Reuters, June 25, 2003
RIYADH (Reuters) — Saudi Arabia has suspended more than 1,000 Muslim preachers until they are retrained to promote religious moderation and reject the “extremism” of Al Qaeda militants, a government official said on Tuesday. Abdul Rahman Al Matroudi, deputy minister at Saudi Arabia’s religious affairs ministry, said clerics would be instructed to tell worshippers the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — which was believed to be carried out mainly by Saudi hijackers — violated Islamic teachings.
The suspensions were part of a regular review of Saudi preachers, not a reaction to last month’s suicide bombings in Riyadh or pressure to rein in a religious establishment blamed in the West for helping foster Muslim extremism, he said.
“They have been told what happened on Sept. 11 and (attacks) in other places are against Islam and they have to tell the people that this is the stand which Muslims should take,” Matroudi told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has more than 50,000 mosques, each with a prayer leader or preacher.
“If someone is found not fit to be in that job he will be asked to resign, or be retrained. That is what is happening. It has nothing to do with what is going on (after the bombings),” Matroudi said, adding scholars found some preachers had “a shortage of knowledge.”
“The teaching which is given to them is the true teaching of Islam, which is always against extremism,” he said, adding the training emphasises moderation.
The moves began before the Riyadh bombings, which killed 35 people and were blamed on Al Qaeda. But those attacks and ensuing shootouts between militants and police in Mecca, the holiest of Muslim cities, have shaken Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has cracked down on a number of radical preachers it blames for inciting violence. At least three clerics have been arrested for encouraging support of militants.
Saudi Arabia has been trying to control anti-US sentiment fuelled by the American-led occupation of Iraq, Washington’s robust support for Israel and a perceived US smear campaign against the kingdom and Islam after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Fifteen of the 19 suspected hijackers of the planes that crashed into targets in New York and Washington were Saudis. The United States said the attacks were the work of Saudi-born Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda.
Western critics have blamed Saudi Arabia’s education system and deeply conservative religious establishment for creating a permissive environment in which anti-US militancy flourished.
“Unfortunately some of the Americans do not know exactly what is going on here. Therefore, sometimes they give their judgement without knowing our culture,” Matroudi said.
“Our imams and our preachers, all of them are criticising the thought and the way of al Qaeda.”
Bin Laden won some support among ordinary Saudis over his demand for the withdrawal of US troops stationed in the Gulf state since the 1990-91 Gulf War. Most are leaving after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq.
But Saudi officials say any popular support for Al Qaeda was eroded by the bombings in Riyadh and the discovery of militant cells in Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities.