MECCA, Saudi Arabia — To combat extremist ideologies, Islamic scholars and researchers meeting in Mecca last month urged Muslim governments to tackle poverty, overhaul school curriculums — and get back to religion.
In particular, they counseled strict, Muslim religious observance of the kind practiced in Saudi Arabia. “Apply Islamic Shariah in all life’s affairs,” they recommended, referring to Islamic law, which they said had the capacity to “accomplish justice, maintain dignity, uphold rights and meet the aspirations of the people.”
The state-sanctioned conference, called “Islam and Countering Terrorism,” was an effort by the Saudi government to burnish its anti-extremist credentials and promote its religious establishment as an alternative to the savage leadership of the Islamic State.
Yet, the conference itself highlighted the contradiction at the heart of the Saudi effort: Amid worthwhile talk of outreach to youth and fighting corruption, there was almost no mention of the Saudi monarchy’s decades-long role in aggressively spreading its strictly conservative religious ideology — a creed that itself has provided inspiration for leaders of the Islamic State, the militant group often referred to as ISIS, ISIL or by the Arabic acronym Daesh.
Arab leaders have vigorously condemned the Islamic State and some, like Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have reacted by vowing to restore moderation to religious discourse and thought. But the denunciations by the region’s autocrats and monarchs have rarely been accompanied by deeper self-criticism about the role played by state policies in fueling radicalism, according to analysts.
Saudi Arabia provided just one of the region’s discredited yet resilient models, “a weird mix of authoritarian repression and religious legitimation that reinforces groups like the Islamic State,” said Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and a fellow at Chatham House, both in Britain.
The conference was held in the worn, white headquarters of the Muslim World League, an umbrella group for charitable organizations that was founded by the Saudi monarchy in the 1960s to counter the leftist ideologies then sweeping the region. The league is seen as a cornerstone of the Saudi effort to disseminate its version of Sunni Islam and claim leadership as a charitable benefactor to the Muslim world.
The nature of the conference amplified the character of Saudi doctrine. It was held in Mecca, a city non-Muslims are forbidden from entering, and there was not a single woman among the hundreds of participants. Shiite Muslims, who make up more than 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, also were excluded, reinforcing criticism of a narrow, sectarian outlook.
Even among participants who shared conservative views and praised the idea of the meeting, there were questions about its usefulness. “When you do such events in Mecca, you close the doors,” said Omar Shahin, a lawyer and religious leader who lives in the United States. “Isolating ourselves from other communities doesn’t help. We need to hear other people’s opinions.”
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“Up to now, I didn’t see any action items,” he added. “We talk, and talk, and talk.”
There is little doubt that regional leaders have been shaken by the growth of the Islamic State, particularly the government of Egypt, which has struggled to contain a militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Saudi security officials say that more than 2,000 of the country’s citizens have joined radical groups in Syria over the last four years and that hundreds of militants have returned home. In recent months, Islamic State fighters in Iraq have attacked Saudi border posts.
“The biggest challenge for the kingdom is terrorism,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour Turki, the spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. “We are a major target.”
Mr. Ashour, the academic, said Saudi officials had relied on a similar approach to the threat of extremism for more than a decade, including a “rehabilitation” program for convicted or suspected jihadists and support for United Nations antiterrorism efforts. While relying on what Mr. Ashour called a “heavy-handed, centralized security approach to counterterrorism,” there was little talk of reforming strict religious ideology, a pillar of the monarchy’s legitimacy.
That ideology has come under withering scrutiny: Human rights advocates have pointed to a spate of beheadings and other executions this year in Saudi Arabia, for crimes like drug smuggling and murder, as evidence of practices barely distinguishable from those of the militants.
“Their idea of a soft approach is more religion — more religion with specific interpretations supported by the state,” Mr. Ashour said. “The idea of reforming the state via less religion is not even on the radar.”
At the conference here, the discussion often seemed less focused on the Islamic State than on the consequences of its rise to prominence for Muslims around the world, faced with news media distortions of their faith and revenge attacks. At times, there seemed to be as much concern about the definition of terrorism as there was about the roots of extremism.
At other times, though, participants challenged their colleagues to dig deeper into the regional dynamics that had swelled the ranks of the militants. One professor called for the “reconstruction of Islamic thought.” A prominent Saudi scholar criticized the lack of action after similar conferences, saying, “Many people have stopped listening to us.”
Nihad Awad, the director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, lamented the paucity of civil society organizations because of restrictions imposed by the region’s states. “The structure of Arab and Islamic society needs to be reviewed,” he said. “Who would the youth go to in order to express themselves?”
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Mohamed Abdulwahid al-Assri, a Moroccan scholar, said the conference had avoided several crucial themes, including the problem of dictatorship in the region and the lack of “social justice.”
There is no doubt that the conference’s Saudi hosts view the Islamic State as a real danger, he said. “My criticism,” he added, looking around the conference hall, “is that this is not enough.”
Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Source: The New York Times