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sheikh saleh al-asheikh

Sheikh Saleh al-Asheikh has been Saudi Arabia's minister of Islamic Affairs, Endowment and Da'wa since 1999. The Saudi government, he says, "believes in progress" and he explains how it recently disciplined imams who preach hatred against Jews, Christians and the West. But anti-American sentiment still exists he says because of the Palestinian conflict, Iraq and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and he offers his views on the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish programs that air on Saudi television. This interview, translated from Arabic, was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Dec. 13, 2004, in Riyadh.

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

First, it is [essential] to understand the Arabian call. … It is the return of the nation and the words of the intellectual mujahideen. Many thoughts, sayings, behaviors and doings are far from this call, but they were attributed to it. Many responded [that way] and in some cases, it was excessive. … Some of this is 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.

Therefore, we should reevaluate the sayings of its founder Al Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, or the ulama who were influenced by him and who later worked for the call. As for the many others who believe in it, their sayings and actions do not necessary express the [intentions of the] call.

| Read an analysis of Wahhabism from FRONTLINE's 2001 documentary "Saudi Time Bomb?"

photo of al-asheikh
The roots of the call to keep Islam in a constant progress that does not contradict the fundamentals of religion -- that is hard to achieve.

During the Cold War, Nasser was on the rise in Egypt. How did that affect the religious teachings that were happening in Saudi Arabia?

I don't think there's a big influence. There has been an influence for the Arabic nationalism for a small period of time. However, the Salafiyyah call, also called Wahabiyyah was still the one in control. Moreover, after [the] slowdown of the enthusiasm for the nationalism ideology, the call spread inside the Saudi Arabian kingdom. It was refined, and there has been a much better civilized understanding for the Salafiyyah call requirements. ... Some time ago, there [were] many actions, sayings and thoughts in disagreement with this call. You notice, that there has been a continuous progress in this call's techniques in order to meet people's needs.

I understand from my reading of history that during the period of the 1960s, a number of Islamic teachers, some of them radical teachers, were given safe haven in Saudi Arabia because they were unwelcome in Egypt or under the regime in Syria.

First of all, those people are truly from the Islamic Ikhwan. When they felt restricted and mistreated in those areas, they found refuge in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and were able to practice their religious freedom and live a normal life as a Muslim and as a human being. The kingdom welcomes all Muslims and is always in constant cooperation with Muslims, where they find a safe place to practice their human rights [and where they can find] jobs and opportunities. …

Some failed to find a generation that believed in the Ikhwan ideologies. This disbelief in the Salafiyyah, the Wahabiyyah, call, in addition to [Gamal] Abdel Nasser's nationalistic movement, had a huge impact in the '50s and in the '60s [in Saudi Arabia]. However, afterwards, everyone moved closer toward the call along with the Saudi government [and] politics.

But what we are trying to understand is the development of this kind of exclusionary teaching that was going on in Saudi Arabia and that led to educational reform. Can you talk about the embrace of a more exclusionary Islam that occurred throughout the 1980s, and why this took place?

First of all, you should be aware of something important to begin with, 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.

Secondly, the Saudi government also believes in progress, whether it is in the political, economical, nutritional, academic, social, commercial or educational fields, etc. There are definitely some movements in such a strict and conservative society which disagree with this change and this continuous progress, especially if they hold tight to religious matters. Thus, they tend to oppose the progress and stress religious concerns. I mean by progress, the political progress as well as the economical, social, educational and academic advancement. In consequences, many troubles occur. … In contrast, the Salafiyyah call in Saudi Arabia truly does not refuse these matters, but 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, after its recent rise, extended its foreign relations with the world and made promises, [signed] alliances and [established] connections with the world. It also exchanged ambassadors and became a nation as any other nation, [a nation] with connections, relations and effective partnership with the world.

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, as [is] the case of some people in some countries who oppose the globalization and opt for regionalism. This is an opposing human sentiment to progress based on some religious fundamentals. People coming from a diverse Islamic world revived this opposition in certain groups, especially [opposition] in international relations, thus causing some [hatred of] non-Muslims.

This is one of the most important reasons, in my opinion, that formed some of these strict movements like Juhayman [al-Utaybi's 1979 attack on al-Haram] or other terrorists 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 '70s before the [1979] occupation of al-Haram, and before the planes, kidnappings, before the terrorism and the bombings, etc. The fatwa [issued] by the ulama in the '70s … prohibited the bombing of industries, bars and people, and [opposed] the attacks and the airplane kidnapping.

This early fatwa shows the truth of the Salafiyyah call and the Saudi kingdom ulama's main opposition to this principle, because the fundamentals of this call and religion reject the unfair attacks on people. 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 was issued was against what, exactly -- terrorism?

Yes, terrorism.

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

… [The ministry] was aware of this strictness and implemented early programs to deal with these issues, years before 9/11. Hence, a lot of attention was given to this matter. But one of the problems faced was that the mosque is a place for adoration. There was no [means] 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. What caused this [interference] is not the 9/11 incident but way before that, approximately two years before. The ministry adopted and sustained a corrective program dealing with the mosques' issues, a year before 9/11. The 9/11 incident was merged within this program. We were aware of this matter earlier but because of the mosque's sanctity, there were no direct interferences in its affairs. But lately, they interfered so that it won't be taken advantage of for non-religious intentions.

How did you react when you saw the open letter sent to President Bush talking about a "wave of joy" following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.?

I believe that [it] was wrong in portraying the feelings of the Saudi Arabian kingdom. Joy was not in the air after 9/11, but there were events that followed 9/11, and that was the Afghanistan war. The feelings of Saudis in regard to fairness and truth cannot be evaluated really. The war in Afghanistan was an attack on everybody, people, children, women, houses, mosques. People got angry from what they saw. We believe that all unfair attacks on human beings are wrong. These actions are wrong. Islam is against what happened in the U.S.

Twenty-six clerics issued a statement advocating people to fight the occupiers in Iraq as the duty for all able…

Those 26 clerics should have left Iraq [alone]. Iraqis are well aware of their own matters. They should be with the Saudi ulama and work with them in their fatwas. It is not in their business to interfere with other countries' affairs.

| Read a translation of the November 2004 fatwa signed by the 26 Saudi clerics.

Is it not your job to be monitoring what is said in mosques? What was done in response to this fatwa?

They issued this fatwa personally in their own name and not through the ministry or the mosques. …

The war in Iraq has caused another resurgence of anti-American extremism. A lot of things said in the mosque were harsh about Jews and Christians.

What happened in Iraq and in Palestine [is] so hard -- the killings of innocents, the destruction. All that needs time to work on.

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

The roots of the call to keep Islam in a constant progress that does not contradict the fundamentals of religion -- that is hard to achieve.

On Saudi television, I see people saying discouraging things about Christians and Jews.

… On some American TV programs there are also attacks on Muslims, on the Ka'aba [the Muslim shrine in Mecca] and even on the prophet himself. Some have called him by so many names. Some called for a war to kill all Muslims. This may cause hate and anger in Muslims. We don't want to make it worse.

Both politics and the media should help in order not to incite this hate. If there is no discipline in America, we cannot ask the Arabs to accept the killings and what they are saying about you and about your religion and Islam with joy. Relationships cannot be built this way.

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 about 1,300 people including imams and preachers. 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.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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