RIYADH // Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the interior minister, has criticised Saudi Arabia's prayer leaders for not doing enough to convince the country's youth of the dangers posed by extremist ideologies. "More than 15,000 mosques in the country constitute the best forums for guidance, but the imams have failed miserably in discharging their duties," the minister said at a seminar in Mecca last week.
"Frankly speaking, I would like to say that the imams of mosques, with the exception of the two holy mosques, have not played their desired role" in the fight against extremism, said Prince Naif, according to Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper. A Saudi official confirmed the accuracy of Prince Naif's reported remarks, delivered at Umm al Qura University. The official said the prince "believes that everyone has to do his role in fighting extremist ideologies and raising the awareness of the public ? He's saying that the imams are not doing enough to raise awareness of" how extremist thought endangers Saudi security.
The minister's remarks were not the first time he or other Saudi officials have expressed impatience with the country's tens of thousands of imams, who make up the grass-roots level of this country's influential religious establishment. In December, according to Asharq Alawsat, a Saudi-owned newspaper published in London, Prince Naif spoke of "incapacity and shortcomings" in "mosque platforms" that were "focusing on minor or outside issues at a time when the homeland and its citizens are suffering from major events that influence the fate of this homeland".
The minister added that "we must shift our focus to the greatest danger of all - that is, deviation from religion and disobedience to those in charge". It is no secret that the rank and file of the Saudi religious community is not fully supportive of the direction that King Abdullah is taking the country, in terms of both domestic reforms and foreign relations. Ever since al Qa'eda's bomb attacks in Riyadh in 2003, the government has gone on the offensive in an ideological battle against what it calls the "deviant" ideology of violent jihadism espoused by al Qa'eda. The government's mantra has been "Islamic moderation".
And this year, King Abdullah launched a high-profile effort to promote interfaith dialogue. That effort has not been popular among religious leaders in the kingdom, who tend to prefer isolation from non-Muslims, unless the purpose in talking to them is to convert them. Many senior ulema, or religious scholars, declined to attend the interfaith conference hosted by the king in Madrid in July. But he is not backtracking, officials said, and he plans to present his ideas on interfaith dialogue at the United Nations in New York in the coming weeks.
Imams and khateeb, those who deliver sermons during Friday prayers, no longer openly encourage young Saudis to join insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan in their sermons. But as one Saudi source said, some still praise the benefits that have come from jihad in those two countries. In its efforts to more closely monitor religious preaching, "imams who preach intolerance or hate toward others are dismissed, punished, or retrained", according to a recent article in the journal Middle East Policy by Abdullah F Ansary, a Saudi expert in combating extremism and a senior fellow of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in the US capital.
In May 2003, Mr Ansary wrote that the ministry of Islamic affairs fired 353 mosque employees and suspended 1,367, ordering them to join a retraining programme for imams and khateebs. The government currently has two programmes for imams. One, started this year, teaches communicating skills and how to foster dialogue. It is run by the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue. The second programme, run by the ministry of Islamic affairs, is geared to promote moderate ideas. As Mustafa Makhdoum, dean of the Higher Institute for Imams and Khateebs at Taiba University, recently told Arab News: "The institute strives to remove misunderstandings in the mindset of traditional preachers besides helping them acquire modern skills of communication, thus enabling them to present their ideas in an effective style."
Mr Makhdoum said graduates of the institute "are known for being moderate and ? warn people of the dangers of extremist and misguided ideologies". Last month, Sheikh Saleh Aal al Sheikh, minister of Islamic affairs, acknowledged that the retraining of imams still had long strides to make. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, the minister said that only two per cent of the imams who had gone through the courses in four cities, including Riyadh, showed potential for improvement.
Mr Sheikh said some, appointed more than 50 years ago, found it difficult to accept new ideas. "Strenuous efforts are needed to rehabilitate and remould them in terms of their dealing with others," the minister said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org