‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview

‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview
1 / 4
MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa. (AN photo by Ziyad Alarfaj)
‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview
2 / 4
‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview
3 / 4
MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa on a visit to Paris.
‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview
4 / 4
MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa inspecting a charity hospital.
Updated 09 July 2018

‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview

‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview
  • Muslims should let go of conspiracy theories, MWL Secretary General tells Arab News in wide ranging interview
  • Organization to stop creating new ‘awareness centers’ and focus on spreading moderation via social media

JEDDAH: It does not take long to realize that there is little of the conventional about Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa — and not just because his words and deeds have raised eyebrows around the world since his appointment in August 2016 as secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL).

Many Muslim clerics, for example, prohibit photography, and other forms of art. But within minutes of our meeting last week at an MWL relief center in Jeddah, Arab News photographer Ziyad Alarfaj and I were treated to a sermon on how best to take photos and edit them. Al-Issa, it turns out, is not only a practicing calligrapher but also an avid photographer. 

He is a controversial figure, selected to preside over one of the most controversial Islamic organizations. The MWL has had its share of criticism since it was founded in 1962, but the past two years have brought an altogether different kind of controversy. If extremists’ words and deeds in the name of religion are a disease that must be treated, then Al-Issa’s words and deeds in response are a form of “shock therapy.”

Yet while the MWL’s new direction continues to anger hard-liners, Al-Issa continues to be received in high places such as the Vatican and the White House. He has also opened previously closed doors with the extreme right, sitting and talking with, for example, the former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (and for a keen photographer, that was a picture truly worth a thousand words). 

Al-Issa’s appointment has clearly coincided with the implementation of Saudi Arabia’s reform program, Vision 2030, by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At a global forum in Riyadh last year, the crown prince said he sought to destroy extremists “now and immediately,” and spoke of returning Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam.” His words coincided with remarkable decisions, such as limiting the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, ending the de facto ban on women driving, and reopening cinemas.

Because Al-Issa’s tolerant and modern approach — a world away from the image of Islam that in many minds is linked to exclusion, militancy and extremism — is very much in line with the vision and statements of the crown prince, some portrayed the sheikh as merely a man to be utilized during this phase of reform.

“Not at all,” he responds. “What I said in my past, say now and will say in the future reflects my convictions ... deep convictions, because they represent the true Islam that I believe in, and not the result of any phase.”

The crown prince’s approach is making a genuine difference in confronting extremism and empowering moderate scholars to create a moderate discourse, Al-Issa believes. “The difference happening now is in the existence of initiatives and practical programs to implement this discourse.”

Critics of the programs carried out by MWL centers around the world would say they were not noted for the promotion of moderation, but they preceded Al-Issa’s appointment as secretary-general. “It is not my right and my agenda to talk about the past,” he says. “The past belongs to its owners ... I talk only about myself and my future.” Current programs in MWL centers worldwide focus on moderation and “the explicit call to promote national integration of these communities in their homelands.”

In another indication that he is unconventional in his work, Al-Issa is not convinced of the effectiveness of these centers in the modern age, and believes the message of moderation can be more effectively delivered on social media platforms.

“My policy is not to open new centers, because ... now is the time for social media,” he said. “New media plays the role of a thousand centers. The message of Islamic moderation, wisdom and humanity that we send in one tweet is doing the job of dozens of centers.”

In addition to social media, what Al-Issa relies on in his work is continuous travel and public engagement. Hardly a week passes without a photo of him with a religious or political personality in one country or with Muslim communities in another, or without a speech or lecture in a think tank or conference. And because he believes that the MWL today represents moderate Islam, his frequent trips and public appearances give him a role closer to that of an Islamic “foreign minister” than a secretary-general in the bureaucratic sense.

Perhaps this is why, last week in Florence, Italy, Al-Issa was awarded the prestigious Galileo Prize in recognition of his work in promoting peace and harmony among civilizations. Such an award, he believes, shows that international institutions are fair in their work, and have no preconceived agendas. 

