Saudi Arabia’s Religious Counter-Terrorist Discourse – Analysis


By Roel Meijer

Saudi Arabia’s recent rehabilitation programs for terrorists have attracted much attention and in general have been profusely praised as proof of the Saudis’ vigorous efforts to repress terrorism. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s tradition of countering terrorism goes back to the founding of the Saudi state by Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Saud. Known as the “struggle against extremism” (ghuluw), Saudi efforts to counter terrorism emerged for the first time in response to the ikhwan revolt in 1927-30. This tradition was resurrected following the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Utaybi and his group in 1979. Since the attacks by “extremists” in 2003, it has been rehashed by the Advisory Committees, which have led the rehabilitation programs in the prisons. More recently, there has been a massive campaign for “intellectual security” (al-aman al-fikri), based on the same discourse.

In a sense, the West was wrong when it accused Saudi “Wahhabis” of not doing enough to combat terrorism. On the other hand, the contention that Wahhabism or Salafism is part of the problem seems correct. It remains to be seen if the Saudi counter-discourse can effectively fight its “inner demons” with basically the same religious reasoning on which radical currents draw their justification for revolt and violence. The recent attacks on the Deputy Minister of Interior Muhammad ibn Nayif, and the continual round-ups of new bands of extremists, seem to suggest that the problem has not been laid to rest.

The basic problem is that Saudi Arabia has been built on doctrines that can be given a radical interpretation. Concepts such as wala’ wa al-bara’ (loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of non-Muslims or Muslims who are regarded as incorrect), jihad against Muslims who do not adhere to the Wahhabi concept of Islam, and a strict belief in tawhid (monotheism) and the rejection of all forms of idolatry, such as the veneration of saints, are generally regarded as extremist by non-Salafi currents. Together with the general Islamic doctrine of the condemnation of injustice (zulm), these concepts have a mobilizing potential against authorities when they do not adhere to their own strict doctrine. The thin line between radicalism and moderation is only barely contained by the doctrine of wali al-amr, obedience to the ruler — whatever the nature of his political rule. The argument that division (fitna) is worse than tyranny (zulm) is not very convincing for real zealots.

During the past two centuries, these two contradictory doctrines have held each other in balance. While the Saudi rulers tried to contain, regulate, and mobilize the powerful forces it unleashed to gain political power, it was difficult for the zealots to understand that in the end, pragmatic and self-serving objectives prevailed over the doctrine of tawhid to which the ruler also should be subject and on which the whole power of the state was based. Caught in the middle, the ‘ulama’ might be able to sympathize with the wayward radicals who were willing to sacrifice themselves for higher goals; however, ultimately they knuckled down to the powers that be, aware of their own interests.

In the end, this alliance has led to a host of interrelated concepts that are meant to restrain Wahhabism’s politically dangerous dimension. That the ‘ulama’ play a major role in this task automatically explains why the Saudi war on terrorism is not just a war of ideas but a battle of religious concepts. Central to it is “extremism” (ghuluw) — a term that has a long history and is preferred to “terrorism,” which is regarded as a Western, alien term that fails to capture the religious dimension. Extremism is related to other classic concepts, such as deviation (inhiraf) and misguidance (dalal). Opposed to these is the idea that Wahhabism is Islam, and therefore is moderate and balanced; moreover, to be a good Muslim is to walk the middle ground (wasatiyya) between the extremes of too much or too little.

It would be wrong, however, to believe that the Saudi campaign to counter extremism is based entirely on doctrine, although the root of the problem is ignorance (jahl) and success is measured by degree of repentance (tawba). An important part of the campaign is the effort to imbue believers with correct manners or behavior (akhlaq). As the terrorist is someone who has lost his rationality and is commanded by “passions” (e.g., hatred and envy) or by selfish “inclinations” (e.g., greed), it is necessary to bring him back to the fold and instill in him a correct attitude based on restraint, respect, the common good, and brotherhood. This, in turn, will not just turn him into a law-abiding citizen but also into an apolitical citizen, for all forms of criticism and self-reflection are considered innovations (bid‘a), the major sin in Salafism, and deviation.

Needless to say, much of this effort by Saudi authorities is directed to reassert not just the authority of the state but also that of the ‘ulama’, the guardians of the correct doctrine and religious knowledge (‘ilm) to whom all believers must refer their problems and submit to their fatwas, in order for them to establish their correct behavior.

As in the rest of the world, the “war on terrorism” in Saudi Arabia has led to a deepening of the state’s control over its citizens. The struggle against “deviation” has always been a means of mind control in Saudi Arabia. But once the misguidance of youth was recognized as a problem, the war against extremism has given the state and the ‘ulama’ a new opportunity to penetrate deeper into society and find new ways of securing the status quo. The form this has taken is that of the nationwide “intellectual security” (al-aman al-fikri) campaign. If the Advisory Committees had been founded in 2003 to pull the detainees in prisons to the right side of Wahhabism, the intellectual security campaign, which was launched in 2007, is focused on society at large. Interestingly, it has modernized its older religious terms — mobilizing “science” for this purpose, installing the Nayif Chair for Intellectual Security Studies, and organizing a massive program of seminars and workshops for universities, secondary schools, family counseling institutions, and social workers — in order to be able to recognize, detect, and combat deviation at all levels of society. As part of this campaign, the Nayif Chair organized in May 2009 a three-day conference on the concept of intellectual security. Though ostensibly academic, the titles of the papers and the heavy attendance of both state and religious dignitaries shows how difficult it is for the academic field to emancipate itself from the religious and political field.

Not everyone has been as enthusiastic about the concept of intellectual security. On websites and newspapers, interesting debates have raged about the implications of intellectual security. Only a few, however, seem to be able to break out of the confines of this religious discourse on deviation and have suggested that political, economic, or social factors might be reasons for terrorism. Even fewer critics point out that combating terrorism with basically the same discourse can backfire: they correctly point out that this counter-discourse only hinges on such a feeble doctrine as wali al-amr and the concept that division is worse than unity, or such suggestions that the Saudi state upholds the struggle against zulm and is the embodiment of wasatiyya. Once this illusion is punctured, the whole building collapses and can be used against the innocuous prince and its ‘ulama’, who lose themselves in the purification of doctrine.


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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