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House at war: Saudi's struggle to reclaim Islam

House of Saud's internal struggle to reclaim key tenets of Islamic faith from Al Qaeda.

Takfir “is the key to revolutionary violence,” explained Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar of Islamist politics at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. “Arab governments fear it because that is what legitimizes violence against them.”

Hegghammer, author of the just published "Jihad in Saudi Arabia," added: “In Saudi Arabia, for example, a big issue for Al Qaeda was the targeting of security forces. Al Qaeda’s main declared aim was to attack Westerners, but Saudi police protected Westerners. So what do you do with those security forces? That is where takfir comes in. ... 'Oh well, we can just kill them because they’re infidels too.'”

Scholars like Hegghammer see irony in the Saudi government’s attempt to limit the extremists’ profligate use of takfir because the practice was once a pillar of the kingdom’s ultraconservative brand of Islam, commonly known as Wahhabism.

“Certainly until the mid-20th century there was a prominent element or school in the Wahhabi establishment that applied takfir to other Muslims” who did not adhere to this ascetic strain of Islam, said Hegghammer. In the 18th century, he noted, Wahhabis “killed other Muslims on the basis that they were polytheists.”

David Commins, history professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia," said that in the 1800s some Wahhabi clerics even banned travel “to Iraq or Kuwait on the grounds that it’s forbidden to travel to the lands of the infidel. ... They’re talking about going to Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus!”

The founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, put an end to physical attacks on other Muslims when he brought his Wahhabi allies under his control early in the 20th century.

But, said Commins, “I don't think the Saudi religious establishment, the scholars, adjusted their teachings at the time. ... This [conference] might be part of the adjustment. ... It sounds like this is part of the very gradual and painful accommodation of Wahhabi doctrine to living in a globalized village.”

The ruling House of Saud derives much of its legitimacy from its alliance with the Saudi religious establishment, which for decades was permitted to preach what other Muslims regard as an intolerant version of Islam. This intolerance was later appropriated into the ideology of extremist groups like Al Qaeda.

Al Maiman is well-placed to critique that ideology. From junior high through his doctorate, he studied at Al Imam Mohammed bin Saud University or one of its satellite schools, acquiring the deep knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence that puts him among this country's recognized religious scholars. His specialty is applying Islamic law to contemporary issues.

“Takfir has been increasing noticeably [because of] the emergence of numerous organizations that adopt it as a principle upon which they operate,” he said as we sat under the radiance of several giant chandeliers in the royal hall at the university.

Al Maiman had on a brown bisht, the flowing, gauzy robe that Saudi men don for formal occasions, and a traditional red-checkered headscarf. As is customary with those who follow the ultraconservative approach to Islam, he did not shake hands with his female visitor. But he smiled often and looked at his questioner when speaking.

He stressed repeatedly that takfir belongs exclusively with courts overseen by recognized Islamic religious authorities.

“Let me clarify again that only courts are to handle this matter, and [takfir should not be] used as an accusation tool or to label societies. It applies only when a Muslim commits a deed which throws him out of the circle of Islam. This is called ‘a reason of blasphemy,’” he said. And such orders are only issued when “evidence can be proven.”

Some, however, ignore these legal constraints, Al Maiman added, abusing takfir “either to stray away from the mainstream, or pursue certain goals, [which] could be political goals.”