Saudis, radicalism and ISIS in Iraq

Saudis are rejecting terrorism; and our extremist clerics are quite rational and receptive to the marketing of religion

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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The story of militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and its sudden and rapid success in Iraq is extremely confusing. Politicians and security apparatuses are in disarray, and there is no clear strategy yet to confront ISIS’ expansion. But that is not the confusion I want to talk about now. I want to point to the confusion that one sees when following Saudi public opinion on ISIS. Such opinions vary to an unparalleled degree. But the effort is worth the while; as trying to make sense of the various and contradicting opinions of Saudis on ISIS is very important for a number of reasons.

For one, some of the fighters in ISIS are Saudis, and as such the way people think about ISIS influences its recruiting efforts and their public legitimacy. Another reason is that some extremist prominent Saudi clerics had and still play important roles in mobilizing young Saudis to go and fight in Syria and Iraq under the pretext of ‘jihad’. Thus the opinion of the average Saudi about ISIS in Iraq says much about the influence of those clerics, or lack of it. A third reason is that the opinions one sees is indicative of the successes or failures of the various de-radicalization programs that were initiated by the Saudi government in the aftermath of 9/11; most importantly the Thought Security program which had the goal of protecting Saudi youth from radical ways of thinking.

ISIS in Syria was not openly supported even by extremist Saudi clerics. Yet some are subtlety supporting ISIS of Iraq. Did ISIS’ sudden success and expansion excite those clerics to the point where they exposed their hidden feelings towards the movement? Two years ago, super-star Sheikh Mohammad al-Araifi advised the jihadists in Syria not to show pictures of their executions of Assad’s supporters. He was worried those pictures/videos would be ‘misunderstood’. Perhaps he – and others like him – were supporters of ISIS but were not able or not willing to show it. Yet perhaps the expansion of ISIS in Iraq rekindled their dreams of an Islamic State?

Saudis are rejecting terrorism; and our extremist clerics are quite rational and receptive to the marketing of religion

Abdullah Hamidaddin

I was not particularly surprised by support from Saudi extremist clerics to ISIS; but it did stir a thought to see how those clerics framed their support. In a nutshell, none of – or a most of them to be accurate - framed it as support for jihadists. A small minority did consider them jihadists; and some even hoped that ISIS would eradicate the Shiites of Iraq. But most of ISIS supporters decided to position them as revolutionaries working with other Iraqi revolutionaries in Iraq. They were being positioned as people who rose against the tyranny of Maliki and as Islamists who have a radical and extremist vision of Islam. This framing needs a lot of thinking. Why would an extremist cleric whose whole life in extremism depended on jihadist vocabulary suddenly revert to revolutionary language? And trust me when I say, this is not a matter of semantics. How those people talk is a direct extension of what they believe; and thus there is much significance in changing their langue.

Saudis reject terrorism

One explanation is the recent anti-terrorism law which criminalized any form of support to terrorism, including intellectual and moral support. I myself was wary of that law, but have seen much good come from it. According to this explanation those extremist clerics are worried that if they show support to a jihadist cause, they may get themselves in trouble. But a friend of mine pointed me towards another explanation. According to her, the reason is that the public no longer supports jihadist discourse.

‘Jihad’ was a noble value for most Saudis. Part of its nobility was due to its mystique. Jihad was practiced in faraway places and would only reach Saudi ears through stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. Destruction and suffering were distant from the concept Jihad. The events of 9/11 were also a form of ‘jihad’ for many Saudis.

The mystique was retained by the initial distance of the event, and the general frustration from American foreign policy. But there were Saudis who were quite aware of the gravity of 9/11 and its closeness to home; and this woke them up to the destructive reality of jihad. They saw how a jihadist movement stemming from Saudi Arabia could seriously damage the national security of their country and subsequently they were able to see modern day jihad for what it really is: a destructive movement that must be curbed.

After 9/11, terrorist attacks began in Saudi Arabic in 2003. Those attacks transformed jihad from a mystical and noble practice to a bloody and evil activity. Since then ‘Jihad’ would gradually lose its nobility and would equate to terrorism in the eyes of many Saudis. The government’s efforts to delegitimize terrorism followed. It initiated an intense and aggressive campaign against terrorism. It was successful to a large degree. For example, in 2003 it was normal to hear about many Saudis sheltering terrorists in their homes. A few years later, fathers would themselves give up their sons if they were implicated in any form of terrorist activities. Such is a very radical move in a tribal society where family loyalty is supposed to supersede any other form of loyalty.

Extremists’ adaptation

Saudis are rejecting terrorism; and our extremist clerics are quite rational and receptive to the marketing of religion. They have realized that they cannot continue in their legitimacy or popularity if they openly support jihadist terrorism. They realize that Saudis have had enough of that; that Saudis despise their reputation as producers of terrorism. Thus our extremist clerics adapt to the market and change their language.

This shift in language is quite important. It tells me that radicalism is losing ground and that those who insist on staying radical are becoming the exception. Of course this is not enough, but it is significant. It is also something that must be well understood, appreciated, built on and encouraged. Radicalism is a poison. Its threat is global. We should all celebrate small successes to undermine it. And though ISIS is gaining ground in Iraq, it is losing much ground in the hearts and minds of the traditional supporters of radicalism.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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