The Jerusalem Post recently reported on the Saudi government's call to regulate "chaotic fatwas," a move being hailed by the authorities as important in challenging extremism. The plan is currently being discussed by members of the Higher Council of Religious Scholars, and could be implemented as early as next month.
The effort strongly resembles last January's decision during the International Conference of Fatwas, held at the headquarters of the Muslim World League in Mecca. The Saudis hope to monopolize the "fatwa industry" and drown out local extremists, should they challenge sanctioned religious opinions.
The International Conference of Fatwas 2009 decision was based on a spate of strange and extreme rulings, including calls to murder Mickey Mouse, banning yoga, and permitting the killing of corrupting satellite television broadcasters. The 2009 move did little to control the rampant issuing of religious rulings from unauthorized sources, however, because it lacked the bite of government sanctioning for offenders. The proliferation of the Internet blogs, and chat rooms also rendered the move largely ineffective. Even if the authorities control the greater body of scholars, they have little authority over the means of transmission and failed states harboring terrorists.
The Saudi decision faces the same challenges and more. Dissident Saudi religious leaders and self-appointed scholars oppose the move as contrary to the nature of Islam, which permits a plurality of opinions from which the devout can choose. They further argue that scholars may be designated to the new, government-sanctioned body for reasons other than scholarship and dedication to traditional sources.
Such calls for freedom of opinion are cynical uses of plurality, for which extremists have no respect. Within the kingdom, terrorists adamantly oppose rulings with which they disagree. Abroad, Wahhabi Islam has uprooted native forms of Islam from places as far and wide as Albania, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Leading Shi'ite and Sunni authorities have routinely attempted a one-up-manship of inciteful rulings on issues ranging from Palestine to internal peace between the groups.
A perfect example is leading Sunni scholar and Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf Al-Qaradawi's response to Shi'ites about Palestine. To respond to accusations that he was soft on "resistance," Al-Qaradawi replied that he was the "Mufti of martyrdom operations" and has issued multiple fatwas supporting violence.
The program's chances for success cannot be known. It is hopeful, however, to see the Saudis openly confront extremism. Indeed, Arab reformists have also argued that the Saudis need to confront radicalization, even through internal censorship of extremists, in combination with their program of rehabilitating former radicals. If done correctly, with the proper balance of moderation and legitimacy, the Saudis could finally bring the fight to the terrorists.