The public apology aired on TV this week by the Saudi cleric Ayed Al-Qarni for offenses committed by the Sahwa, or “Awakening” movement, was both significant and welcome. However, it came nowhere close to undoing the harm caused by the extremist ideas so widely spread by Al-Qarni and his fellow Sahwa leaders.
In March, Arab News began a campaign exposing Preachers of Hate. Each week we have shed light on controversial clerics from all religions and explored their malign influence on those who follow them. What these hate-mongers have in common is that they have all used faith, be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity, to manipulate minds and incite violence.
It was no surprise that our first series, which concluded this week with a profile of the Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, included two prominent figures from the Sahwa movement — Salman Al-Odah and Safar Al-Hawali.
Researching these two men was simultaneously both simple and complicated. Difficult because, for decades, these clerics misled millions into believing they were the protectors of Islam. Of course, the truth is that nothing has done more harm to our religion than the hate and extremism they spread. However, the task was also simple because of the superstar status these preachers very much enjoyed, particularly Al-Odah. Their love of fame meant that most of the incriminating fatwas, videos and sermons we collected and documented were readily available on their own verified social-media accounts and websites.
We also made sure to document the “reforms” and U-turns some of these clerics have executed, or appeared to; like chameleons, they altered their rhetoric to suit different times and political circumstances, particularly after the 9/11 attacks in the US and when terror hit home in Saudi Arabia.
At this important juncture in the history of Saudi Arabia, there is no room for half measures or half-hearted efforts to confront extremist ideas
Faisal J. Abbas
However, much of the extremism they propagated is still out there and the authenticity of their U-turns remains questionable. For instance, if Al-Odah had truly renounced his past, why did he retain his controversial fatwas on his official website?
At this important juncture in the history and development of Saudi Arabia, when the leadership has declared its commitment to bringing the nation back to moderate Islam, there is no room for half measures or half-hearted efforts to confront extremist ideas.
As the Kingdom empowers women, reconnects with other faiths and embraces art, music and entertainment, clerics who once mistakenly denounced all this must now take a firm and clear stand to interpret and present Islam in the tolerant form it was always intended to take.
This is important, not just for Saudi Arabia, but for the whole Muslim world, which will eternally seek guidance and direction from the land of the two holy mosques.
Conceding past errors, as Ayed Al-Qarni has done, may be viewed as courageous; but we must also be clear that this is not the end of a necessary course correction — merely the start.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas