Saudi Conference Condemns Extremism, Embraces Shari’a

By Patrick Goodenough | April 2, 2010 | 4:35 AM EDT

A conference in Saudi Arabia has condemned terrorism and extremism, while calling for all Muslim governments to apply shari’a law “in all aspects of life.” Pictured are Pakistani Muslims at a mosque during Ramadan. (AP Photo)

( – A conference in Saudi Arabia this week ended with a condemnation of terrorism and appeals for Muslims to reject extremism, but it also recommended that all Muslim governments apply shari’a (Islamic law) “in all aspects of life.”
A long list of adopted recommendations included an implicit call for terrorism to be defined in a way that excludes resistance against “foreign occupation.”
In the latest of several recent initiatives by prominent Muslims to distance their religion from terrorism, organizers brought hundreds of religious scholars and experts together at the Islamic University of Medina for a conference entitled “Terrorism: Between Extremism of Thought and Thoughts of Extremism.”
More than 80 research papers were examined in 12 sessions over four days, after which a 2,500-word document of recommendations was compiled and released.
Among these, Muslim parents were encouraged to foster moderation in their children and to shield them from Web sites belonging to “deviant and extremist groups.”
Muslim young people were urged to create Web sites that “defend Islam, bring to light its lofty values of tolerance and moderation, and invite others to it.”
And “extremist groups that identify with Islam” were advised “to think seriously and carefully about the ramifications of their actions and the negative impact they have on Islam and Muslims.”
The document also said Muslims should “learn their religion from trustworthy scholars known for being moderate” and reject “unreliable” teachings relating to jihad and takfir (apostasy).
It said jihad was “a noble concept and is different in its legitimacy and objectives from the condemnable acts of those that have deviated from Islam.”
The document did not elaborate on what would be regarded as a “reliable” interpretation of apostasy, one of the most contentious tenets in Islam. But the recommendations went on to urge all Muslim governments to “apply Islamic shari’a in all aspects of life.” It is under shari’a that some governments, including Saudi Arabia itself, treat apostasy as a capital crime
The most recent State Department report on religious freedom, in its section on Saudi Arabia, notes, “Conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) and proselytizing by non-Muslims are punishable by death under the Islamic laws adopted by the country.” It notes that no reports of execution for either crime have been confirmed in recent years.
The document adopted in Medina praised Saudi Arabia for “its prudence in dealing with extremist ideologies” through rehabilitation and monitoring, and “commend[ed] the efforts of Saudi Arabia’s scholars in confronting deviant ideologies, exposing them, and rendering them baseless.”
The U.S. government has in recent years noted efforts by the Saudi government to encourage moderation among Sunni clerics, a trend it says began after the kingdom suffered a series of terrorist attacks starting in 2003.
Nonetheless, the promotion of radical views by Saudi clerics – recipients of government stipends – has continued.
The State Department report, which covered the year up to June 2009, noted that “instances continued in which mosque speakers prayed for the death of Jews and Christians, including at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.”
It said the government ministry responsible for Islamic affairs “dismissed some clerics for espousing intolerant ideas, but other clerics who said such things were allowed to continue. It was common for preachers in mosques, including the mosques of Mecca and Medina, to end Friday sermons with a prayer for the well-being of Muslims and for the humiliation of polytheism and polytheists.”
Just one month ago the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia drew attention to a new fatwa by an influential Saudi scholar, Abdulrahman al-Barrak, who said that those who initiate or accept mixing of males and females in schools or workplaces “should be given one chance to repent, but if they do not, they should be considered apostate and beheaded.”
The center said the cleric had posted the ruling on his Web site, “read by Muslims all over the world.”
Terrorism condemned, but ‘occupation’ the exception
The Medina document said conference participants condemned “all acts of terrorism regardless of the place or the perpetrators” as well as “any harm done to civilians and civilian facilities under the pretext of combating international terrorism.”
It also accused Israel of “state terrorism,” and urged Islamic media to continue “coverage and exposure of Israeli occupation crimes against defenseless Palestinian civilians, in particular the Israeli Holocaust in Gaza.”
It further stressed “the importance of having an internationally accepted definition of terrorism in order to prevent nations from setting their own loose definitions that serve to further their self-interests.”
Islamic declarations on terrorism, especially since 9/11, have invariably included the proviso that terrorism should be distinguished from actions taken against “foreign occupation.”
In its condemnation of terror, the Medina conference document did not directly include the “occupation” exception.
It did, however, recommend the adoption of a definition of terrorism “as articulated by the Arab Council of Interior Ministers and Arab Council of Justice Ministers.”
The Medina document did not spell out that definition. But at the most recent meeting of the Arab Council of Interior Ministers, in Tunis on March 17, the body – as it has done in years past – again “emphasized the need to differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate struggle of people against occupation,” according to a report in the Saudi daily Arab News.
Usually cited in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “occupation” exemption could also provide cover for the anti-Indian jihad in Kashmir and attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issue has for years dogged efforts at the United Nations to formulate one universal definition for terrorism.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow