x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Saudi anti-terror fatwa, but why now?

The ruling on finance has been praised by US officials, but critics wonder why the religious decree was so long in coming.

A Saudi soldier in training a week after al Qa'eda urged supporters in the kingdom to kidnap Christians and Saudi princes.
A Saudi soldier in training a week after al Qa'eda urged supporters in the kingdom to kidnap Christians and Saudi princes.

RIYADH // A fatwa by Saudi Arabia's top religious leadership explicitly denouncing the financing of terrorist acts has drawn a range of reactions, including praise from a US general to derision from critics who say it is a tardy restatement of something already long agreed upon by most Islamic scholars.

"Terror financing amounts to helping acts of terrorism and supporting the existence and spread of terror," said the fatwa dated April 12 and made public in early May. Therefore it is "unlawful and a crime that should be punished legally. The crime also includes participating in any manner in the collection of funds". The religious ruling from the state-appointed Council of Senior Islamic Scholars was requested by King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, who added his own condemnation of terror financing soon after the fatwa was published.

"This reprehensible crime is not only as bad as terrorist deeds but also sustains terror, attempts to sabotage our land, destabilises our security and destroys our resources and our moderate approach," the king said in a message to Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Asheikh. The mufti is chairman of the 20-member council. The fatwa was praised by Gen David H Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, in a May 21 statement from his Florida headquarters.

Calling it a "courageous decision", Gen Petraeus said the "ruling makes clear that the struggle against terrorist financing is not just an American or western concern, but a global threat". He added that the ruling "buttresses with its interpretation of Islamic law the international legal provisions on financing of terrorism" and "will bolster the existing counter-terrorist efforts with our Saudi partners and with other partners throughout the Muslim world".

But Ibrahim al Buleihi, a progressive writer and Shura Council member, was critical of the ruling for being "late". "This is very wrong, it must be earlier," Mr al Buleihi said in an interview, comparing it to "when a doctor comes after the patient has died". No official came forward to explain the timing of the fatwa, so Saudis were left wondering why it was issued now, seven years after al Qa'eda extremists shocked the kingdom with suicide attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh.

The fatwa may have been intended to give a legal basis for trials of persons arrested for allegedly sympathising with and collecting funds for al Qa'eda, one Saudi speculated. Indeed, the Saudi Gazette reported that the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, Saleh bin Humaid, has sent a circular to judges across the country requesting them to use the fatwa as a basis for Sharia rulings on persons involved in financing terrorism. "That includes persons who provide or raise money or participate in the activity in any way whatsoever," the circular added.

Some Saudi officials were perplexed by the fatwa, noting that there are laws on the books already that make funding terrorism a crime. But they noted that the fatwa made no distinction between terrorism and the violence that is widely regarded as legitimate and usually called "resistance". For example, some Muslims regard attacks on US occupation troops in Iraq, or on Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories as acceptable under Islamic law.

"Terror is a crime that sabotages security," the fatwa said. "It is crime against people and private and public property. It manifests in bombing houses, schools, hospitals, factories and bridges; in hijacking and blowing up airplanes. It also destroys government resources, such as oil and gas pipelines. Such acts of destruction are prohibited under Sharia." In a May 23 interview with Asharq al Awsat, the secretary general of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, Fahd al Majid, sought to clarify some of these questions. Rejecting the criticism that the council had come late to the issue, Mr al Majid said that it had "played a pioneering role in warning and cautioning against [terrorism] before it turned into an international and domestic phenomenon". He cited a 1988 ruling in which "the council noted the emergence of criminal activities that strike at the group and destabilise the security of communities".

Mr al Majid said that what distinguished the recent fatwa was its specific focus "on the issue of prohibiting and criminalising the financing of terrorism in any form and on any level and in any way". While the fatwa encountered disparagement on extremist internet forums, the Saudi columnist Abdul Rahman al Rashid supported what he called an "historical" ruling, and thought that it wasn't receiving its due attention.

"As this is a fatwa that deals with international security, not just security in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world, we expected that this would be circulated and broadcast everywhere, however I only succeeded in finding news of this fatwa with difficulty, and the majority of what was reported was just general information," al Rashid wrote in a May 17 column in Asharq al Awsat. "Without publicity this fatwa remains as nothing more than a mere piece of paper, and terrorists will continue to benefit with regards to financing, recruitment, and winning public sympathy," he added

"It was expected that this fatwa would be promoted and publicised by those religious figures who are employed by the state, such as imams, preachers, and scholars, and for them to explain and defend this fatwa in their mosques and from their minbars. "This is the way to activate this fatwa and defeat the extremist ideology that has invaded Islamic societies." @Email:cmurphy@thenational.ae