TCS Daily

Awakening to "Moderate" Saudis?

By Olivier Guitta - August 17, 2005 12:00 AM

After the death of King Fahd, everything looks very much the same in the Saudi political landscape. The stakes are high. According to Hudson Institute fellow and author of the forthcoming book "Princes of Darkness : The Saudi Assault on the West", Laurent Murawiec, the Sauds have the most acute preservation instinct in the world and need to protect their power at whatever cost.

Nonetheless to please the West, the Saudis organized last spring's semi-free municipal elections, "an amicable farce" as Murawiec puts it, where the overwhelming majority of winning candidates were supported by two influential clerics, Salman Al-Odeh and Safar Al-Hawali. Though the world press routinely identifies these two as moderates, they are in fact among the most extreme of the Wahhabi agitators. Their position of influence reflects the regime's need for legitimization by religious authorities.

First, who are they?

Al-Odeh and Al-Hawali are known all over the Arab world as the Awakening Sheikhs because of their spiritual appeal to young Arab Muslims. These two imams were jailed from 1994 to 1999. Their radical views called for a theocracy and challenged the Kingdom after it allowed 'infidel troops' -- i.e. US soldiers -- to station in Saudi Arabia. In fact, bin Laden quoted them as favorite religious authorities in his early communiqu├ęs and defended them after they were jailed.

Their release in 1999 was negotiated in a deal with the government. In exchange for muting their criticism of the regime, they were allowed to go free and preach, both at home and abroad. They have done so actively, developing the website Islam Today to spread extremism worldwide, organizing political statements, and increasingly encouraging jihad against America in Iraq. Interestingly enough, as terrorism expert Erick Stakelbeck reported, Al Halami wrote an Open Letter to President Bush on October 15, 2001 where he rejoiced over the September 11 attacks.

After the Riyadh bombings in May 2003, the royal family needed new religious allies in order to justify their war on terror. And the Awakening Sheikhs accepted that role. They succeeded in persuading several dozen al Qaeda members to give up violence and rejoin society. According to Abdul-Aziz Khamis, a Saudi human rights activist in London quoted by Associated Press, the two clerics agreed to fight the jihadis even though they agree with their aims and ideas. Al-Hawali and Al-Odeh still believe in the principles of jihad, but now they link it with the authority of the ruler, said Khamis. Al-Hawali finances and supports people who go to Iraq to fight there, but he is against fighting on Saudi soil.

This explains why in June 2004, after a U.S. military contractor was shot outside his home in Riyadh, the two clerics denounced the attack and said that those who kill non-Muslims resident among Muslims will not go to heaven. That November they issued a fatwa (religious edict) signed by 26 scholars urging all Muslims to join the jihad in Iraq against the occupier. Several Saudi terrorists captured entering Iraq told interviewers on Al Jazeera TV in March 2005 that they were obeying the fatwa of the 26 sheikhs.

So on one hand they are calling for jihad abroad and on the other, they are now working in close cooperation with the Saudi regime to tame bin Laden followers. They are serving as mediators between wanted terrorists and Saudi authorities. And they have developed excellent relations with the royal family. In fact, according to a genuine moderate, Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, imam of the Italian Islamic community, the young princes in the Royal family are very friendly to al-Hawali and al-Odeh. They consider them as men of honor, men of courage.

Second what are their views?

Since the beginning of the year, a May 2002 document -- initiated by al-Hawali and Al- Odeh and signed by 153 Saudi clerics and intellectuals entitled "How We Can Coexist" -- is coming back under the spotlight. Indeed, it's becoming a reference text for Islamists worldwide. It has just been translated in French and posted very prominently on European Islamist websites such as The English version can be viewed on

The text in question -- written in response to a February 2002 paper prepared by the Institute for American Values and entitled "What We're fighting For" -- gives insight on the two clerics' views. "What We're Fighting For" was a moral justification of the war on terror along with a call for moderate Muslims to join our camp against extremists. It was signed by sixty famous intellectuals, among them Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, George Weigel, Hillel Fradkin and Michael Novak.

The title "How Can We Coexist" does not include a question mark. Indeed, it is presented as a manual on solutions to the clash of civilizations. It looks quite moderate. It starts:" We welcome dialogue and exchange." And ends: "... creating more avenues for dialogue and the exchange of ideas where scholars and thinkers can meet with each other is, in our opinion, the alternative to the language of violence and destruction." This sounds very optimistic, but unfortunately when one plunges into the document itself, it is another story.

For the authors, if September 11 defines the relationship of Americans to Muslims then "the presence of the Jewish state of Israel on Palestinian land" is shaping their relationship with the West. Israel is to be counted among the "radical extremists" and responsible for the "most loathsome kind of terrorism possible." To them, Israel is responsible for carrying out "mass murder" against Palestinians with America's "most advanced weapons that they turn against women, children and old men." The writers add that if you want to root out terrorism then the world must seek peace and justice in Palestine.

They write:

        "... when one faction prefers to create a conflict with the Muslims or to ignore 
        their rights, then Islam responds by resistance and self defense, which are 
        among the objectives of jihad."

Explaining the emergence of "the extremist Islamic groups -- as they are called", they write:

        "they did not want to be that way when they started, but were forced into 
        that category by political or military forces or their media machinery 
        that blocked their access to channels of peaceful expression."

The US is criticized as it "is among the most antagonistic nations" to the values of the United Nations; it does not respect international organizations or the moral principles upon which democracy rests. Also the US has an agenda of "keeping others from developing, especially the nations of the so-called third world."

More than anything else, what bothers the authors is that the US could have a say in freedom and human rights in Muslim countries. In fact, the authors' values and guiding principles

        "were set forth fourteen centuries ago by the messenger of Islam, Muhammad. 
        This was before human rights organizations existed... We do not accept that 
        others can force us to change our values to deny us the right to live by 
        them...We believe that Islam is the truth, though it is not possible for the 
        entire world to be Muslim..."

The ultimate solution for America to befriend Muslim nations would be to "withdraw from the world outside its borders and removed its hand from inflammatory issues".

Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in the Middle East and Europe.


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