To many, it must seem strange to seek help in tackling extremists and terrorists from Saudi Arabia, as some people often put the blame on the Saudi money along with its ideology, Wahhabism, for being the principal financial and ideological force behind this menace of extremism and terrorism in the world today.
In a recent letter to Saudi authorities, a UN monitoring team has expressed desire to obtain information on the kingdom’s special anti-terrorism programme aimed at protecting people from being influenced by Al-Qaeda ideology. Saudi Arabia has evolved a programme to impart correct advice and offer care to people who come under the influence of the deviant ideology. Richard Barrel, coordinator of the monitoring team of Sanction’s Committee, which was formed as per Security Council resolution No 1267, expressed his desire to study the Saudi model so that it could help other countries facing the identical issues of extremism and terrorism.
Last year, senior British security officials, including Eliza Mannigham-Buller, the chief of MI5 intelligence agency, visited Saudi Arabia to study its approach to combating terrorism and then device a similar “counter-radicalisation” strategy for Britain.
Saudi Arabia has quietly evolved a novel idea of re-educating extremists by using clerics to debate jihad and other related concepts with imprisoned militants and then convert them to more moderate beliefs. This programme is called Islamic “counselling” and is part of larger counter-terrorism campaign in the kingdom. More than 160 Muslim clerics and scholars along with 40 other psychologists, sociologists, security and media personals have been assigned the duty of providing counselling for extremists and militants who are not directly involved in terrorist acts but are thought to sympathise with and provide support for the extremists.
About 86 million Saudi Riyals have been spent on this programme and related activities. About 700 extremists have been re-educated and released from the prisons following assessment of their conditions. Under this programme, there are four committees of religious scholars, psychologists, sociologists, security and media specialists, engaged with the extremist prisoners in order to correct their understanding of jihad and other terminologies and asses their social and psychological conditions and provide them with proper counselling and help.
Apart from this counselling programme, the kingdom has further put in place a better monitoring of its mosques and religious schools to ensure that they are not used to promote intolerance and condone violence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has dismissed a large number of imams and sent a number of other imams for retraining. Recently, the Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz held first open meeting with some 600 imams and khateebs from different parts of the kingdom to discuss means and ways to educate citizens on how to fight extremism and deviant ideologies. The minister stated addressing the imams, “It is your responsibility to confront this problem by applying your knowledge, minds, and courage. There are at least 14000 Friday mosques in our country and this means we have 14000 platforms. If the imams use this opportunity to expose the deviants and their ideology, it will have a great positive impact on society.”
He said the deviants were tarnishing the image of Islam and serving the interests of its enemies. “They are attacking Islam and you are right person to counter them.”
The Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Sale Al-Sheikh, who was present in the meeting, announced his ministry’s plan to launch a major campaign to protect young Saudi men and women from destructive thoughts and ideas of extremists. “This campaign will be carried out shortly through mosques,” Al-Sheikh said.
Of course, security measures have to be adopted along side this counselling programme, to eliminate those hardcore militants who are hell bent on destructive course. Prince Naif stated that security forces had foiled 90 per cent of terrorist attacks in the kingdom.
Since extremism is more related with minds, thoughts and ideologies than anything else, it can only be countered effectively through enlightenment and counselling and herein lies the importance of Saudi model of Islamic counselling. After six-year war on terror led by the US, the realisation is beginning to dawn on many that military means including inhuman treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other prisons are leading the world nowhere. They are rather producing more terrorists than eliminating them. The fight against Muslim extremists has to come from within, and who is better equipped to do this job than Muslim clerics and imams and khateebs of Friday prayers.