here is the holder of power is the colonizer, embezzling rights without any right and imposing its hegemony. If from the beginning it built its relationship with the regional countries in order to develop mutual interest while respecting the fundamentals agreed on by people, I guess nothing of this would have happened. And God knows better.

You have specifically protested the rewriting of Saudi school textbooks, especially after 9/11. These books came under fire from the United States for including very hostile statements. Why did you protest this rewriting?

Allow me to be direct. Did we ever interfere in the American curriculum, which includes direct hostility to Muslims, Muslim people and specifically to the Kingdom? Did we ever interfere in American affairs knowing that the American social affairs are abundant with flaws and need to be altered and assessed?

We opposed the change of the curriculum because America is interfering in our religion, in our traditions and in our privacies. America is aiming to attract Muslims to its own culture thus gaining more members. This is a fundamental issue. Muslims are willing to renounce everything but their religion. They are willing to renounce their jobs, willing to renounce their terrestrial welfare, but not their religion.

I believe that America is interfering in the essentials of our religion and in the fundamentals of our relationships. We declare with pride that America is mistaken in its interference. America did not grasp our curriculum as it should. It trusted opposing people from within the Muslim circle.

| Read FRONTLINE's investigations into the religious curriculum taught in Saudi schools on the Web site "Saudi Time Bomb?" (2001).

Regarding the fatwa that was signed by 26 clerics to encourage anyone who is able to fight the Americans in Iraq, how did it come about that you decided to sign this fatwa?

I believe that this fatwa has been read unfairly. (Read the fatwa) This fatwa emphasized one thing, namely the right of Iraqi people to defend their land and belongings. America is proclaiming that the reason for its coming was to save Kuwait and restore its freedom. Then, it is implying that freedom is legal right for the entire people of the world. We agree. And if this is so, it is the Iraqi people's right to restore their freedom previously lost because of the American colonization and occupation. As it is also the Kuwaitis' right to restore their freedom stolen because of the Iraqi occupation. It is the right of people and the people of the world to take back their freedom from the attackers.

As for the rumor that we invited people to Iraq, that is incorrect. Why? Because we have legal evidence that shows that we told them not to go to Iraq for the sake of interests and profits. You know that we cannot take a small piece of the American constitution and attribute it to the whole constitution. It is a must that you go through the entire constitution to judge. We cannot judge a book unless we read it thoroughly.

Thus, before judging those who published this fatwa, we should look for what they have said before and after this and judge them afterwards. Unfortunately, this statement has been read by unfair readers and through our foes. We have indeed internal enemies who mis-expressed our intentions and distorted the truth.

They should have read the whole statement as well as our history and what they have said previously and subsequently. Wise people are just. I believe that people standing on our side are wise as well, and I mean by that the West and the wise people of America.

The role of women in Saudi society. We have talked to a number of women here who are frustrated and angry for what they consider an un-Islamic treatment of women. What is the role of women? Do you support for instance that women should not be allowed to drive a car, and why? Or that women should not be allowed to vote, and why?

I am surprised that the majority of people discussing the issue of women are men and not women. And I am also surprised that the majority are not Muslims, but Western.

This was never an issue in our countries. Women never complained nor did righteous Muslims. People who complained are the ones who were influenced by Western culture. I am surprised -- why did we even approach this subject? We do not have any problem. Believe me when I tell you that the problem occurred truly when this issue was discussed in our daily life. I do not recall any religion that honored women as Islam did.

It is enough to know that a woman keeps her maiden name even after she gets married, after getting divorced and remarried again. A woman is financially independent. Her father does not interfere with her freedom. In some cases, a woman inherits more than a man. Moreover, if a man is deceased, and he left behind a son, a daughter and his own father, the daughter will inherit more than the grandfather. Islam honored and loved women.

The response to the question why a woman does not drive, this has two answers. Islam does not forbid women to drive in general. She can drive inside her barn, in a region where men are absent. It is not forbidden that she drives a car, just as it is not forbidden that she drives mules. But when she mingles with men and travels, this will lead to immorality and social corruption.

I ask you, why do most presidents not drive a car? For the sake of privacy (not to be seen). Why do we accept this fact for presidents and not for women? I would be honored if somebody would drive me. It is without any doubt an honor when my son drives me. It is even a higher honor when my father (may god rest his soul) drives me himself. When a husband or son drives a woman, this should be considered as a gesture of honor and love. Presidents, ministers and leaders have drivers and the more high ranking he is, the more it is indispensable for him to have a driver.

As for the voting, life does not stop on this issue. Islam organizes social and political relationships in legal ways that suit all the members. I am going to ask you a question: does the voting system in America, Britain, France, Russia or in the rest of the world vary? Definitely it does vary. Why? Because it goes through different social considerations. The important thing is that we honor and value women and so Islam did. And how to benefit from her mind, energies and capabilities, we have our own circumstances and reality and in this we are different from the West.

