About three weeks ago, I posted The Saudis and Their Dangerous Game, where I discussed the whole business of a nation that, while propagating very tough Wahhabbi-Salafi Islam, they were then forced to deal with those who took is more seriously than they did. This piece had enough merit to be cited in Slate.
Part of the Saudis’ response to this dilemma is documented at Saudis nip extremism in the bud. Although many readers will recognise the nature of this kind of re-education campaign, it is geared to the specific situation that Saudi Arabia–and Islam–find themselves in today.
First, some terms: most people accurately describe Saudi Islam as Wahhabbi because its original teacher was Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1734 he entered into a compact with the House of Saud (which included intermarriage.) Thus his kind of Islam became the family religion, and the "national" (if that can be applied to a state like Saudi Arabia) religion of the country when it emerged after World War I.
Adherents of this kind of Islam usually prefer the more general term Salafi. Salafi Islam is literally the Islam of Muhammad and his companions. It represents an attempt to get back to Islam as originally practiced. The advantage of this term is that it broadens the application of this type of Islam beyond Saudi Arabia.
As previously discussed, the problem for the Saudis now is that some Saudi Muslims don’t find Wahhabbi/Salafi Islam "fundamental" enough for their liking, and want to take things a step further. Their idea is that there is no real Islamic state on the earth, including Saudi Arabia, so all true Muslims must fight to establish same wherever they are.
The Saudis’ counter to this–and what their re-education program attempts to convince its "pupils" of–is that Saudi Arabia is in fact a duly constituted Islamic state, doing what Islam is supposed to be doing, and that they as good Muslims don’t have any business trying to overthrow it. They educate and counsel with the help of imams.
Will this work? With some people, yes. But there are the hard core on both sides. About 1,400 jihadis have refused to enter the program. Others in Saudi Arabia would like to skip the re-education and, neo-con style, perform a few well-placed executions to send a message to everyone. But in a religion where vengeance is not just the province of Allah, and where you’re dealing with potential suicide warriors, this may not be as effective as one would like.
But ultimately their approach is only effective in Saudi Arabia itself and other countries where shar’ia is in force. Without the force of law and the close relationship of mosque and state, the imams and other teachers in this program would have limited, if any, credibility. Certainly no Western country could make this stick. We may think jihadis are crazy, but how much credibility would an imam hired by the U.S. government have in a country where you can’t even pray in school?
A better solution would be prevention. People in the West pine for "moderate Islam," but as long as religion and politics are a unity, the desire to implement Islam as a political system will remain. And as long as Saudi Arabia holds itself out as a model Islamic state, conflict is inevitable.