As reported in the Washington Post on February 3, tough punishment of Saudi Arabians who travel abroad for jihad has been decreed by King Abdullah, absolute ruler of the desert monarchy.
The royal edict imposes prison sentences of three to twenty years on Saudis who fight outside the country, and five to thirty years if they join terror groups, provide material assistance to them, or incite joining them. These three clauses cover the historic components of armed jihad: direct combat, financial donations, and advocacy. In Islamic literature, they are designated “jihad of the sword, of money, and of the pen.” All such acts are of equal merit to the jihadist.
King Abdullah’s initiative is viewed as an effort to block young Saudis from fighting in al Qaeda and other radical groups in Syria.
Allegations of Saudi backing for Sunni fanatics in Syria have become standard in propaganda by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, his Iranian patrons, and Hezbollah. The narrative of the bloodthirsty Damascus dictatorship and its allies elides the origin of the Syrian conflict in “Arab Spring” protests for democracy and refers to it as a “Wahhabi invasion of Syria.”
King Abdullah’s policy should undermine such claims. But numerous people who refuse to accept that Saudi Arabia has changed, however slowly, since King Abdullah took power in 2005, reject this clarification.
As noted in the Post, for example, a “Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM, said in a statement . . . that Saudi rulers are responsible for encouraging extremist ideology in the kingdom in exchange for retaining power and support from the religious establishment. The group said the kingdom secretly tolerates citizens fighting abroad to keep them from carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia.”
Others argue that the anti-jihad measures represent an obstacle to further reform in the kingdom. A statement by Said Boumedouha, Middle East Deputy Director at Amnesty International, was also quoted in the Post account, declaring, “This disturbing new law confirms our worst fears—that the Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders.”
However well such allegations may play with Saudophobes, they betray a basic misunderstanding of the dynamics of Saudi reform.
Saudi Arabia has all the wherewithal imaginable to repress dissenters. Finding new support for such practices in the anti-jihad ruling is about the same as discovering suddenly that spicy food is popular in Mexico. What else is old?
But Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, a body known for selectivity in its condemnations, and visceral attacks on Israel, commented, “King Abdullah was once considered a cautious reformer but the new terrorism law could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress. . . . Instead of loosening the reins on Saudi society, the king is empowering criminal justice authorities to arrest and try peaceful activists along with suspected terrorists.”
Such a view is superficial, to say the least. Further opening to civil society in Saudi Arabia depends on relieving the country of its biggest obstacle: the power of the Wahhabi clerics, established for centuries as the official representatives of Saudi Islam. It is true that Wahhabi zealots have appealed for jihadist volunteers to go to Syria. King Abdullah’s firm opposition to such manipulation is necessary to prevent the Saudi reform process from being diverted by the alarmed feelings of Sunni Muslims in that land, as elsewhere, about the Syrian horrors.
Saudi Arabia has already seen social changes that may not be reversible. An article in the January 30 Financial Times, “Saudi women defy tradition to enter workplace,” included a comment by Saudi blogger Eman Al-Nafjan that she “disagrees with the argument that society is balanced against women’s rights, including driving. . . . She took part in driving protests, [and] most members of the public were supportive. She estimates that the [Wahhabi] wing of Saudi society determined to keep women at home now amounts to roughly 20 per cent of the population.”
In addition, the received wisdom that seeks to distinguish between “peaceful activists” and “suspected terrorists” may have a justifiable place in America, with our protections for free speech. But it is wearing thin in countries where jihadist agitation is more common.
The “peaceful” arguments of Wahhabi jihadists—“jihad of the pen”—no less than those of Iranian regime supporters, lead straight to violence—“jihad of the sword”—except where they can be headed off by official strategies and encouragement of defections.
Other countries with citizens sensitive to the slaughter in Syria have adopted similar sanctions on jihadism.
Two days after announcement of King Abdullah’s decision, the Sarajevo newspaper Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice) reported that the legislature of Bosnia-Herzegovina was prepared to adopt regulations that would prohibit “organizing, recruiting, promoting, or participating directly in armed conflicts” outside Bosnian territory.
And on Friday, February 7, the Kosovo daily of record, Koha Ditore (Daily Times), disclosed the arrest by legal authorities of two young local men, Alban Kelmendi and Armir Bytyci, at the airport in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. The pair intended to travel to Syria to join al Qaeda, officials said.