One more point, because you mentioned that some women are complaining. Well, there is definitely some tyranny in society but it has nothing to do with Islam. It might be present in some Muslim members because of their distance from Islam. We cannot blame Islam for the actions of some members of society -- as you cannot imply that all American actions are derived from the American constitution. People might act against the constitution or the law in any country.

If Islam is well adapted, women would be content, a truth certified by wise people. Western women wish to attain what Muslim women have attained, especially in these countries, regarding respect, honor and position.

Do you know that women's bank accounts in our countries [are] higher than men's? Do you know that female students are more highly numerous than male students in our schools? Do you know that women working in educational fields (i.e professors and employees) number more than men? With the modernization of women's education, Islam is honoring women. Islam gives women their rights. Nevertheless, we cannot attribute individual actions to Islam.

One of the women complained specifically about a very popular book that has been distributed widely in Saudi Arabia and its English translation is roughly, "Defending Virtue." Can you comment on that? …

Well, she wrote an article in the paper complaining about this book. This is a book written by a highly educated scholar of rare rationalism, Sheikh Bakr bin Abdullah Abu Zeid [Chairman of the Council of the Islamic Fiqh Academy]. That's why the government chose him and promoted him as deputy of justice and later on as a member of the kingdom's council of senior ulama.

So that book was written as a protection to women and to their benefit. We should judge the whole and not the part. You are knowledgeable that wars carry some damages and we take instruction from the consequences.

The sheikh might have elevated aims like the protection of virtues, justice and freedom. In addition to giving women their rights. From that perspective, we consider the book in general as perfect and deep, even though we might disagree with the sheikh on some parts of the book that's because our mind and shari'a [Islamic law] are broad enough to oppose some issues.

Those complaining women are looking for an excuse. I know that some patients demand to leave the hospital even though this might be harmful. And thus they are refused. If they were free to leave the hospital based on their mind and their immature vision, maybe the disease would have spread and killed them.

So who are these women and what is their educational background and their capabilities? Probably they have some interests, or they have been influenced by Western theories or by a culture different than Islam. The judgment is inappropriate.

Am I allowed to give my opinion on medical issues? Am I allowed to give my opinion on economic issues not directly related to religious matters even though medical issues are applied on myself, my family and on society? Physicians know better. Therefore, we do not accept careless objections.

Yesterday Saad Al-Fagih [a Saudi dissident] in London and Osama bin Laden were on the attack, against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. You issued a fatwa denouncing the Fagih demonstration. Explain this.

You might agree on the reason that makes people act in a way or another, but disagree on either the means or the results of their actions. We are not saying that his motives are not real. Some reasons are credible but there are also some mistakes. We preceded Saad Al-Fagih more than 15 years ago by mentioning our concerns in statements and books that show the truth, but we disagree with Saad Al- Fagih with the process. The methods he is preaching lead to chaos and destroy the stability of society.

Islam emerged for the preservation of five (sic) necessities: the religion, the soul, the wealth and the race [Editor's note: the fifth is "human life"]. We agree with anything that secures these necessities and disagree with anything that harms them.

Yes, we are aware that there are some mistakes in society, and, as I mentioned earlier, we tried to overcome it. However, Saad Al-Fagih's means are in opposition with some of the five necessities. In consequence, chaos will reign and this might contradict the outcome hoped for.

I have a final word to say. At the end of this interview I would like to send a message to the American people. From what I see and read about the behavior of American political leaders, I say that the American people are going to pay the price more than any other people. I say that by conviction and knowledge of both history and religion.

I ask the American people to understand the reality of Muslims. Islam demands freedom, justice and virtue. Islam refuses the interference in people's affairs. The actions of America contradict even the American institutions practiced by its political leaders in America. It is a direct assault on people's freedom, on their belongings and rights.

I wished that America learnt its lesson from the Vietnam War. Everybody should know that every human being, even animals, do not accept the assault on their freedom, food, beverages, independence and stability. People are more protective of that.

Islam offers freedom, forgiveness and justice to the people of the world, in addition to organizing relationships between Muslims and others. This is not a convocation but a reality proved by history for more than 100 years and accepted by the wise people of the West. That's why I hold American people responsible and especially the wise people in stopping the interference of their government because otherwise this will harm them before harming others. I ask them to understand the reality of Islam and they should know, as God said to Muhammad: " We only sent you in compassion for the people".

So Islam is a religion of compassion, justice, freedom and virtue. Muslims do whatever it takes to protect these principles. Therefore, they respect people who do not fight their religion.

Translator's Note: He adds here a verse from the Koran meaning, "Do not fight people who are not fighting you for your religion and are not trying to convert you, and be good to them. God likes the good people, people who are just … if they do otherwise they are the tyrants (the unjust)."

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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