Moderate Saudi Clerics Balance Religion, Rhetoric

Times Staff Writer

Standing in the desert-grit haze outside his mosque, cleric Feham Mutairy defends the rigid Islamic principles that guide his nation, but condemns imams inspired by that religious fervor to invoke jihad against the West.

Mutairy’s is a meticulous balancing act in a country where subtle syntax and evasiveness are often summoned in conversations about religion. The clear becomes opaque as even moderate clerics denounce the handiwork of Al Qaeda but in the same breath blame the Bush administration’s Middle East policies for breeding terrorist cells and suicide bombers.

It is in this chasm of rhetoric and religion that the Saudi government -- jolted by suicide bombings that killed 34 people here in the capital this month -- is attempting to silence provocative sermons against the U.S.

Four popular imams were arrested this week for their sympathies to Al Qaeda. And more than 800 clerics have been urged by the government since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. to curb their fanaticism and militancy, which Riyadh increasingly views as a threat not only to America but to the Saudi royal family.


The United States and other countries have long been skeptical of the kingdom’s intentions to crack down on religious leaders. Along with millions of dollars in Saudi money wired around the globe, the teachings of mullahs and imams have filled the ranks and provided the ideology for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But the May 12 triple bombing in Riyadh, according to journalists and government officials, is forcing the Saudi Interior Ministry to be more vigilant against religious extremism.

The government “really wants to arrest some hard-line clerics,” said one Saudi journalist, adding that Riyadh needs to preserve its relationship with the U.S. and prevent “clerics the freedom to recruit and carry out more attacks.... It’s far more dangerous than the government ever thought.”

Standing with his teenage son below the minaret of his mosque, Mutairy, dressed in white, said: “The message of all reasonable clerics must be to say that terrorist acts have nothing to do with Islam. This is a time for softness, not hardness and killing. Things with the West must calm down.”

But Mutairy’s thought didn’t end there. The young men who blow themselves up and kill others, he suggested, are not the only ones to blame. “They do this as a reaction to American policy,” he said. “Those bombers never explained their motives to me, but I know this is their reason.”

“Some imams do pray for the demolishing of the U.S.,” said Sheik Turky Ghamdi, who preaches at the city’s Ammar Bin Yaser Mosque. “Nobody prayed for this 15 or 20 years ago, but now they do because of Afghanistan, Iraq and Bush’s favoritism of Israel over the Palestinians.... I reject these bombings. They are not Islam. But the Bush administration is attacking Islam throughout the world.”

The difficulty for the Saudi government, which has long faced hostility from clerics at home for its close relationship with the U.S., is to quell passions against Washington without offending the nation’s strict Wahhabi Islamic tenets.

The royal family belongs to that religious tradition -- which espouses a literal interpretation of the Koran and advocates the spread of Islam around the world -- and derives much of its power from Wahhabi leaders. But since the Riyadh bombings, the government and newspaper columnists have been reexamining Wahhabism’s role in stoking radicalism in schools and mosques.

Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, recently sought to explain the balance between Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious public and a government that wants to nudge the country toward modernization and a more open society.


“A dog on the leash and a blind man,” said Bandar as he sat in a Bedouin tent filled with incense and lanterns on his palace grounds here. “Once the dog goes beyond the leash it is no good for the blind man.”

The danger, U.S. and Saudi officials stress, is that militant Islamic clerics rationalize and often actively support terrorist groups. Two of the four religious teachers arrested this week near the holy city of Medina -- Ali Khudair and Ahmed Humud Khaldi -- had ties to the group of 19 terrorists that allegedly carried out the triple bombing in Riyadh.

Radical clerics cannot be ignored, said Mohsen Awajy, a conservative Islamist jailed for four years in the 1990s for protesting for government reform. “They have to be reprogrammed.”

But altering radical Islam is complex in a nation where casual conversations about politics can still lead Saudi officials and intellectuals to surmise that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. were masterminded by Israeli intelligence services seeking to discredit Arabs. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and hundreds of Saudis have joined radical Islamic causes throughout the world. Because militants cite Islamic teachings to justify their jihad, or holy war, against the West, some Saudi officials, not wanting to anger Wahhabi leaders, search for other explanations.


A Saudi official with ties to the royal family said many believe that the country’s rigid Islamist principles over the years spawned a religious activism that evolved into the sort of extremism that produced men such as Osama bin Laden. This militancy is heightened by the royal family’s inability to calm anger against it amid rising unemployment rates. It is also fanned by clerics embittered by what they see as the family’s move toward a Western culture of the Internet and satellite TV, and for its allowing U.S. troops to open bases on holy land.

But the official said Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups were also the products of a decades-old Cold War struggle in the mountains of Central Asia.

“We think they were born out of Afghanistan,” said the official, referring to the generation of moujahedeen that relied on U.S. weapons and money to battle the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The official noted that after the Soviet withdrawal, many of the rebels formed the Taliban government and some enlisted in other wars such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya. Saudi Arabia, he said, became a logical target because “it has the holy gold and the black gold.”


The other day, Mutairy stood near his mosque at dusk. A breeze moved through the palms, and neon signs glowed from the stores in his middle-class neighborhood. A few women, draped in black with only their eyes showing, strolled past with their heads down.

“I’m afraid these radicals may have a side effect on Islam,” said Mutairy, his beard brushing his white collar. “I’m afraid the West will connect Islam with bombings. One day the Irish Republican Army may bomb something in London, but Islam will get blamed.”