November 21, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 614

A Debate in the Saudi Press on Dialogue with Saudi Al-Qa'ida Members

November 21, 2003
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 614

Recently, Saudi Arabia's media strongly criticized three Saudi sheikhs, Muhsin Al-Awaji, Safar Al-Hawali, and Suleiman Al-Dawish, who called for dialogue between the Saudi regime and the armed groups responsible for the latest terror attacks in the country. The three sheikhs are affiliated with the extremist religious "reformists" who are demanding that Saudi Arabia cut ties with the U.S. and implement Shari'a law, which they claim is not fully applied in the country. In a statement issued by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC on November 13, 2003, the Kingdom "categorically denies media reports" that Crown Prince Abdullah discussed holding any form of dialogue with terrorists. According to the statement, "there was no incident of a group of [religious scholars] approaching the Crown Prince with such a proposal [to hold dialogue]." [1] The following are excerpts from articles published in the Saudi press regarding the sheikhs' call for dialogue:

The Dialogue Initiative

Three days before the bombing in Riyadh, Sheikh Al-Awaji, Sheikh Al-Hawali, and Sheikh Al-Dawish recommended dialogue between the regime and the Jihad Youth group. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Sheikh Al-Awaji stated that it was the Saudi regime that had lowered airfares to Afghanistan and urged preachers to exhort young men to go fight Jihad there. However, according to Al-Awaji, when these same young men returned to Saudi Arabia, it persecuted them. Sheikh Al-Awaji said that this persecution was unwarranted because neither the commandment of Jihad nor the infidels had changed. He called on the government to pardon the imprisoned Jihad Youth members and sheikhs, and said that 90 percent of the men wanted by the regime would be willing to turn themselves in, provided their honor was preserved and they received a fair trial.

Sheikh Al-Hawali proposed that Jihad Youth members phone him or come to his house to turn themselves in: "If one of them comes and surrenders through me, he can expect me to defend him to the best of my ability… Everyone knows my phone number, my address, and how to get to my house… If one of them speaks to me, I will contact the authorities immediately and tell them that he has spoken with me and that he should be allowed to come to me…"

Al-Hawali set out a series of conditions for the regime to meet: granting a general pardon to all prisoners and to anyone turning himself in; putting on trial investigators who dishonored, tortured, and insulted prisoners; rehiring all imams who were fired by the regime; and abolishing all laws made by man and placing the regime under Shari'a law; changing the judicial system; abolishing agreements and contracts not in accordance with Shari'a; abolishing vice that constitutes provocation for the imams; preventing authors of books that include heresy and mockery of the religion from writing, and doing the same regarding the media.

He also demanded that the country resist external pressure "since many young men see this pressure as support [for infidels] and as hypocrisy. I know of no government in the world that would agree to a stronger government imposing its will on it… These pressures, which are designed to change our faith and our religion, and to create divisiveness among us, must be resisted."

Sheikh Al-Hawali also demanded that the government rescind "recent wrong decisions, such as integrating the [girls' and the general] educational [systems], changing curricula, omitting matters concerning faith [from the curricula], and imposing compulsory education."

Sheikh Suleiman Al-Dawish,also speaking with Al-Jazeera, demanded "a reexamination of the country's handling of violence. In my estimation, accepting the military's view on how to treat young [religious] men does more harm than good, since the military usually prefers the language of force to the language of dialogue. Violence that arises from ideology requires dialogue, not repression." [2]

Was There A Green Light for the Initiative?

Following the recent terror attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Saud Nayif bin Abd Al-Aziz announced that there would be no dialogue with terrorists, saying: "We will talk with them only by rifle and sword." [3] But then, the three sheikhs reemerged in the media, calling again for dialogue. Sheikh Al-Hawali said that 40 clerics were due to meet with Crown Prince Abdallah to discuss an initiative aimed at "sparing bloodshed by creating a dialogue between the government and the armed wanted men, persuading these wanted mento turn themselves in to the relevant authorities, and prevent violence." [4]

Sheikh Al-Hawali's partners in the initiative, Al-Dawish and Al-Awaji, said they had met with a "Saudi official" the day after the bombings and he had given them a "green light" to "meet with the young [wanted] men and report their views to the Saudi government, with the assurance that their demands would be viewed positively out of a desire to prevent bloodshed." Sheikh Al-Awaji even expressed his satisfaction over "the Saudi regime's positive attitude toward the initiative." [5]

