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Salafi Refutation of Awlaki

Saudi cleric Salman al-Ouda has issued a public criticism of Anwar al-Awlaki, telling him to stop the bloodshed and violence he has helped unleash. He warns him that, upon his death, he will be answerable to God for his crimes.

According to al-Arabiya, Ouda made a TV appeal to the al-Qaeda ideologue, saying:

Whether you like it or not, you will find yourself having to face your fellow Muslims. You might think yourself to be in control of things at the beginning but you won’t be in control at the end. Things might develop in ways you will not be happy with.

The single-minded pursuit of resistance and fighting will not improve the state of the people. It will not develop them morally, nor will it strengthen their faith. It can neither foster economic development nor stabilize society. It won’t build mosques, schools or factories. It does nothing but harm others, and more often, it harms the perpetrator more than the people he targets.

Ouda is a very interesting figure in the world of Salafism. He first came to prominence as a figurehead of the Sahwa, one of the original political Salafi reform movements. Categorised by the scholar Quintan Wictorowicz as ‘politicos’, the Sahwa emerged in the 1970s and 80s when senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyid’s Qutb’s brother Mohammed, began to exert influence over previously apolitical Salafist thought in Saudi Arabia. The movement was heavily critical of the so called ‘purist’ or apolitical Salafi establishment ulema [clerics] within the regime, who they saw as corrupt, dangerously pro-Western and unable to respond to political developments around them. They came to prominence when, in 1990, the Saudi Royal Family decided to allow American troops on Saudi soil during the run up to the first Gulf War. This was seen by Ouda and others as a sign of capitulation to secular Western forces bent on destroying Islam.

Anti-Jihadist Salafi: Saudi’s Salman al-Ouda

Due to his continued attempts to undermine the regime and sow dissent, he was imprisoned by the Royal Family in 1994. However, since his release in 1999, according to Thomas Hegghammer, ‘Awda has taken a less confrontational stance against the government, promoted dialogue with the West and recognised non-Wahhabi Islamic traditions in the Kingdom.’

It is from political Salafi movements like the Sahwa that Salafi-jihadist thought emerged, inspiring the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to support violent action in pursuit of politico Salafi goals. Indeed, in his 1994 open letter condemning Saudi establishment Sheikh, Abd-al-Aziz bin Baz, for issuing a fatwa calling for peace with Israel, bin Laden refers approvingly to Ouda on a number of occasions. Referring to bin Baz’ involvement in the imprisonment of Ouda, bin Laden writes:

When the regime decided to attack Shaykh Salman al-’Awdah and [fellow Sahwa Sheikh] Shaykh Safar al-Hawali who proclaimed the truth and suffered for the sake of God, it obtained a Fatwa from you allowing all – the attacks and maltreatment to which the two Shaykhs and the preachers, Shaykhs and youth of the Ummah had been subjected. May God release them and save from them the wrong of the wrongdoers.

Since the emergence of al-Qaeda as a worldwide terrorist franchise, responsible for the deaths of countless numbers of Muslims, figures like Ouda have taken it upon themselves to issue denunciations of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Before his recent critique of Awlaki, Ouda wrote a famous open letter to bin Laden, urging him to lay down his arms. It begins in a similar vein to the Awlaki exhortation, warning him that he will be answerable for his crimes against humanity on the day of his judgement:

How much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women, and old people have been killed, maimed, and expelled from their homes in the name of “al-Qaeda”?

Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders? It is a weighty burden indeed – at least hundreds of thousands of innocent people, if not millions.

Awlaki, who in his blog claims to have briefly studied under Ouda during his Islamic education, is unlikely to heed this latest critique, and will most probably attempt to issue a response. His desire for legitimacy within the Salafi movement is already reflected in his recent article for the second issue of Inspire magazine, in which he responds to recent Salafi attacks on his methods, attempting to claim the theological and strategic high-ground.

Salafi denunciations like Ouda’s are a welcome development, but there is still much debate surrounding the role that ‘purist’ Salafis should play in acting as bulwarks against their violent counterparts. This was brought to the fore recently when it emerged that the Stockholm bomber, Taimor Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, attended Luton’s Salafi mosque, the Masjid al-Ghurabaa. The mosque’s leaders were aware of his extreme takfiri views, but decided not to report him to the police, claiming that his views were in no way illegal.