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The fatwa against the royal family

Oct 11th 2001 From The Economist print edition

The Afghan war carries risks for Saudi Arabia's ruling family

LATE last month, a blind 80-year-old sheikh was led before Saudi officials. They had just one question: had he really issued a fatwa that in effect excommunicated the al-Saud royal family? “Whoever backs the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel,” replied the old man.

Sheikh Hamoud bin Oqla al-Shuaibi is no lonely firebrand. He is a prominent scholar who once taught law to the Saudi chief justice. Now, from his home in Burayda in Nejd province, the kingdom's Wahhabi bastion, he has become the standard-bearer of Saudi Arabia's turbulent prelates. When the royal family sought the retraction of his fatwa, other religious scholars added their voice, including some mainstream preachers. Anonymous statements pronounced King Fahd and his 30,000-strong family expelled from Islam. All echoed the sheikh's opinion that Muslims had a duty to wage jihad on those who attack Muslim states.

These ominous documents risk upsetting the House of Saud's partnership with the Wahhabis, the puritanical sect whose followers consider themselves the only true believers. For 250 years, the Wahhabis have given the al-Sauds religious legitimacy in return for a licence to wage jihad, first against neighbouring tribes, then against Shia Muslims, the Ottoman empire and the Soviet Union. They sowed their ideology among Muslims abroad, including the Taliban. But now America, the royal family's backer, is the enemy, and the sheikhs are threatening to transform King Fahd from the patron to the target of jihad.

Some dismiss these dissenters as a lunatic fringe. But as a precaution, Prince Sultan, the defence minister, invited a delegation of Burayda scholars to visit him ahead of the American defence secretary's visit last week. Prince Sultan's son Bandar, the ambassador to Washington, defended his father's refusal to join America's military alliance with a rare admission of vulnerability: “In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections. In a monarchy, you lose your head.”

An early sign of violence came on October 6th when a suicide bomber, apparently a Pakistani, struck Eve's, a favourite shop for foreigners in the eastern city of Al Khobar, killing two Americans. Protecting the righteous, he blew himself up during evening prayers. Presumably to avoid inflaming public opinion, the Saudis did not invite Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, who was touring the region this week.

We're just innocent bystanders in this war, plead the Saudis. But the puritanical clerics have their stern answer from the “Tawhid”, the Wahhabi manifesto, which is compulsory study in schools: one form of apostasy is “support for the pagan by hand, by tongue or money. As Allah has said, never support the infidels.”

For decades, the al-Sauds have succoured their own opposition. The ultra-orthodox had free rein in schools, the media and the police to enforce bans on music, dancing and showing female faces. School-leavers were given grants to train in Osama bin Laden's camps, public-sector workers were encouraged to spend their holidays on package tours to Afghanistan. Arab afghanis (Muslims who fought to expel the Russians from Afghanistan) in London estimate that 5,000-10,000 Saudis have passed through the Afghan camps, and most are now dormant in sleeper-cells. Of the 19 hijackers on September 11th, 12 are believed to be Saudi.

“The al-Sauds have no source of legitimacy besides the Wahhabis,” says a Saudi academic. “They have to find other voices for legitimacy.” This should not be impossible. Only a small minority of Saudi Arabia's 20m or so people are Wahhabis, and most of those who are not, long for release from the Wahhabi stranglehold. But the longer the confrontation is postponed, the greater the risk of a backlash.

From their base in the Nejd, Wahhabis have now spread across the kingdom, establishing strongholds in such isolated corners as Asir, the rugged south-western province from where many of the hijackers are said to have come. Their denunciation of royal corruption, indebtedness to the West and the American hold on the oilfields has a wide appeal.

Youths have been arrested in Abha, Asir's capital, after showing solidarity with the families of the hijackers. And Arab afghanis say hundreds of Saudi veterans of jihad in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan have been detained. But Saudi Arabia's rulers are wary of tackling the main source of their own support. After an outburst six years ago, Sheikh al-Oqla was put behind bars. Now officials fear that their customary tactic of silencing him carries too great a risk.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 13, 2001

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