Those who believe otherwise, Al-Issa says, are victims of the conspiracy theory all too common in our part of the word that the West is plotting against Islam.

“Many Muslims have a negative perception that there is a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. But, my brother, the West gave up its religious state, chose secularism and fought Christianity as a way of life, so why do you think that it is targeting you?” he said.

“We went and had a dialogue with the West and the Far East, and found an appreciation of Islam, a love for Muslims and a desire to cooperate with them when they learned about the truth of Islam. 

“Do not blame the extreme right if it becomes suspicious about you because of an (existing) example in front of it that it exploits in a political game. Had it not had such an excuse, it would not have used this extremist speech.”

However, the problem worldwide is the absence of an impression of the Muslim moderation and tolerance that Al-Issa promotes. So why are there not more sheikhs like him, calling for the same things as he does?

View Our Photo Gallery of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa

“Some do not realize the seriousness of negative perceptions against Islam, and therefore they do not interfere in correcting them,” he said. “Some fear the reaction of extremism and do not want to engage in debates with extremists. And the religious knowledge of others does not reach the level of correct understanding.”

Al-Issa criticizes those who speak in the name of religion based on “feelings, impressions and religious zeal devoid of any scientific thought or proposal.” His own views, meanwhile, firmly rooted in Muslim theology, are anathema to hard-liners. 

An example was when he said that not wearing the hijab did not make a woman an infidel. 

“I think no Muslim can call a Muslim woman an infidel or question her values because she has never worn a hijab,” he says. “The Muslim woman, if she does not wear hijab ... is not an infidel and does not depart from Islam.”

In Belgium last year, he preached against the tide of many local community leaders when he said Muslims should respect the laws, culture and customs of the non-Muslim countries in which they live, even if they felt that to do so violated their faith. If they (Muslims) were unable to legally persuade the local authorities to respect their wishes, they should either obey local laws or leave, Al-Issa advised. 

More recently, in Washington DC, Al-Issa visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, criticized Holocaust deniers and condemned this heinous crime — which was deemed remarkable coming from a cleric of his caliber and an organization of MWL’s prominence.

However, it did not pass without drawing hate speech from extremists who saw it as an attempt to come closer to Israel at the expense of the rights of Palestinians. 

Al-Issa, however, sees no contradiction between opposing the occupation of the Palestinian territories and condemning the Holocaust, which he says “shook humanity to the core.” 

“We call for a just peace in accordance with the Arab initiative,” he says. “East Jerusalem (capital of Palestine) and West Jerusalem (capital of Israel), and there is no choice but peace.”

Despite his controversial remarks, Al-Issa says he is not afraid, although he knows his words may provoke some people. “I speak with logic, and I have right and justice on my side. And he who holds right and justice, God willing, is reassured deep in his heart. But I take my necessary (security) precautions without exaggeration.”

Al-Issa says the logic of his views has changed people’s minds about Islam. He knows this because of the dozens of private messages he has received from scholars and senior preachers, both inside and outside the Kingdom, whose names he keeps with him. And he says that, despite the critics, he enjoys wide support in the Muslim world because of his openness to everyone, the strength of his views rooted in Islamic theology, and the fact that the MWL speaks from its headquarters in the holiest place for all Muslims: Makkah.


Saudi Human Resources Development Fund approves 106 professional, technical diplomas

Saudi Human Resources Development Fund approves 106 professional, technical diplomas
Updated 05 August 2021

Saudi Human Resources Development Fund approves 106 professional, technical diplomas

Saudi Human Resources Development Fund approves 106 professional, technical diplomas

RIYADH: The Saudi Human Resources Development Fund (Hadaf) approved 106 professional and technical diplomas in various specializations and fields. 

The certifications are linked to the requirements of the labor market with the aim of raising the efficiency of the national workforce.

The professional certification program supports Hadaf’s other initiatives in improving professional training, increasing competitiveness among the workforce in specialized fields and stimulating professional development.

The Hadaf program offers an interconnected set of specialized courses designed to provide and enhance basic professional skills in areas of specialization, reflecting positively on career performance.