However, a Saudi government source hastened to deny that Crown Prince Abdallah had met with a group of clerics. He told the Saudi Information Agency that "this story is unfounded, and there is no intention to launch a dialogue of any kind with the terrorists." He said, "The clear and constant position of the country, as stated many times by the Crown Prince, is that terror must be fought in order to abolish and conclusively uproot it." The source added that "the wanted men can feel remorse over their abominable crimes and turn themselves in to the authorities unconditionally." [6]

Al-Qa'ida: 'What is There to Negotiate About?… We Call Upon the Nation to Harm Americans Everywhere'

The Al-Qa'ida-affiliated biweekly online magazine The Voice of Jihad rejected the reconciliation initiative. Its fourth issue included an editorial by the Saudi Suleiman Al-Dosari, who wrote that "…the Jihad will continue until Judgment Day, as stated by the lord of the human race and the imam of the Mujahideen [the Prophet Muhammad]… Anyone who knows that this is the intention and supreme goal of Jihad would not be able to believe that some would try to prevent others from fighting and say [to their brothers] 'Come to us,' but they themselves fought only a little. [7] The Mujahideen and others as well are not entitled to turn the basic principles and rules of the religion into an issue that is subject to dialogue and negotiation… Anyone who abides by the rule of Shari'a, surrendered to Allah, imposed His [Allah's] law, abolished man-made laws, rid himself of Allah's enemies and did not support them – he is our brother and we walk with him on the same path. In this case, what is there to negotiate about? On the other hand, anyone who rejected Allah's law and wanted to convert his religion to the religion of America, or wanted to believe in one part of [Islam] and deny the others – we have no dialogue with them. And anyone who wanted to conquer the Muslim countries, kill their sons, and dishonor their women – our dialogue with him takes place through battle for the sake of Allah until Allah stops his strength and breaks him… We call upon the nation to harm Americans everywhere; that is the language of dialogue that the enemy understands and [to whose] demands he responds…" [8]

The Saudi Media: 'No Dialogue with Murderers'

Immediately following the three sheikhs' announcement, the Saudi media launched scathing criticism of the dialogue initiative. An editorial in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan stated: "There can be no dialogue with someone whose finger is on the trigger." This was the only article published that did not entirely rule out dialogue with the extremists, given certain conditions: "No side must be disqualified from the dialogue, no matter how blind or extreme its position may be, because true dialogue does not take place between those who hold identical positions, but between those whose positions differ." [9]

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahem wrote in Al-Watan that "religious leaders who categorize themselves as moderates kept silent about everything related to violence, about the abolition of people's freedoms, and about the planting of the land mines of extremist ideas that could blow up at any moment…"

'Those Who Helped Nurture This Culture of Violence are Now Coming with a Dialogue Initiative'

"What is strange is that two of those who helped nurture this culture of violence in the past [i.e. two of the sheikhs, who had been imprisoned on suspicion of terrorism]… are now presenting a [dialogue] initiative together with those whose hands were stained with the blood of innocent people, despite the fact that these same heroes initiating the negotiations still call for shutting people's mouths and depriving them of their liberties… as if they had become society's guardians. There is no telling when [society] will reach majority and rid itself of this accursed guardianship.

"In cold blood, before the fires of the bombings were extinguished, before the bodies were buried, and while the wounded still lay in hospital beds, a senior negotiator [i.e. Sheikh Al-Awaji] pops up before us… on an Internet forum where his friends meet, to suggest that his brothers support him in the sacred journey to the land of shadows to speak with yesterday's friends about laying down the arms they once brandished in the face of society… Both respected negotiators are well aware that the political plan suggested by the groups of violence is the Taliban plan that was implemented in Afghanistan, and it includes smothering liberties, denying the most basic human rights, ignoring cultural principles, and totally isolating [Saudi Arabia] on the planet. Although the current religious situation is extremist in many facets of Saudi Arabia, particularly in its [culture], this does not satisfy the supporters of violence and their political arm, and they are demanding more extremism – meaning more violence… This initiative gives society an ultimatum: Talibanization or violence." [10]

'Terrorists Do Not Understand the Language of Dialogue – They Should Be Removed Like Cancer'

