fighting fire with fire

Saudi execution

(This piece was written for the BBC WS and was also published on BBC NEWS website, links below)

If you watch Saudi television, as I sometimes do, you will quickly realise that Saudi Arabia is tragicomically caught in the huge gap between the image it tries to project and the reality it pretends does not exist.

Last Saturday was such a moment.

After the announcement that the interior ministry had broken up terror cells linked to so-called Islamic State (IS) and arrested some 400 suspects, Saudi commentators took to the airwaves. They praised the police for thwarting planned terrorists attacks and, crucially, noted the young age of the suspects, most of whom were Saudis.

They talked about how Saudi society could steer those stray, lost souls back to the path of true Islam and away from extremism.

The irony couldn’t have escaped anyone who knows Saudi Arabia well.
How could this ultra-conservative monarchy fight extremism when its own brand of the faith – known as Wahhabi Islam – is barely distinguishable from the one practised by the militants in Syria and Iraq?

Both feature strict separation of the sexes, the obligatory covering of women from head to toe, public executions and a virulent hatred of Shia Muslims and all other forms of Islam.

And both share a visceral animosity to Christianity and Judaism, the two Middle Eastern religions which predated Islam and whose followers should be, according to the Koran, respected and protected.
If this were an internal Saudi affair, few would have cared.
Exporting faith

But not only is Saudi Arabia the birthplace of Islam, it has also used its enormous oil wealth to export its own brand of the faith to the whole world – from Pakistan to north Africa and to Muslim communities in America and Western Europe. No less ironic is the fact that this has been described as Saudi “soft power”.

These days, you are likely to encounter the fruits of this soft power on the streets of London or Cairo – men and women emulating the Saudi lifestyle: a woman wearing the full face veil and walking behind her bearded husband dressed in an ankle-length gown.

Of course, not all followers are violent or prone to violence, but the question of whether non-violent extremism can morph into the violent brand practised by the global jihadists has become a hot topic in many countries, including in the UK.

Amid growing fears that young British Muslims are being lured to join jihad in the Middle East – and hundreds have already done that – the government has announced controversial plans to fight all forms of extremism.

But the plans have been harshly criticised for being either too vague or counterproductive.

The question of fighting Islamist extremism has again put into sharp focus an old dilemma for liberal democracies: how to fight fanaticism without compromising the democratic values you are supposed to defend.

The problem is by no means less existential for the Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East.
There, the barbarity of IS has sparked some unprecedented soul-searching: who is to blame for all this savagery being carried out in the name of Islam?

While many have pointed the finger of blame at Wahhabism, or the rise of Islamism as a social and political phenomenon, others have directed their aim at the institutions of mainstream Islam itself.

To this day, it is not uncommon, for example, to hear the imam at the end of the Friday sermon in any Arab capital cursing the infidels and the Jews. Critics have argued that without a radical reform of the tradition that puts Islam above – or in conflict with – the rest of the world, Islamism, just like the mythological hydra, will just continue to grow new heads.


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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