WASHINGTON – When terrorists in the Middle East attack innocent civilians, observers in the West often ask a pained question: Where’s the outrage in the Muslim world? Why don’t Islamic religious authorities speak out more forcefully against the terrorists and their wealthy financiers?
It remains a potent issue: Terrorism has damaged the Islamic world far more than the West, and too many Muslims have been cowed and silent. But a powerful and so far largely unreported denunciation of terrorism emerged last month from Saudi Arabia’s top religious leadership, known as the “Council of Senior Ulema.”
The Saudi fatwa is a tough condemnation of terror, and of the underground network that finances it. It has impressed senior U.S. military commanders and intelligence officers, who were initially surprised when it came out. One sent me a translation of the fatwa, and Saudi officials provided some helpful background.
“There is no gray area here,” said a senior Saudi official. “Once it has come out like this, from the most senior religious body in the kingdom, it’s hard for a lesser religious authority to justify violence.”
The fatwa already seems to have had some impact: “Negative reaction from extremists online shows that they see this as a threat that needs to be responded to,” says one senior U.S. official.
The fatwa begins with a clear definition of terrorism, which it calls “a crime aiming at destabilizing security” by attacking people or property, public or private. The document goes on to list examples of this criminal activity: “blowing up of dwellings, schools, hospitals, factories, bridges, airplanes (including hijacking), oil and pipelines.” It doesn’t mention any geographical area where such actions might be permissible.
What’s striking is that the fatwa specifically attacks financing of terrorism. The Muslim religious council said it “regards the financing of such terrorist acts as a form of complicity to those acts … to bring a conduit for sustaining and spreading of such evil acts.”
The fatwa goes on: “The Council rules that the financing of terrorism, the inception, help or attempt to commit a terrorist act of whatever kind or dimension, is forbidden by Islamic Sharia and constitutes a punishable crime thereby; this includes gathering or providing of finance for that end.”
Given the role that wealthy Saudis have played in financing radical Islamic groups in the past, the fatwa has a significant potential impact. For Muslims in the kingdom, it has the force of law and it will provide a strong religious and legal backing for Saudi and other Arab security services as they track terrorist networks.
It will be harder, too, for renegade clerics to issue rival fatwas that contradict the Saudi Ulema. The signatories are guardians of the conservative Wahhabi school of Islam, which to observers has sometimes seemed to sympathize with the Muslim extremists. The fatwa, dated April 12 but issued publicly in May, was approved unanimously by the 19 members of the council. To implement the fatwa, the Saudi Shura council is drafting a counterterrorism finance law.
Saudi sources say that King Abdullah initiated the process that led to the fatwa, by asking for a ruling on terrorist financing. His push on the issue contrasts with the royal family’s traditional wariness of challenging or offending the clerical establishment, on which its legitimacy rests.
This growing activism partly reflects a recognition that senior members of the House of Saud are themselves prime targets of al-Qaeda. A recent example was the assassination attempt in August 2009 against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi counterterrorism chief.
Events in Saudi Arabia are difficult for outsiders to understand, to put it mildly. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former chief of Saudi intelligence, joked in a recent speech that the kingdom’s ministry of information used to be described as the “ministry of denial” because “whenever news about Saudi Arabia was reported, the ministry would deny it the following day.”
What matters in Saudi Arabia and most other Muslim countries is what its political and religious leaders say to their own people, in Arabic. By that measure, there’s a new voice for moderation coming from the Muslim clerical establishment.
David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.