Oct 19, 2017

Why the Saudi plan to eliminate ‘fake hadiths’ is meaningless

Saudi Arabia gets a bad rap when it comes to terrorism, some of which may be misplaced and some of which is well-deserved. The self-proclaimed ‘birthplace of Islam” – yes, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a resident of what is now the Kingdom in the 6th and 7th centuries but the modern (?) Saudi state is an 18th century (some would say 20th century) creation – has just announced that it will “eliminate fake and extremist texts (i.e. hadiths) and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts.”  This is on the one hand laudable and on other useless and doomed to fail.  But first back to whether Saudi Arabia is an ally on terrorism or an abettor.

There is no question that Saudi Arabia has a problem with terrorism.  Not only were 15 of the 19 hijacker/terrorists on 9/11 Saudi citizens but the Kingdom has arrested and/or killed thousands of jihadis over the past two decades.  Saudi clerics continue to spew vile, hateful rhetoric despite government crackdowns and Saudi-financed intolerant Wahhabi Islam continues to spread worldwide through proselytisation and the distribution of literature.  So yes, Saudi is part of the problem.

At the same time we have to recognise and acknowledge that the Saudi government has, perhaps belatedly, begun to take action to neutralise some of the jihadi voices and their security forces have disrupted cells and prevented attacks, although the Saudi obsession with the Shia is not always helpful (and, on the contrary, is consistent with the jihadi narrative where the ‘only good Shiite is a dead one’).  Nevertheless, this new focus on hadiths is a hopeless gesture that will do little to suppress terrorism.

Hadiths are the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and, together with the Quran, the principle source of  doctrine and inspiration in Islam.  There are well-established collections of these sayings and an accepted way to determine which ones are valid and which ones are not.  Despite all this, several problems remain:

a) as a faith Islam is a very personal one.  Saudi claims to be the spokesperson for Islam notwithstanding, there is no ‘gatekeeper’ who decides what is right and what is wrong.  Each Muslim can and does choose what to believe and what not to.  For the Saudis to say ‘do this and not that’ is neither binding nor effective on the world’s 1.3 billion adherents.

b) in light of the fact that there are competing hadith ‘collections’  it remains impossible to determine, and even less possible to convince others, that only certain ones are valid.  A list of ‘fake’ hadiths will be challenged by many who continue to see them as true.

c) the bad guys do not care anyway.  The jihadis have their own scholars, some of whom, like the very dead Anwar al Awlaki, still resonate with a lot of people (thousands? tens of thousands?  hundreds of thousands? more?).  Any attempt by the Saudis to regulate this space will be ignored by a substantial group of people worldwide.

In the end perhaps these efforts may have a small effect on those who are just dipping their toes into the waters of violent Islamist extremism.  If so, then this is a good initiative.  I fear, however, that just like the recent decision to allow women to drive (have the Saudis finally entered the 19th century?) this move is cursory and betrays a fundamental lack of appreciation of the underlying problem: an aberrant version of Islam that the Saudis have been spreading for more than 270 years.  Until the regime gets this its efforts to undermine terrorism and rip it out by its roots will be superficial at best.  Saudi Arabia continues to whistle by the (literal) jihadi graveyard.