Columnists of the religiously oriented daily 'Okaz also opposed the reconciliation initiative. Khaled Hamed Al-Suleiman wrote: "Dialogue with whom?! How can dialogue be the solution [to the confrontation] with extremists who accuse others of heresy and whose lexicon does not include the word 'dialogue?' Their ideology is based on rote learning: There is always one side that learns by rote and always listens without having the right to argue, and there is a side that indoctrinates and has taken for itself the right to deliver the divine message, as well as the monopoly on interpretation, in accordance with the agenda in which it believes… [The terrorists] do not understand the language of dialogue… The only way to treat the brain rot that has overcome them is to totally remove it, like a cancer." [11]

'We Don't Need Dialogue with This Ideology – We Need to Uproot it By Force'

In a follow-up column on the issue, Al-Suleiman wrote: "Historical experience teaches that strength is the best means of damming the source from which this ideology flows and of saving the minds that are subject to influence. I do not think we need a dialogue with this ideology today as much as we need to uproot it by force, because any dialogue with [its proponents] is like talking to a deaf person. This is a sick ideology that can be treated by nothing less than surgery. It may be possible to conduct a dialogue with the minds subjected to the influence of this ideology – but only after its big heads [i.e. leaders] are cut off!" [12]

Another editorial appeared in the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh: "…The two were guests on Al-Jazeera and claimed they were acting as mediators with the terrorists under conditions that only a victorious country can compel a defeated country to accept – that is, canceling all international agreements with all non-Islamic countries, making education purely religious, rehiring the dismissed imams and preachers – and all this in order to conduct a dialogue with the murderers. That is Al-Qa'ida's offer…

"Some countries have negotiated with terrorists in the past, and the result was more blood in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia, and other places… We have not heard about any democratic country agreeing to conduct a dialogue with a criminal… so how can we agree to the [sheikhs'] demand to apply Islamic Shari'a to anyone whose crimes are less than the crimes of these terrorists… but not apply [it] to the terrorists themselves? Should the Islamic Shari'a not be applied to them to the letter?" [13]

'No Dialogue with Murderers – Only an Iron Fist'

Also addressing the issue was Muhammad bin Abd Al-Latif 'Aal Al-Sheikh, in the Saudi daily Al-Jazira: "There must not be a neutral position regarding terror, and there must be no dialogue with murderers. All they will see of us is an iron fist. A mindless, sick, hostile, mentally confused hired group will not make us change one ounce of our treatment of them… Those who give up, the opportunists, and those who benefit from such crises, all of whom support the 'dialogue' initiative with terror and with terrorists, will not prevent us from continuing to treat this malignant cancer with a scalpel, rather than with advice and preaching. We have abundant experience with these opportunists, with those who give up, and with those who [shrink] from confrontation. When Saddam occupied Kuwait, those same people who today call to understand the Jihad Youth were [busy] pointing out the dangers of inviting infidel foreign armies [i.e. U.S. forces]. But we [who supported inviting U.S. forces] were victorious, and the slogan 'No to foreign powers' was thrown into the garbage can of history together with their ally, Saddam, so that the kingdom of Abd Al-Aziz [i.e. Saudi Arabia] remained proudly standing, almost touching the clouds, in bold defiance of all those who counted on its weakness and anticipated its downfall.

"The fifth column has collapsed and we thought it had been exposed and reached its end. Some of its members went to live in exile, to no one's regret, and the others live in a pitiful state on the margins of society [in Saudi Arabia]. However, the moment our crisis with terror began, the fifth column returned, and its leaders now chant the same slogans and fabricate the same excuses… In the past, their weapon to undermine the country was cassette tapes [by Islamist sheikhs]; today, they have begun to use other means and to ride the Internet. Like mice, they also infiltrated a few dubious satellite channels, in order to serve their own interests…" [14]

[1], November 13, 2003.


[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 12, 2003.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), November 13, 2003.


[6] Al-Hayat (London), November 14, 2003.

[7] Koran 33:18.

[8] The Voice of Jihad, November 2003.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 13, 2003.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 13, 2003.

[11] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 14, 2003.

[12] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2003.

[13] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 15, 2003.

[14] Al-Jazeera (Saudia Arabia), November 16, 2003.

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