Saudi Arabia conducts purge of extremist preachers

By Sultan al-Barei in Riyadh

A Saudi cleric recites from the Qur'an at a mosque in Qatif on May 27th, the first day of Ramadan. The kingdom has stepped up its monitoring of imams and preachers, recently dismissing 1,000 it accused of exploiting their position to promote extremism. [Hussain Radwan/AFP]

A Saudi cleric recites from the Qur'an at a mosque in Qatif on May 27th, the first day of Ramadan. The kingdom has stepped up its monitoring of imams and preachers, recently dismissing 1,000 it accused of exploiting their position to promote extremism. [Hussain Radwan/AFP]

Saudi Arabia's recent dismissal of thousands of preachers accused of propagating extremist ideology is a major step towards eliminating the source of radical ideology in the kingdom, experts told Al-Mashareq.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month announced the dismissal of several thousand imams from mosques for spreading extremism, Arab News reported.

“We will not let anyone spread the ideology of hatred, to finance that kind of ideology or terrorism,” al-Jubeir said.

"Our approach to this problem has been very strict," he added. "We … modernise our educational system in order to rule out the possibility of misinterpretation of [religious] texts.”

A carefully considered decision

"The issue of the dismissal of imams from work was not an easy decision to make for the religious and political leadership," said Abdullah al-Muqrin, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca.

Clerics enjoy an elevated social status in the kingdom, he told Al-Mashareq, so any decision of this kind required careful examination before it could be issued.

"The decision came after many months of monitoring of most imams and preachers in the kingdom," he said, noting that Saudi authorities monitored sermons at mosques, religious seminars and social media activity.

Preachers were dismissed for different reasons, he said, which include the misinterpretation of religious scripture, the issue of deviant fatwas, the promotion of terror groups and incitement against Saudi security forces.

"Some imams currently are being held by the security authorities on account of the seriousness of the offenses they committed," al-Muqrin said.

They are being investigated to determine the extent of their association with terror groups outside the kingdom, he added.

Other preachers were only dismissed from their positions and banned from preaching at mosques or conducting religious seminars, he said.

Review of religious curricula

Some preachers and teachers are promoting religious curricula that incite hatred or violence, said Fadel al-Hindi, a supervisor at King Abdulaziz University's Centre for Social and Humanities Research.

Schools and universities should be subject to the same monitoring that mosques receive, as a sizable number of the detained imams also teach, al-Hindi said.

"A special Ministry of Education committee began conducting a general review of school and university religious curricula a month ago to purge them of takfiri discourse," he told Al-Mashareq.

A special Ministry of Awqaf committee has been formed to conduct an ideological review of the dismissed imams, particularly those who did not incite violence and terrorism in their sermons, he said.

"The decision regarding their return to work will be made by this committee," he said, noting that the recommendation will be submitted to the legal authorities with jurisdiction over the investigation to make the final decision on their cases.

The dismissal of these preachers from work is an integral part of the plan to eliminate terrorism, he said, as "it makes no sense to fight terrorism militarily while leaving its [ideological] sources operating through religious and educational institutions".

These steps are accompanied by close and continuous monitoring of social media to detect any attempt at the dissemination of extremist ideology and to tackle such attempts through the specialised security institutions, he said.

Protecting Saudi society

"From my personal experience as the imam of a mosque, I see that the matter of purging mosques of the imams of violence and hatred as very necessary for Saudi society," said Adel al-Usaimi, imam of Riyadh's al-Khair mosque.

Saudi youth are highly influenced by the religious instruction they receive in mosques, he told Al-Mashareq, as most youth who attend mosques on a regular basis to pray consider imams to be role models who must be followed.

Because of the societal respect conferred upon imams, "planting terrorist and takfiri ideas in their heads is very easy", he said, noting that rooting out deviant clerics will have a direct impact on the wellbeing of Saudi youth.

"Many imams and preachers have exploited Saudi youth to gain fame and achieve financial gains, or to achieve gains in terms of disseminating extremism and the ideas of misguided groups," he said.

Such groups have distorted Islam by misrepresenting Qur'anic interpretations, he said, adding that these preachers are "the biggest threat to Saudi society, and must be held accountable for their actions".

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Terrorism has spread, and the supporters who finance it and the regular supporters of it have increased in many countries around the world. Muslims should have stood side by side, especially in this sacred land which is the cradle of revelation and message, to protect youngsters, citizens and residents, as well as pilgrims and visitors, against all those who think about sowing destructive and perverted ideology which tarnishes the correct religion which is based on tolerance, love and moderation and avoidance of hate. God Almighty says, “And thus, We have made you an exalted nation that you may be the bearers of witness to the people and (that) the Messenger may be a bearer of witness to you”.