In a series of fatwas released from inside Saudi Arabia, prominent Muslim clerics have instructed their followers to wage jihad on Americans in the kingdom and condemned the rulers who give them protection as infidels. The religious edict appears to sanction the overthrow of the house of Al Saud, and makes the royals apostates, subject to the Koranic punishment of death.
In what could be one of the most significant internal challenges to the Al Sauds in their 80-year dominance of the Arabian peninsula, Sheikh Hamoud bin Oqla al-Shuaibi, a senior cleric, issued his fatwa just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. "Whoever supports the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel.... It is a duty to wage jihad on anyone who supports the attack on Afghanistan." Support is defined as assistance "by hand, by tongue, or by money."
So far, there's been no official response from the kingdom whose constitution is the Koran and whose leaders trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. But the Islamic website, which relayed the fatwa, said Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif had met Sheikh Oqla in an attempt to persuade him to retract what amounts to a threat of assassination. The sheikh declined.
Since the September attacks, the Saudi authorities have been treading a tightrope between tacit support for the external backer, the United States, and the puritanical Wahhabis, the dominant sect, which has been the source of Saudi legitimacy for the past 250 years. Wahhabi sheikhs such as Oqla openly support Osama bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia, and dissidents in exile claim that their fatwas will appeal to the 5,000 to 10,000 Saudis who have been trained in his Afghan camps.
"The Saudi royal family is in a state of anxiety and fear," says Saad al-Fagih of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, the main vehicle for Saudi dissent in exile. "They are aware of a few thousand people who have trained in Afghanistan in the last few years. There is information that these people have orders to hit."
Fatwas carry only as much authority as the man who pronounces them. But Oqla, who is 80 and blind, has authority. He lives in the town of Burayda, a Wahhabi stronghold in the desert north of Riyadh, whose leaders have been calling their people to jihad since the 18th century, and whose writings have been the inspiration for groups like the Taliban. He was jailed for two months in 1995 for lambasting the 30,000-strong royal family for corruption. His fatwas have been echoed by Suleiman Alwan and Ali Khodeir, two younger Wahhabi clerics. Following the bombing in Afghanistan, mainstream preachers in Riyadh have added their voice, and anonymous fatwas have explicitly named King Fahd as a target for jihad.
Four days into the aerial bombardment, the wave of dissent the fatwas promised to inaugurate has not materialized. But a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a German couple, and a Canadian was shot dead in Kuwait. And Saudi security officials remain on high alert following the killing of two Americans by a suspected suicide bomber on Oct. 6 in Al Khobar, a city in Eastern Province where 13,000 Americans live. Riyadh has advised Prime Minister Tony Blair not to visit, fearing a stop-over on his Gulf tour could further inflame Islamic sentiment.
In an attempt to defuse the militant mood, state clerics have appeared on state media. "The most important trait of true Muslims is to oppose any unjust person who is bent on bloodshed and not to give shelter to any mischief maker," Saudi chief justice Sheikh Leheidan, who was himself taught by Sheikh Oqla, was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Only a minority of Saudis are Wahhabis, but denunciations of the alleged corruption of the Al Sauds and Western backing for their absolute rule has won religious leaders the support of frustrated Saudi youth. Underemployment is high, and many resent the allocation of the kingdom's best jobs to tens of thousands of Westerners, including 30,000 to 40,000 Americans. There is wide sympathy with the criticism of King Fahd, whose preferred title is Custodian of the Holy Places, for hosting 5,000 US troops on holy soil.
"Osama bin Laden has become a symbol of defiance," says Jamal Khashoggi, a respected Saudi journalist in Jeddah. "Whoever stands in defiance of American arrogance will be seen as a local hero."
Many reform-minded Saudis blame the school system, which allows Wahhabis to dictate the syllabus. The fatwas - which were circulated in mosques and on the Internet - justified the expulsion of the Al Sauds from Islam on the basis of the Tawhid, the Wahhabi manifesto, which is compulsory for 10-year-olds to study in school. Page 29 reads: "As Allah has said, never support the infidels."
The post-Sept. 11 flurry of fatwas echoes the release of a hit video last summer in which bin Laden extended his jihad "from Crusaders and Jews" to the House of Al Saud. Speaking in verse, bin Laden declared, "people who give land to the Americans are distorting the shihada" (the Muslim profession of faith).