WTF? Islamic Scholars Promote Sharia as an Alternative to Extremism

Standard dress for women in public in Saudi Arabia

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — To combat extremist ideologies, Islamic scholars and researchers meeting in Mecca last month urged Muslim governments to tackle poverty, overhaul school curriculums — and get back to religion.

In particular, they counseled strict, Muslim religious observance of the kind practiced in Saudi Arabia. “Apply Islamic Shariah in all life’s affairs,” they recommended, referring to Islamic law, which they said had the capacity to “accomplish justice, maintain dignity, uphold rights and meet the aspirations of the people.”

The state-sanctioned conference, called “Islam and Countering Terrorism,” was an effort by the Saudi government to burnish its anti-extremist credentials and promote its religious establishment as an alternative to the savage leadership of the Islamic State.

Yet, the conference itself highlighted the contradiction at the heart of the Saudi effort: Amid worthwhile talk of outreach to youth and fighting corruption, there was almost no mention of the Saudi monarchy’s decades-long role in aggressively spreading its strictly conservative religious ideology — a creed that itself has provided inspiration for leaders of the Islamic State, the militant group often referred to as ISIS, ISIL or by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

Arab leaders have vigorously condemned the Islamic State and some, like Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have reacted by vowing to restore moderation to religious discourse and thought. But the denunciations by the region’s autocrats and monarchs have rarely been accompanied by deeper self-criticism about the role played by state policies in fueling radicalism, according to analysts.

Saudi Arabia provided just one of the region’s discredited yet resilient models, “a weird mix of authoritarian repression and religious legitimation that reinforces groups like the Islamic State,” said Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and a fellow at Chatham House, both in Britain.

The conference was held in the worn, white headquarters of the Muslim World League, an umbrella group for charitable organizations that was founded by the Saudi monarchy in the 1960s to counter the leftist ideologies then sweeping the region. The league is seen as a cornerstone of the Saudi effort to disseminate its version of Sunni Islam and claim leadership as a charitable benefactor to the Muslim world.

The nature of the conference amplified the character of Saudi doctrine. It was held in Mecca, a city non-Muslims are forbidden from entering, and there was not a single woman among the hundreds of participants. Shiite Muslims, who make up more than 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, also were excluded, reinforcing criticism of a narrow, sectarian outlook.

Even among participants who shared conservative views and praised the idea of the meeting, there were questions about its usefulness. “When you do such events in Mecca, you close the doors,” said Omar Shahin, a lawyer and religious leader who lives in the United States. “Isolating ourselves from other communities doesn’t help. We need to hear other people’s opinions”…