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Tarnishing its reputation and holding Saudi Arabia accountable

It’s important to differentiate between terrorism and religious conservatism

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

The unreasonable has happened. The US Congress, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, has unanimously passed a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government for damages. It is not reasonable to accuse the very country which the al-Qaeda organization has targeted the most.

Al-Qaeda has been attacking Saudi Arabia since 1995 – that explosion in Riyadh was orchestrated six years before 9/11. There is a large quantity of data and videos in which al-Qaeda leaders have stated, prior to the attack on New York, that Saudi Arabia and the US are its enemies.

Espousing radical ideology is the accusation leveled against the Saudi government while linking it to al-Qaeda. However, calling Saudi Arabia guilty is like accusing companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of being responsible for the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) because users of those online platforms express extremist opinions!

It is nonsensical to accuse any government of a crime due to the existence of extremist ideology within its borders as this could apply to many countries in the world. For example, in France, Britain and the Netherlands, there are many who are as radical and primitive as Saudi Arabia’s extremists. Official authorities can only be held responsible if they play a role in managing terrorist organizations or if they are lenient toward them. This does not apply to Saudi Arabia or France or Facebook or other real or virtual communities.

A failure of communication

In an attempt to understand this development, we must ask how this unreasonable accusation developed from articles in newspapers and statements into a dangerous draft law that threatens an entire state? I think the main reason is due to the failure of communication between both sides, despite the old and new relationship between them. There has been failure and confusion in understanding the phenomenon of widespread religious extremism, terrorism framed as popular movements, Islam as religion, Muslims as followers, extremist Muslims and Islamic governments.

Saudi Arabia is actually the key to fighting terrorism, whether on the ideological front or in terms of providing the tools to fight it

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

It is easy to mix up these factors and this has played a role in simplifying the problem. This has led some to consider Saudi Arabia a conservative Islamic country that is responsible for what happened, despite many other important details.

This US decision and its effect on relations are an example of the threat posed due to a failure of communication between two countries.‎

I think Saudi Arabia committed one mistake, it only depended on diplomacy to resolve its issues with the US. This approach works with countries with centralized regimes controlled by one leadership body, like in Russia or China. However, this approach is insufficient when dealing with Western countries with several bodies of power and authoritative institutions. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently stepped down as premier, used all his influence to deter citizens from voting to exit the EU but he failed. He even sought the help of US President Barack Obama who addressed the Brits, calling on them not to vote in favor of exiting the EU. However, they did not listen.‎

The reality

The rhetoric used against Saudi Arabia is that it conservative or extremist. However, Saudi Arabia has been the most active in fighting al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi Arabia has been the most active country in terms of arresting all those who have relations with terror groups, or have even thought about establishing relations with them or have tried to travel to warzones. Thousands of terror convicts are now in Saudi prisons and they include men who incited violence, clerics who issued fatwas (religious edicts) in support of al-Qaeda, media figures who justified violence and businessmen who provided funds to organizations which the UN categorizes as terrorist. There are others who were suspended from working because they support al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, such men are on the loose and live a happy life in countries like Britain, France and Germany and they’re not held accountable!

The Senate and the House of Representatives in the US Congress committed a grave mistake when they approved the JASTA bill (the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act). Saudi Arabia is actually the key to fighting terrorism, whether on the ideological front or in terms of providing tools to fight it. Without its participation, the world would be embroiled in a difficult situation.

It’s important to differentiate between terrorism and religious conservatism related to women’s niqab or prohibiting women from driving or other social controversies which Muslims face today. These controversies express a conflict between the old, conservative Islam and modern Islam. This struggle exists inside Saudi society and is publically discussed but it has nothing to do with terrorism. Most terrorist ideologies are rooted in the Islamic Revolution in Iran and are not drawn from Saudi Arabia. Following the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his government were the first ones to encourage using violence in the name of religion. They’re the ones who brought back the idea of martyrdom, revived it and marketed the culture of religious war against the West. If we exclude the Afghanistan war, Saudi Arabia has not been a party to any international terrorist events, including 9/11.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 13, 2016.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

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