News / Middle East

    Saudi Arabia, Kuwait Tighten Controls on Clerics

    Reuters
    Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been quietly reining in their clerics on concerns that preachers could use their influence to stir up trouble and inflame sectarian divisions at a time of high tension over the crises in Syria and Egypt.
     
    Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to a powerful conservative clergy, have declined to respond to local media reports in recent months which said nearly 20 clerics had been sacked or suspended.
     
    In Kuwait, which has a relatively open political system compared to other Gulf Arab states, the authorities have resumed the monitoring of sermons, pulled a television preacher off the air and deported a foreign imam.
     
    The developments in the two monarchies follow the dramatic rise and fall in Egypt of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which offers a populist religious alternative to dynastic rule and has supporters in the Gulf.
     
    The Egyptian army angered some influential clerics and ordinary citizens in the region in July and August when it overthrew the then president, Mohammad Morsi, a Brotherhood member who remains in prison, and clamped down on his supporters, killing hundreds of people. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have pledged to support the new Egyptian government.
     
    “There is a more heightened sensitivity to the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and of political activity in general,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Middle East research group.
     
    Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will continue to be “fairly uncompromising of perceived Muslim Brotherhood activities and anyone perceived to be supporting them”.
     
    The war in Syria is aggravating sectarian tensions across the region, with mainly Sunni rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
     
    State-affiliated clerics in Saudi Arabia have denounced the Assad government and urged support for Syrians since the beginning of the conflict, and $140 million was raised in a government-organized campaign for Syrian refugees last year.
     
    Some Kuwaiti clerics have been using social media to raise private donations for the rebels and a number have even helped to raise funding for arms.
     
    Muslim Brotherhood
     
    The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Saudi Arabia and only  cautiously tolerated in Kuwait, where members of a local offshoot have made up significant factions in previous parliaments.
     
    What worries both countries - and other Gulf monarchies - is that the Brotherhood espouses an active political doctrine that urges staunch Sunnis to agitate for change.
     
    That flies in the face of traditional Gulf theology, particularly the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which preaches that good Muslims should obey their rulers in most circumstances.
     
    Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst, said he believes many of the outspoken imams in the kingdom who worry the authorities are influenced by the Brotherhood.
     
    “[The Muslim Brotherhood] allege that they do not seek power but in reality they use religion as a cover for their agenda and say that they want to serve Islam,” Dakhil said.
     
    Despite the ban, Saudi Arabia has unofficially tolerated informal meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood so long as they avoid any discussion of politics.
     
    But concern about the movement's influence has grown more pointed since the Saudi royal family backed Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's overthrow of Morsi in July.
     
    Saudi authorities suspended a Riyadh preacher who was filmed in August attacking Sisi in a sermon that provoked a brief scuffle inside the mosque.
     
    In the same month, Kuwaiti Tareq al-Suwaidan, known across the Arab world for his lectures on self-improvement, was fired from his job as a host on a Saudi television show after he identified himself as “one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood” during a lecture in Yemen.
     
    The channel's owner, Saudi billionaire Prince Alaweed bin Talal, criticized him as having “extremist inclinations”.
     
    “Some preachers discuss issues that have nothing to do with their country, but rather harm it,” said Mohammad al-Zulfa, a former member of Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council, a quasi-parliament appointed by the king to advise on policy.
     
    Kuwait

    In some parts of the Gulf, weekly sermons are approved by the government in advance. In Kuwait, which boasts a relatively free forum for speech and debate, the Islamic Affairs Ministry issues sample sermons but the imams don't have to use them.
     
    Khaled al-Hais, the government official in charge of overseeing mosques in the district of Hawally near the capital, said clerics were free to talk about most things as long as they don't refer to people or families or make sectarian remarks.
     
    The government banned the television show of Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajmi in August after one episode on the state channel, after he voiced support for arming Syrian rebels in speeches and on social media and called for the killing of fighters linked to the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah who are fighting on Assad's side.
     
    Ajmi, who has more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, has since been suspended from giving sermons, local media have reported.
     
    The ministry sent out a missive this summer calling on clerics to concentrate on moral issues, and started recording sermons in August after a break of more than a year.
     
    But while the authorities may still have leverage when it comes to sermons, controlling what people say on social media, which is ubiquitous in both countries, is a far more complicated task.
     
    Saudi Arabia monitors Twitter feeds of well-known preachers and Kuwaiti clerics who do not conform to guidelines can risk suspension while foreign clerics can be deported.
     
    Authorities maintain their efforts to manage the message on social media are only aimed at ensuring “consistency” to avoid confusion.
     
    “Preaching should be consistent. One cannot hold one view on the mosque's podium and then contradict it on [social media] sites,” Abdul Muhsen al-Sheik, undersecretary in the Islamic Affairs Ministry, told pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat in September.
     
    Hais, the Kuwaiti religious official, said: “Everyone has the freedom to use Twitter and Facebook but we watch what they write, to see if it is similar to what they say [in the mosque].”
     
    Saudi cleric Abdulaziz al-Qassem, a lawyer who supports limited reforms in Saudi Arabia, said it was unlikely that the government would go so far as to insist that imams only deliver government-approved sermons.
     
    With tens of thousands of mosques in Saudi Arabia, and the clergy's independence and power so strong, such a scenario was not only unlikely but probably impossible to implement.
     
    “The country is barely able to manage the economy and the rule of law,” he said. But he added:
     
    “Preachers are taking part in partisan and factional battles and leaving aside the role of the mosque as a podium for preaching... Mosques have been abducted.”

    You May Like

    Video Pop Icon Prince Quietly Helped Afghan Orphans for Years

    He sent thousands of dollars to help an aid group rebuild a training center for orphan boy and girl scouts in Kabul, but kept his involvement secret

    Mali, a Way Station for Syrians Headed to Europe

    Another door may be closing for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country, this time in Africa

    Britain’s Muslims See London Mayor Race as Victory

    Mere running of 45-year-old former government minister and son of Pakistani immigrants Sadiq Khan seen by many as turning point

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labori
    X
    May 05, 2016 6:44 PM
    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labor

    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora