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the most pivotal issue
A look at the force of religion in Saudi Arabia, its dominant faith, Wahhabism, and the power of the religious establishment, the ulama. Drawn from interviews with former U.S. ambassadors Hermann Eilts and Robert Jordan; Saudi Minister of Education Dr. Muhammad bin Ahmed Al-Rasheed; Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Saleh al-Asheikh; Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal; journalist Robert Lacey; and Dr. Khalil al-Khalil of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University.

Robert Jordan
U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003.

read the full interview

…You have said that what is taught in their schools and mosques affects our national security. What did you mean by that?

It's no longer an internal matter. I think for many, many years, the Saudis would have considered what they teach in their schools and what they preach in their mosques to be their business. But when they start preaching intolerance and hatred and anti-Semitism and marginalization of human beings who are not of the same religious persuasion, then it's a very fine line that you walk between mere intolerance and incitement to hatred and terrorism and support for the kind of almost religious war that is going on right now in the Muslim world.

Do you say that to Crown Prince Abdullah? What kind of reaction do you get?

He agrees with me. And I think he would tell you that he has taken steps to reform what is taught in the schools and what is preached in the mosques. He would tell you that they have fired or retrained probably 2,000 imams. They have sat these imams down with what they would call moderate clerics with copies of the Quran. And they will sit there and show these radical clerics where they're wrong in the book. And they will then obtain commitments to them to go back out and do it right and preach a more tolerant version of Islam.

I can't testify today to how successful this reform effort has been. It certainly has a long way to go. What I do know is they had been conducting this kind of effort even during the time I was there as ambassador. But shortly before I left, in October of 2003, I received a translation of a sermon in the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And this sermon clearly was an effort at greater tolerance. The imam talks about condemning violence and condemning hatred and condemning terrorism. But then what does he do right at the end? He says, "Oh God. Please destroy the Jews, the infidels and all of those who support them." …

Why can't they move things quicker?

Well, they would say they are moving quicker. ... There's a certain elasticity to this society that they would say cannot be broken. And so you push the envelope as far as you can push it. But you have to maintain that traction. And if you break that elasticity, if you break that rubber band, then you have lost contact with the people and you lose the legitimacy of the royal family. I think they are very concerned about their legitimacy, very concerned about their ability to maintain the confidence of the people.

Dr. Khalil al-Khalil
of the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University and widely regarded as a moderate Saudi.

… Saudi Arabia is a very unique country. To start with, there was an alliance between Islamic clergies, ulama, and the politicians. And that started from day one. That was in the 18th century when the clergy or the imam or sheikh -- the religious reformer Sheikh Mohammad ibn Wahhab -- had an alliance with Imam Mohammad ibn Saud, the grandfather of the royal family. That alliance was historic, and still, the country, and the politicians with the ulama, try to keep that alliance. So it's a unique country -- probably one of the very few in the Muslim world today that has been in fact practicing the religion and mixing religion with politics. …

Muslims believe all over the world that Islam is a way of life, but that concept hasn't been practiced for many, many centuries. But here in Saudi Arabia you can see it. You could smell it. You could feel it.

How would an American understand what Wahhabism is?

It's unfortunate. Wahhabism has become … an exclusive concept. But when it comes to the original Wahhabism, it is mainstream Islam. Sheikh Mohammad bin Abu Ahar at the beginning in the 18th century called for few issues. One is the purity of Islamic religion. Second is to practice Islam. Third, and that's the most controversial issue, is the mixture or the integration between state and religion. That's what Wahhabism is about.

However, I would like to really differentiate between two terms, political Wahhabism or/and traditional Wahhabism. What has been in fact practiced in Saudi Arabia is not political Wahhabism but traditional Wahhabism. What is now going on, al Qaeda and those extremists who are doing a lot of terrible acts in Saudi Arabia, they have changed the term or the meaning of Wahhabism. They politicize Wahhabism and that's dangerous.

The main differences between traditional Wahhabism and political Wahhabism is that original Wahhabism focused on Muslims, focused on the local practices and changes and reforms and social issues. But the newly emerged Wahhabism, it's like the right wing in America. They want more than that. They want to dominate the world. They want to build the kingdom of Allah.

And that's not what traditional Wahhabism is about. Traditional Wahhabism is about practicing religion, purity of values, of religion, and about governing Muslims by Islam, but not to fight all other people, not really to wage war against the Christians and Jews and Muslims who are not also believing in Wahhabism.

It doesn't mean that all ideas of Wahhabism are really good for the time being. No. There were also elements of extremism within the traditional Wahhabism. But wasn't really [as] dangerous as it is today.

Can you perhaps help us understand what happened in 1979 with Juhayman al-Utayba?

There was a group in 1979, and Juhayman al-Utayba was considered the leader. They were asking the nation to go back to the original Islam in primitive ways. So they were against television. They were against schools. They were against universities. …

In about three years they collected some people from Saudi and non-Saudi sources who were studying in Islamic University in al Medina. Then the country was taken by surprise when they seized the holy mosque in 1979. For three weeks no one was praying in the mosque. And it was really a tragedy. [They killed] about 3,000 of the government soldiers, security people, [and] created chaos, just chaos, in the country.

[The extremists] were against modern schools, modern education. … Against the modern life. They just want the country to be governed by mullahs, by religious scholars. … They could not really live the modern life and they could not stand the new technology. So they came with this very, very terrible idea. …

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was shocked, officials were shocked. Who would go to the holy mosque in Mecca and siege it and kill anybody [who] comes to it? …

Some people have told us that the government killed Juhayman, but adopted his ideas. Is that fair?

Yes, some [analysts] say that. … His movement created a hindrance to national development, particularly when it comes to media, education, modernization….

Saudi television wasn't the same Saudi television after Juhayman's attacks in Mecca. The co-education in universities between girls and boys -- they were studying together -- after Juhayman, the …schools implemented more conservative ideas. Religion has become very sensitive when it comes to politics.

And we can say they intimidated the government to some extent, yes. There was a kind of tense environment that was really terrible and it continued with us for many years, and it contributes to what we are about today.

Then unfortunately, the Iranian revolution contributed also. So it added to the tension in Saudi Arabia. Who utilized that tension? The extremists in Saudi Arabia. …

What you see is more conservatism, more restrictions, and less attention paid to the modernization, to also freedom of speech and freedom of media, et cetera. So the focus becomes more how just to avoid trouble, how to avoid conflict with the religious people. How to avoid also the criticism from within the mosque.

Why did the government feel that it had to embrace those ideas, that it couldn't stand up to them?

I can't speak for the government, but my analysis is that the politics in Saudi Arabia is based in consensus. Politics in Saudi Arabia is based on slow change and no confrontation of anything, even for politics outside or governments outside or some international forces outside Saudi Arabia. They do not believe in confrontation and confrontational approaches. That is one of the issues. Also, some people believe in Saudi Arabia that there should be no conflict between the state and religion in any form. It seems to me this concept has been exploited terribly by the extremists. …

Saudi rulers are connected deeply with Islam. They believe, themselves, in Islam. They practice, themselves, Islam and they understand the value of [the] Islamic religion very well because of Mecca and Medina and because of their history. They can't really be against their history. And they do not want to be in conflict, as that's the policy. They don't want to be in a conflict with their religious scholars or with the religious institutions unless they have to do so. So they try to buy time. They try to use soft methods if they have to. …

Is it time for them to rethink the original contract between the religious groups and the state, given the changes in Saudi society?

I believe so. … There are many forces now that have to be participating in the political decisions. Participation is very, very important. The religious scholars [a] long time ago were the only educated people. But now they are not. And many of them could not even resolve some of the important issues within the religious institutions…. The justice system now is facing some difficulties. Why? Because it's controlled by the religious scholars. I am not saying that religious scholars have to be denied or be pushed out. No. But I'm saying that they should be part of the forces or the elements that are in the kingdom when it comes to the major issues. … Religion is part of our life, but it should not be everything.

Robert Lacey
Author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud.

read the full interview

….My own Western analysis of the exclusionary core of Wahabism, the gratuitous anti-Western, anti-Jewish aspects to the school curriculum, which are only recently getting changed, stem from fear. Stem from an understandable apprehension that family values and a way of life are under severe threat and the only solution is to go back to the principles of the old way. Fear generates anger, and fear generates violence, and those were part of what built the Saudi state. So you can understand why people with a knee-jerk reaction go back to them. …

…When we use in the West the word "establishment," we think of a single power structure, the military, industrial complex in America, the class system in Britain; I find it helpful to see the establishment in Saudi Arabia as being the religious establishment. And in a way, the royal family -- we think of the royal family as being all powerful -- they have to cope with that establishment and they are forever having to adjust what they do to that power which is, in a way, greater than they are.

Prince Saud al Faisal
Saudi Foreign Minister.

read the full interview

How do you explain to outsiders the importance and the power of the ulama in this country?

The real important thing is that this is a country of faith. The importance of the ulama [comes] from the belief of the people. The explanation that they always require about their beliefs and asking the ulamas about it and the fatwas and the contact between the regular person who seeks to follow the tenets of Islam in the proper fashion -- [that] is really the main contact between the ulama and the regular social relations.

So it is not a political power or even a spiritual [power], because we have no connection between an individual and God. The relationship is direct, and we don't have a hierarchy that exists in the Christian churches, maybe the Catholic Church. But if there is an influence that that exists for the ulama, it is from the belief and religiousness of the people and their seeking to always follow the proper Islamic role.

I asked the crown prince [Abdullah] the other day where the legitimacy of your family's rule comes from. He says it comes from Islam. An alternate explanation would be that it comes from the fact that your family unified the country. Where is the legitimacy based?

You must think about what Saudi Arabia was before it was unified: fighting between the tribes, raids from the tribes on the cities, absolute lack of security in the country. Saudi Arabia is also a holy place where you have the pilgrimage [hajj]. The pilgrimage was for all practical purposes stopped because of the insecurity that the tribes created.

At the same time, there were practices that had nothing to do with Islam, superstitions and idolatry, so the two things joined together, what we call purifying Islam after these superstitious elements had come into the practice of Islam and pacifying the country to make cities safe, [to] safeguard the pilgrimage.

And this is where the legitimacy of the family comes from, the purification aspect of the religion from superstition and pacifying the country to make it a habitable place for citizen[s].

And that legitimacy [remains] today.

It still remains today because of the will of the people. If people didn't want the regime to stay as it is, then I'm sure they [would find] their way to do without it.

Hermann Eilts
U.S ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1965-70.

read the full interview

…What really is the relationship between the Saudi king and the ulama?

Well, political legitimacy in the Saudi state goes back to the covenant that an early Saud, Mohammed ibn Saud, back in 1745, signed with the religious reformer Abdullah Haab. And together they apparently divided [the state so] the Sauds would be the temporal emirs [and] the members of the Abdullah Haab family, the Al Sheik family, would be the religious people. With that combination, the Sauds were able to expand into all of Negd and into eventually all of the peninsula.

That compact, even though this is the third Saudi state, has persisted throughout. It has given the ulama major authority and the determination of what is proper, what is not proper. And at various times in Saudi history the rulers have accepted this, or not. As a rule, they have had to accept it because they counted upon the ulama to persuade the public to go along, and the public, by that I mean also the tribal people. When you had a ruler who was either charismatic and a military leader like Abd al-Aziz [founder of the modern Saudi dynasty in the 1930s] or who was himself a religious leader, like King Faisal, then management of the ulama was possible. You had to compromise at times, yes, you could not order, but you could compromise and the religious leaders respected you.

So the religious element has from the beginning of the state played a major role in legitimizing the actions of the rulership and that continues through this day. Now, those who say if you have more democracy in Saudi Arabia, one person, one vote, that this will push the religious leaders aside -- I think that is absolutely wrong to believe that. But that is the sort of naïve belief that those who say, well, all the Saudis have to do is open up their system and then everything will be fine, that's the mistaken belief that many have.

…In the sixties, because of increased oil income and because the government became a welfare state and Saudis benfited from this … the political legitimacy of the ruling family got additional respect… [But] with the economic problems that the kingdom is facing now, the role of the ulama, of the religious leaders, becomes so strong again. And it's not an easy thing for any leader unless he is charismatic, or is himself a recognized religious leader, to handle them. And I don't see, myself, any way in which this prominent role of the religious leaders, the ulama, can be just pushed aside.

Sheikh Saleh al-Asheikh
Minister of Islamic Affairs.

read the full interview

…What happened in the last 100 years in Saudi Arabia to turn Wahhabism from its original roots to the perception that exists today?

… There have been several causes. Some are related to the nature of the desert society. People get attached to some religious thoughts, strong[ly] sometimes, and then add on it till sometimes it contradicts the thoughts of the call itself. …

Can you talk about the embrace of a more exclusionary teaching of Islam that occurred throughout the 80's, and why this took place?

First of all, you should be aware of important background in order to understand this subject accurately. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes in the "Salafiyyah" call because it is clear and is based on God's and the prophet's words. … the "Salafiyyah" call in Saudi Arabia … accepts progress, civilization and modernization if it agrees with the Islam fundamentals.

The second point is that, under King Abd al-Aziz, the Saudi Arabian kingdom extended its connections with the world. It exchanged ambassadors and became a nation as any other nation. … This international opening was strange for a lot of people from the interior and they feared the connection with other societies and pleaded for the preservation [of traditions] as [is] the case of some people in some countries who oppose the globalization and opt for regionalism. …

This is one of the most important reasons, in my opinion, that formed some of these strict movements like Juhayman or other terrorist movements, which couldn't bear the idea of progress and its relation to religion. … The important thing to know here is that the kingdom's ulama issued the fatwa and important statements in the 70's before the occupation of the haram, [Grand Mosque at Mecca] and before the planes, kidnapping, before the terrorism and the bombings, et cetera. The fatwa [issued] by the ulama in the 70's … prohibited and incriminated the bombing of industries, bars, and people and [oppose] the attacks and the airplanes kidnapping. … It is a must, in Islam, to protect the human being, his life and his honor. Attacks are only accepted on the attacker.

The fatwa that issued was against what, exactly?

The bombing of industries, bars, roads…

Oh I see, right, terrorism.

