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Saudi Arabia Reins in Its Clerics on Syria

The Saudi regime may be urging stronger international action in Syria, but it is clearly wary of the recent wave of domestic agitation calling for non-official involvement in the crisis.

Published on June 14, 2012

The Saudi regime may be urging stronger international action in Syria, but it is clearly wary of the recent wave of domestic agitation calling for non-official involvement in the crisis. The Al Saud worry that the anti-reform Saudi clerics behind many of the calls to action are overstepping their bounds—and that the ruling family’s legitimacy and Saudi Arabia’s security could ultimately be at stake.

Arabic press reported on May 29 that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia summoned a number of prominent Salafi clerics to Riyadh to ban them from soliciting donations for Syria’s embattled citizenry. A number of those clerics responded by announcing on their social media platforms that they had been contacted by authorities and ordered to desist from collecting funds for Syria.

These moves come at an especially sensitive time in government-clerical relations, as King Abdullah’s struggle with ultraconservative clerics who oppose many of the government’s reform efforts heats up. The king recently dismissed an adviser to the royal court for publicly criticizing his reform agenda on a local radio station. And the head of the mutawa’in (morality police) was also dismissed because of similarly hardline views on gender relations.

Clerical Activism Ramps Up

The Syrian crisis has long animated clerical sympathies in the Kingdom. In most cases, clerical statements adhere closely to the official Saudi line on Syria, providing helpful theological cover for Saudi foreign policy. In Friday sermons, on Twitter, and in Facebook posts, the clerics have demonized the Assad regime and the Alawites, expressed solidarity with civilian suffering, and pushed for greater Gulf involvement, to include arming the Syrian opposition.

Yet, the clerics have gone too far, deviating from the government’s line and moving from rhetoric to appeals for non-official action. There have been more militant calls for jihad and humanitarian aid to the Syrian citizenry that deviate from the official line. A redline was crossed when a group calling itself the “Ulema Committee to Support Syria” announced its existence on Facebook on May 26, posting bank account numbers for prospective donors and organizing a fundraising drive at the Bawardi Mosque in Riyadh. Its leadership is comprised of seven prominent, non-establishment clerics, several of whom are well-known for their previous calls for militant volunteers in Iraq and their anti-reform views, including Nasser bin Suleiman al-Omar, Abd al-Rahman Salah Mahmud, and Abd al-Aziz bin Marzuq al-Turayfi.

From the regime’s perspective, such exhortations for non-official involvement are problematic. They skirt the limits on clerical autonomy that were formalized by King Abdullah in an August 2010 decree that confined the issuing of fatwas (religious edicts) to the officially sanctioned Senior Ulema Council. The authorities moved quickly.

The Monarchy Draws a Redline

Just two days after the group was formed, the Ulema Committee to Support Syria announced on Facebook that it could no longer accept donations and that its fundraising drive had been cancelled by the authorities. The individual social media sites of clerics affiliated with the committee posted similar notices. The website of Nasser al-Omar reported he was no longer accepting donations because of royal intervention. Abd al-Aziz al-Turayfi, who has criticized Abdullah’s decision to restrict the issuing of fatwas to the Senior Ulema Council, acknowledged that he was “stopping all donations to the brothers in Syria until further notice.” And the list goes on. The popular cleric Muhammad al-Urayfi—with the highest number of Twitter followers among clerics in the Kingdom—tweeted that he was forced to sign a pledge not to raise funds for Syria. Hassan Hamid, a cleric affiliated with the committee but not part of its leadership, specifically mentioned a visit from the mabahith (security services) regarding donations.

Press commentary from both independent and pro-regime sources has approved of the donation ban. Pro-regime press suggested that the ban was meant to prevent funds from reaching militant jihadist organizations, urging that any response to Syria from Saudi Arabia had to occur through “official channels.”

A column in the daily newspaper al-Jazirah obliquely condemns senior clerics who use their prestige and reputation to extract money from their constituents for uncertain purposes. It goes on to warn that “history will repeat itself,” citing parallels between the Syrian crisis and the Saudi experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq. There, ostensibly charitable donations proved a slippery slope for the recruitment of Saudi youth to fight in these conflicts and also ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda militants who later attacked the Kingdom.

On Twitter, sources affiliated with the Ministry of Interior applauded the charitable impulse of the clerics and citizenry but emphasized that aid had to proceed through official channels. In contrast, the popular cleric Salman al-Awda tweeted an apparent criticism of the ban, arguing that donations to Syria are not dependent on a particular channel and that those who are committed to sending money will find a way.

But the regime went further still. On June 7, it followed up on its ban on donations with an edict from the Senior Ulema Council that expressly prohibited calls for jihad in Syria outside of official channels. A clerical member of the Supreme Judicial Council asserted that support to the Syrian people had to be “consistent with state policy” and that unauthorized calls for jihad were an “embarrassment to the state.”

Broader Concerns About Clerical Power

As true as those concerns may be, there are larger issues at play here. This is part of a broader struggle between the reform-minded King Abdullah and hardline clerics who oppose his efforts. For instance, Abd al-Muhsin al-Ubaykan, the ultra-conservative cleric and adviser to the royal court who criticized the king’s reform agenda on the radio, had long been a source of embarrassment to the royalty. His polarizing remarks on gender relations in 2010 were a key impetus for Abdullah’s subsequent ban on non-official fatwas.

Increasingly, anti-reform clerical figures have been using social media sites to get around those government restrictions on fatwas and sermons. The regime likely sees the call for donations and jihad as yet another venue for hardline figures to circumvent the king’s authority by appealing to an issue that has electrified the Saudi public.

Less explicitly, the ban illustrates the Al Saud’s concern that hardline, non-establishment clerics might use the Syrian crisis to critique the ruling family’s legitimacy by highlighting its passivity in the face of Syria’s mounting bloodshed. The hardliners took precisely that tack during the Iraq war and the 2006 Lebanon war. It is a situation that the Saudi government is keen to avoid.

Other events in the region may have spurred the ban. The monarchy may be concerned about the contagion effect of the Egyptian elections on Saudi domestic politics. And a number of influential clerics have posted tweets applauding the imminent victory of the Muslim Brotherhood or hinted obliquely that Egypt’s democratic experiment should be replicated on the Arabian Peninsula. The struggle is bound to continue.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this analysis originally stated that Arabic press reported that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia summoned twenty prominent Salafi clerics to Riyadh. It has been corrected to read “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia summoned a number of prominent Salafi clerics.”