The Saudi rebuke of Islamic ‘extremism’
The new anti-terrorism center is an attempt to join the world’s struggle
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.