Yes, terrorism.

But post 9/11, there's an admission by many Saudis in the government that since 1979, the government had embraced too much of the extremist view in the mosques and in the schools.

[The Ministry] was aware of this strictness and effectuated early programs to deal with these issues, years before 9/11. Hence, a lot of attention was given to this matter. But one the problems faced was that the mosque is a place for adoration. There was no efficiency to have it under complete legal control, as it is a home for adoration, for God's adoration, for prayer and reading of the Quran.

But when it was proven that [the mosque] was wrongly taking advantage, the Ministry directly interfered. The Ministry adopted and sustained a corrective program dealing with the mosques issues, a year before 9/11. …We were aware of this matter earlier but because of the mosque's sanctity, there were no direct interference in its affairs. …

Is it an ongoing struggle to try to return Wahhabism to the roots of Abd al-Wahhab?

The roots of the call [are] to keep Islam in constant progress -- a constant progress that does not contradict with the fundamentals of religion. That is hard to achieve. …

Could you give us an idea concretely how many imams have been disciplined? A specific case that you could tell us where you found out that an imam was making an inappropriate remarks, and what was done?

First, there was a program that was supposed to last for three years and to be renewed as needed. It is a reevaluation of the mosques' conditions. As I mentioned earlier, because of the sanctity of mosques, the interference was not direct or effective. But these programs as well as the campaign made us realize that many needed to be trained again. We needed to talk to them, to reeducate them and send them on specialized courses, so that they understand their duties.

There is a group that has gone too far and refused to talk with us, but it is only small in number. Those people are not allowed to make speeches or organize meetings in mosques any more. They number 1,300 people including imams and speakers. Not all were stopped because of their strict beliefs. Some do not do what they are asked, some are not able to carry out their duties, some do not have the skills and some live by strict ideas that are intolerant and hostile to others, and run counter to the interests of the country and Islam.

Dr. Muhammad bin Ahmed Al-Rasheed
Minister of Education.

… I admit to the fact there are certain people, not just in the teaching profession, but in others, you know, who are really very much, unfortunately, fanatics. They are taking a wrong approach. They are interpreting our religion wrongly. I admit to the facts.

But I can assure you that the majority of our people in general and the educators who are in schools -- really, vast majority of them are really moderate people, taking really the right approach and the right interpretation to Islam and its teaching. I can assure you of that.

On the other hand, it's important to talk about those parts of society that are broken or need fixing. And I'm trying to understand where this trend comes from, why is there this hostility among some of the teachers and in the school books?

… I happen to be educated in that same curriculum. I graduated from the religious school myself. I am the first graduate of that religious school to be granted a scholarship to study in Indiana University and to pursue my masters' and my doctorate degree from outstanding American universities.

The religious teaching that I received when I was young, even in the stage of my university studies, helped me really to appreciate others, to respect others. … I think those few of us who happen to be really extreme and to be radicals and to take that strong a view, my impression [is] they have it from the whole political environment. Not just in Saudi Arabia but in the whole world. The Arab in general was witnessing that the West, and the United States of America in particular, stayed and [took] a stand which is not an even-handed policy. Let us not forget that Palestinians to us are dear brother and sister. As a matter of fact, most of my generation [has] been taught by Palestinians. … Those people took it in their hand to teach us and to make us educated. So we really sympathize with them. We are seeing in our TV screen every night something unbelievable. I don't need to describe [it] to you. You know it very well. …

…I am proud to be a product of religious studies. And let me just mention to you some other facts that might ring a bell in your mind. The small number of people who are leading the extremists -- none of them graduated from religious schools. Let us take bin Laden, for example. Is he a product of a religious school? … The second man in al Qaeda, what's his name -- al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian. He is not a product of our school at all.

If you look to the Quran right now, the problem is not in the verses of the Quran. The problem is in the way you interpret it. … And if we discover there are certain elements in our textbook that might be interpreted differently … from the way we want it to be interpreted, we make sure we eliminate it right now. If you compare our textbook, for example, right now, the one we are teaching this year, with the one we are teaching three years ago, you will find the difference. …

I agree with you that it's a matter of interpretation. But I think you would agree that the textbooks, especially after '79, began to contain some rather strong language against Jews in particular, but also against Christians.

… I challenge anybody to tell me this is really inciting people to do such and such. But I admit to the fact [that] there are certain people who are interpreting something differently, and there are people who really even try, out of the curriculum, out of the textbook, they'll talk about nonsense.

And what have you done with those people? How many teachers have you fired?

Well, not fired -- I mean, we don't have that much [authority] to fire people. … But I can assure you we eliminate some people from teaching, not fire them, but try to find a place where they do not have contact with our citizens. And we have so many of them. I would say hundreds.

Hundreds of teachers who've been reassigned.

Reassigned. Yes.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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