What Saudi Arabia Should Do

All eyes are focused on what the governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan are doing to combat terrorism. Some attention, however, should be paid to Saudi Arabia and what it could do to douse the theological firestorms it helped unleash in the region. This Western ally has the material and intellectual resources to make a difference now, just as it did in the war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Because Islam’s holiest shrines are located in Mecca and Medina, and because of its immense material wealth, Saudi Arabia enjoys enormous goodwill and affection in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It therefore has the power to soften the extremist Taliban’s theological zeal. It can achieve this result by organizing public symposiums in Kabul, Peshawar, and Karachi that denounce extremism as antithetical to the tenets of Islam.

The Taliban, in both its Afghan and Pakistani variants, are driven by a particular construction of Islam. They can’t likely be induced to reconcile with other Muslims without addressing the great theological issues that divide them. Saudi and Egyptian ulema, scholars trained in Islamic law, would be better qualified to address these issues than their Afghan or Pakistani counterparts, who would be viewed as local partisans.

Saudi efforts to arrange power-sharing deals among Afghanistan’s warring factions last September haven’t produced any results, nor did the Saudi king’s interfaith seminar at the United Nations in November. The king has allowed foreign intellectuals to express critical opinions in Riyadh — but only behind closed doors in seminars held under U.S. pressure, with nothing reported in Saudi media.

Saudi Arabia needs to take a different approach that focuses on Islam. A well-publicized open forum in Kabul or Peshawar, with Saudi and Egyptian ulema or Islamic scholars speaking of Islam as practiced in their own countries, is bound to get the attention of the extremist Taliban and also strengthen the moderate elements. These ulema will have credibility when they point to the state support of girls’ education, for example, in Saudi Arabia, home of Wahhabism, the ultraconservative brand of Islam that animates the warring Taliban. Compared to the Taliban ideology, the Saudi version of Islam seems almost benign, even though free speech isn’t tolerated and transgressions like adultery are occasionally punished with stoning.

Traditional vs. Modern Society

Saudi Arabia is struggling to reconcile tradition with the demands of a modern society. It launched a large-scale educational reform that includes the rewriting of school textbooks to eliminate derogatory references to other religions. Its elites are hopeful of seeing a ban on women motorists lifted and other rights expanded. Women already have the right to hold a job, to own a business, and to stay in a hotel unaccompanied by a male relative.

Now that a consensus has emerged among Western diplomats and other observers that there’s no military solution to the Afghan War, a dialogue in the region is necessary to resolve deep-seated ideological and religious disputes. President Obama has talked about deploying military, diplomatic, and development efforts to end the conflict. None of these approaches can succeed without addressing the insurgents’ ideological fervor. The problem goes beyond the Taliban. In the Swat Valley of Pakistan, Pakistani jihadists who assumed power in partnership with the official security apparatus have replicated the old Taliban-type of governance, which has banned education for girls and confined women to homes.

At the official level, Saudi relations with the Taliban aren’t as strong as they were when Saudi Arabia provided $4 billion to the Taliban during their struggle to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Just before and after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the Taliban rejected a Saudi request to surrender Osama bin Laden. Still, the Saudi ulema‘s clout with the Taliban remains unaffected as evidenced by Taliban’s adoption of the Wahhabi worldview and its incorporation in the curriculums of their madrasas.

Renouncing Extremism

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have implemented large-scale programs to re-educate the Islamic extremists they’ve imprisoned. In these programs, clergy engaged the prisoners in theological debates. The authorities reported great success in getting the dissidents to renounce extremism, one form of which was to accuse other Muslims of takfir, or apostasy, which then justified their murder.

The ulema function in Saudi institutions as judges, lawyers, teachers, and advisers. They have a history of deferring to the king in matters of state policy. Several have issued fatwas declaring suicide bombings to be antithetical to Islamic teaching. A spectrum of opinions exists even among the Saudi ulema. Thus, it wouldn’t be hard for Saudi or Egyptian authorities to find clergy willing to play a role in helping to reeducate the Taliban. However, a bigger question might be whether the Saudis would see a moderation of Taliban zealotry to be in their political interest, since they may well view the Taliban ideology as a bulwark against Shi’a revival.

The West is heavily invested in the emergence of a peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan. The larger question of a fair distribution of power among the warring parties would be easier to deal with once diplomats and scholars find a way to neutralize the theological dimension of the whole conflict. This can only happen with a public debate, one in which the speakers have credibility among the public. Saudi Arabia can play this role, but it needs encouragement from the outside to do so.

Usama Khalidi is a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.