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Middle East: Saudi Grand Mufti's Sermon On Terror Highlights Conflicting Views Of Its True Purpose

It is not uncommon for Muslim imams to use Friday prayers and Islamic holidays to speak not only on general topics but also to address issues of current relevance. Sermons delivered during Eid al-Adha -- the celebration that marked the end of the hajj -- were no exception. In one notable sermon, Saudi Arabia's top cleric used the occasion to appeal to Muslim youth, calling on them not to be used by what he called "enemies of the nation" to kill innocent people. The pointed speech caught the attention of observers both in the Muslim world and in the West. Some say the appeal was nothing unusual, while others argue that it had a political agenda behind it.

Prague, 25 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to some 2.5 million Muslims gathered recently for the hajj, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz al-Sheikh, referred to the violent campaign being waged by Muslim militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda and said Saudi youth are being "lured by the devil."

He said what he called the "greatest affliction" to Islam came from some of its own sons, who had "shed protected blood."

John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, said he believed the grand mufti's speech was significant.

"I think it's an important statement," Esposito said. "I think it reflects, first of all, the realities within Saudi Arabia itself. That is, the Saudis have been seriously threatened by the militants within the kingdom. It's not just that there were Saudis involved in the [11 September 2001] bombings. That's become clear, and both the government and the religious authorities have attempted to marginalize and alienate and discredit extremists within the kingdom."

Saudi Arabia has been battling attacks by militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda. More than 100 people have been killed, many of them foreigners, since May 2003.

Raoul Motika, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said he believes the speech was aimed not only at militants but also at opposition forces inside Saudi Arabia who wish to destabilize the regime.

"It was not so much directed against Al-Qaeda and the groups related to Al-Qaeda, but more to parts of the Saudi establishment which are behind some of these violent activities or, at least, are financing some of these activities," Motika said.
"Muslims come to mosques and always hear from imams about kindness, compassion, harmony, peace, and stability. They also hear about solutions to current problems in society and the need to help the needy and the poor. [Prayers] are always devoted to service to the people."

Both Esposito and Motika said they believed the speech by the state-appointed grand mufti reflected official government policy.

Damir Gizatullin, a deputy mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims in the European part of Russia (DUMER), disagreed. He said al-Sheikh's speech was not unusual.

"Muslims come to mosques and always hear from imams about kindness, compassion, harmony, peace, and stability," Gizatullin said. "They also hear about solutions to current problems in society and the need to help the needy and the poor. [Prayers] are always devoted to service to the people."

Eid al-Adha was marked by sermons elsewhere in the Muslim world. Many preachers reportedly focused on the situation in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a mosque in Beirut, Ahmed Kourani, a Shi'a preacher, attacked the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and its "invasion of our lands...seeking to humiliate us."

Muhammad al-Sumeidi, a preacher at a mosque in Baghdad, contrasted the city's current plight with its ancient glories. "Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers," he said. "It has now become the city of explosions and the hideout of criminals."

Gizatullin said imams also used their sermons to address current issues, especially conflicts, and to pray for peace. He said the media's interpretation of such sermons was often wrong and reflected a wider trend to try to use Islam as a political tool.

"There are attempts to portray Islam, one of the world's religions, in a negative light," Gizatullin said. "But is has nothing to do with the faith. It is related to some people, groups and political movements that use Islamic slogans to achieve their political goals. But this is not Islam. Islam has always stood for peace and harmony in society."

Al-Sheikh also used his sermon to urged worshippers not to be "fooled by a civilization known for its weak structure and bad foundation." He warned against campaigns launched by the outside world against Muslims. He said there were "military campaigns, thought campaigns, economic campaigns, and media campaigns."

Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the region. Was the grand mufti, in being critical of the West, undermining the U.S.-Saudi partnership?

"This is the two-sided face of the Saudi regime," Motika said. "On the one hand, it is a partner of the United States and other Western countries because it is very closely connected to the oil business. But on the other hand, the Saudi regime is the guardian of the holy places of Islam, and the more or less state ideology is Salafi or Wahhabi current of Islam, which is, in our view, very fundamentalist, very essentialist and anti-Western, anti-Shi'a, and also against many other currents of Islam. Which means this regime has a lot of difficulties just maneuvering between these two sides."

Motika said the current Saudi regime did not tolerate religious freedom and therefore it was impossible for the Saudis to engage in either inter-civilization or intra-Islamic dialogue.

Esposito said he believed al-Sheikh made a "multilevel" statement that reflected official Saudi policy while also playing to anti-Western sentiments, in an effort to avoid being called a mouthpiece of the West. And yet, Esposito said, speeches like the grand mufti's were important.

"It's important that there be ongoing statements from religious leaders denouncing the minority of religious extremists who attempt to legitimate their violence in the name of Islam," Esposito said. "I think it's both important for them to do that in terms of their own -- if you will -- Muslim constituency. But I think it's also important in terms of the perception of Islam internationally and in terms of international relations between the Muslim world and the West."

During the hajj, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah also called on Muslims to reject terrorism and extremism. Their speech, delivered on television by the Saudi information minister, described terrorism as a "plague" that "Islam proscribes and warns against."