Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (photo by REUTERS)

Saudi Clerics Break With the Official Line on Syria via Twitter

Author: assafir

The relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the country’s clerics is in turmoil. The clash between these two parties began when King Abdullah dismissed an adviser to the royal court, the head of mutawa’in [morality police] and other officials. The relations are now becoming even more sensitive, especially given that the deteriorating Syrian crisis has turned into a key dividing element between the two parties. While they both agree that the Syrian regime is a common enemy, their different approaches to the crisis has caused their relations to explode: a number of prominent clerics have called for jihad in Syria and have been soliciting donations for this struggle through non-official channels.

SummaryPrint Relations between the Saudi monarchy and the country’s clerics have always been complicated. However, the two parties' differing approaches to the Syrian crisis have led to an explosion of tension, writes Haifa Zaaiter. The monarchy feels like the clerics have overstepped their bounds by collecting funds for Jihad in Syria through unofficial channels.
TranslatorJoelle El-Khoury

This action irritated King Abdullah, who saw this as an overstepping of bounds on the part of the clergy, as regulated by a royal decree issued in 2010. Although the regime is strongly urging international forces to intervene in Syria, it fears that clerics’ recent campaigns go too far, and that they put the ruling family’s legitimacy and Saudi Arabia’s security at stake. In a report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Frederick Wehrey analyzes the tight relationship between the monarchy and the clerics.

The Arab and foreign press have reported that King Abdullah summoned 20 prominent Salafist clerics to Riyadh to communicate to them a royal decision banning the solicitation of donations for Syria. Many of these clerics announced on Twitter their intentions to respond positively to the authorities’ request.

According to the report, these actions come at a very critical time in government-clerical relations. The struggle between King Abdullah and ultraconservative clerics who oppose the government’s reform efforts is heating up.

On the topic of the clerics’ increasing political activity, Wehrey says that the statements of those clerics sympathizing with the Syrian revolutionaries portray views that are actually close the the KSA’s official policy on the matter. What’s more, they provide this position with a religious cover. In statements made on Twitter and Facebook, the clerics demonized the Assad regime and the Alawites, and called for greater involvement on the part of Gulf states in arming the Syrian opposition.

However, according to the regime, they have gone too far and deviated from the official line. They have moved from simple rhetoric to calls for jihad and humanitarian aid to save the Syrians. One such group crossed a red line when it announced itself on Facebook as the Ulama Committee to Support Syria, posting bank account numbers for potential donors and organizing fundraising campaigns at the Bawardi mosque in Riyadh. This group’s leadership includes seven anti-regime clerics well-known for their previous calls for jihad in Iraq, notably Suleiman al-Omar, Abdel Rahaman Salah Mahmud, and Abdel Azizi Bin Marzuq al-Turayfi.

The regime’s annoyance can be explained by the fact that these non-official calls for actions violate the law of 2010, which restricted the issuance of fatwas to the officially authorized Senior Ulama Council.

The Monarchy Draws a Red Line

Carnegie’s report stated that two days after the formation of the group, the Ulama Committee to Support Syria announced on Facebook that they could no longer accept donations — the authorities had cancelled the campaign. This was confirmed by statements issued by some of the Committee’s clerics on social-media networks. Sheikh Nasser Omar stated that he could no long accept donations because of royal intervention, while the Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Orayfi simply stated that donations had been halted until further notice.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Orayfi — who has the largest number of followers among all Saudi clerics — tweeted that he was forced into signing a pledge not to raise funds for jihad in Syria. Sheikh Hassan Hamed mentioned that he received a visit by security forces on this issue. Another Sheikh, Salman al-Aouda, criticized the royal decision and said that the donations for Syria are not limited to a specific channel anyway — those who are committed to sending money will find a way to do so.

A reporter at Al-Jazeera wrote that some clerics are taking advantage of their reputations to collect funds from supporters for dubious purposes, and warned that history will repeat itself. It mentioned the commonalities between the Saudi experience in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where donations opened the way for the recruitment of Saudi men to fight there. Many of these fighters then ended up as part of al-Qaeda, an enemy of the Kingdom.

Within this framework, both the independent and pro-regime press have supported the ban on donations, suggesting that it aims to prevent funds from making their way to radical groups. The initiative hopes to ensure that donations that do get made pass through official channels. While some sources within the Ministry of Interior praised the charitable impulses of certain clerics, the regime flatly banned any calls for jihad in Syria outside of official channels.

The Growing Power of the Clergy

The report seemed to confirm many people’s concerns related to the power of Saudi clerics. However, much larger questions are also in play. These developments must be seen as part of a broader struggle between the reformist King Abdullah and the ultraconservative clerics who oppose his efforts. It is important to mention that the reactionary clerics have used social media networks to bypass some of the government’s restrictions on fatwas. The Saudi regime sees the clerics’ latest moves as taking advantage of a sensitive issue to evade monarchical authority. 

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