The Saudi re­buke of Is­lamic ‘ex­trem­ism’

The new anti-ter­ror­ism cen­ter is an at­tempt to join the world’s strug­gle

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Ali Shi­habi Ali Shi­habi is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ara­bia Foun­da­tion, a Wash­ing­ton­based think tank fo­cused on the geopol­i­tics of the Ara­bian Penin­sula.

Saudi Ara­bia has long been ac­cused of fi­nanc­ing and en­cour­ag­ing ter­ror­ism. The lat­est proof that the ac­cu­sa­tion is false was a lit­tle no­ticed event dur­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­cent visit to Riyadh. Mr. Trump, Saudi King Sal­man and more than 50 other world lead­ers opened the Global Cen­ter for Com­bat­ing Ex­trem­ist Ide­ol­ogy in the Saudi cap­i­tal. The lo­ca­tion of this im­por­tant coun­tert­er­ror­ism or­ga­ni­za­tion is the lat­est step by the king­dom to iden­tify, iso­late and deal with the real sources of in­tol­er­ance and ex­trem­ism.

Saudi Ara­bia has re­al­ized for a long time that it had a prob­lem. Af­ter Osama bin Laden de­clared war on Saudi Ara­bia in the 1990s, Saudi au­thor­i­ties re­al­ized that the nar­ra­tive preva­lent among its cler­i­cal com­mu­nity had been taken over by highly in­tol­er­ant voices that had not only poi­soned reli­gious dis­course in the coun­try but also academia, which in turn was poi­son­ing the minds of youth — with dan­ger­ous con­se­quences.

In re­sponse, Saudi lead­ers ini­ti­ated a process of in­tro­spec­tion that led the gov­ern­ment to launch a multi-pronged of­fen­sive against in­tol­er­ance and ex­trem­ism. State se­cu­rity forces elim­i­nated dozens of ter­ror­ist cells, seized arms and ma­te­ri­als, and de­tained thou­sands of ter­ror sus­pects. In 2004, the 9/11 Com­mis­sion in the U.S. praised this ef­fort by con­clud­ing “Saudi Ara­bia is now locked in mor­tal com­bat with al Qaeda.”

In ad­di­tion, Riyadh strength­ened over­sight and con­trol over char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions op­er­at­ing do­mes­ti­cally and abroad, pros­e­cuted ter­ror­ist fundrais­ers and froze their as­sets. It also sup­ported U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment– tar­geted des­ig­na­tions of ter­ror­ist fi­nanciers and out­lawed unau­tho­rized off- and on­line fund-rais­ing for any cause or rea­son. As a re­sult, As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of the U.S. Trea­sury Daniel Glaser praised the king­dom as “a re­gional leader within the Gulf” when it came to stamp­ing out ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing.

At home, Saudi Ara­bia has adopted a steady, per­sis­tent ap­proach to con­front ex­trem­ism. The king­dom re­formed some of the more con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of its ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, strength­en­ing over­sight of teach­ers, text­books and cur­ric­ula. Through the Min­istry of Is­lamic Af­fairs, it is safe­guard­ing vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions by spon­sor­ing aware­ness cam­paigns to help Saudi youth rec­og­nize and con­front ex­trem­ist pro­pa­ganda. Se­nior cler­ics is­sued fat­was re­fut­ing reli­gious ex­trem­ism and pro­hibit­ing Saudis from fight­ing for ji­hadist causes. They also helped the cen­tral gov­ern­ment im­pose stronger vet­ting of preach­ers, ser­mons and reli­gious publi­ca­tions. Cul­ture and en­ter­tain­ment in the king­dom is now filled with tar­geted anti-ex­trem­ist mes­sages. Saudi tele­vi­sion pro­grams such as “Ji­had Ex­pe­ri­ences,” “The De­ceit” and “The Re­turn of Per­cep­tion” rou­tinely fea­ture re­gret­ful ex-ji­hadists and reli­gious schol­ars. Un­der the late King Ab­dul­lah, the Saudi reli­gious es­tab­lish­ment spear­headed a pub­lic aware­ness cam­paign to in­val­i­date reli­gious rul­ings prop­a­gated by un­qual­i­fied “satel­lite and In­ter­net sheikhs.” Saudi’s 2007 Anti–Cy­ber Crime Law im­posed heavy fines and lengthy prison terms on those who pub­lished on web­sites sup­port­ing ex­trem­ist groups or dis­sem­i­nated pro­pa­ganda on their be­half.

The suc­cess of its do­mes­tic reli­gious reed­u­ca­tion pro­gram for for­mer ji­hadists in­spired sim­i­lar anti-rad­i­cal­iza­tion ini­tia­tives in the U.K. and in U.S. de­ten­tion cen­ters in Iraq. Riyadh also in­sti­tuted a pol­icy man­dat­ing that any overseas pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion by its cler­i­cal lead­ers and af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions re­ceive of­fi­cial ap­proval from the host coun­try’s gov­ern­ment.

In 2010, for ex­am­ple, the gov­ern­ment of Nor­way re­ceived an of­fi­cial re­quest from a Saudi-af­fil­i­ated or­ga­ni­za­tion to fund a mosque and Is­lamic cen­ter in the Scan­di­na­vian coun­try. Nor­we­gian law does not

De­spite the claims of crit­ics, the Saudi com­mit­ment to tack­ling ex­trem­ism in its so­ci­ety, its cler­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, its ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem and its global reli­gious out­reach is cred­i­ble.

re­quire ob­tain­ing such per­mis­sion, but Saudi law re­quires that any Saudi-af­fil­i­ated char­i­ties ob­tain host gov­ern­ment ap­proval for any ac­tiv­ity they un­der­take in any coun­try. This al­lowed a Nor­we­gian min­is­ter to veto the project be­cause he saw that Saudi Ara­bia does not al­low rec­i­proc­ity. Such a step en­sures that the Saudi gov­ern­ment can meet its com­mit­ment as the cus­to­dian of Is­lam’s holy places to spread the faith yet also en­sure that each host coun­try gov­ern­ment is com­fort­able with any such ac­tiv­ity in its ju­ris­dic­tion.

De­spite the claims of crit­ics, the Saudi com­mit­ment to tack­ling ex­trem­ism in its so­ci­ety, its cler­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, its ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem and its global reli­gious out­reach is cred­i­ble. So are its ini­tia­tives to com­bat ter­ror­ism and ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing. Mak­ing Riyadh head­quar­ters for the Global Cen­ter for Com­bat­ing Ex­trem­ist Ide­ol­ogy is only the king­dom’s most re­cent ex­am­ple of its on­go­ing fight to dis­man­tle the ide­o­log­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture of ter­ror.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LINAS GARSYS

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