It targets all citizens wishing to develop their professional career by obtaining a certificate, whether the applicant is a government or private sector employee, job seeker or student.

With its focus on professional training and certification, the fund aims to boost labor market productivity to reach international standards and create new career opportunities.

To benefit from the program, applicants must have an accredited professional certificate and acknowledgment from their employer stating that they are not covering the fees of obtaining it.

Each applicant can process a maximum of two certificates. For payment, the applicant must file a claim through the taqat.sa website along with a copy of the professional certificate.

After verifying the validity of the certificate, the related costs are transferred directly to the applicant’s account through the IBAN number given on the registration page.


Sea ambulance service launched in KSA’s Farasan Island

Sea ambulance service launched in KSA’s Farasan Island
Updated 05 August 2021

Sea ambulance service launched in KSA’s Farasan Island

Sea ambulance service launched in KSA’s Farasan Island
  • Sea ambulance cost $3.6m and is equipped with the latest safety systems, five beds, a CPR device, and a shock-absorbent stretcher
  • Will be able to transfer emergency cases from Farasan Island to Jazan Port within 45 minutes

JAZAN: Jazan Gov. Prince Mohammed bin Nasser bin Abdul Aziz on Wednesday inaugurated a sea ambulance service in the Farasan Island governorate.

The governor listened to a detailed briefing from Jazan Health Director Dr. Awaji Al-Naami about the sea ambulance, which was manufactured at a cost of SR13.6 million ($3.6 million) and is equipped with the latest safety systems.

The sea ambulance has up to five beds, including an ICU bed, along with a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) device, a shock-absorbent stretcher that can adapt to waves and rough conditions at sea, a suction device, and medicines needed for emergency care.

Prince Mohammed also reviewed the action plan of the sea ambulance, which can transfer emergency cases from Farasan Island to Jazan Port within 45 minutes.

He got acquainted with the smart systems that enable the medical transfer operations center at the Emergency, Disasters, and Ambulatory Transportation General Department at the Jazan Health Directorate. The smart systems can also monitor the sea ambulance’s movements in the sea until it arrives at the port.

The sea ambulance is part of the Ministry of Health’s endeavors to provide health services to citizens and residents alike.


61 quarantine violators arrested in Saudi Arabia

61 quarantine violators arrested in Saudi Arabia
Updated 05 August 2021

61 quarantine violators arrested in Saudi Arabia

61 quarantine violators arrested in Saudi Arabia
  • Health Ministry reports 1,043 new coronavirus cases, 1,211 recoveries, 14 deaths
  • 28,492,380 people in the country had to date received a jab against COVID-19

RIYADH: A total of 61 offenders have been arrested  in Saudi Arabia in the past week for failing to adhere to quarantine regulations after their infection of the virus was confirmed.

The media spokesman for the police in Hail region, Captain Tariq Al-Nassar, said that a video circulating of a man with a positive PCR test wandering about in a shopping mall had led to his arrest after the authorities identified him. Legal action has now been taken against him.

Al-Nassar said that the penalties for violators of the precautionary and preventive measures against COVID-19 included a fine of no more than SR500,000 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or both. 

In Qassim region, the media spokesman for the police, Lt. Col. Badr Al-Suhaibani, said that 60 people were arrested for violating quarantine regulations after it was confirmed that they were infected with the virus. 

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday reported 14 more COVID-19-related deaths, taking the overall toll to 8,284.

There were 1,043 new cases, meaning that 529,995 people in the country had now contracted the disease. A total of 10,393 cases remained active, of which 1,396 patients were in critical condition.

FASTFACTS

Saudi Arabia reported 1,043 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to 529,995

A total of 10,393 cases remained active, of which 1,396 patients were in critical condition.

The death toll has risen to 8,284 with 14 more virus-related fatalities

28,492,380 people in the country had to date received a jab against COVID-19

Of the newly recorded cases, 214 were in Makkah region, 192 in Riyadh region, 169 in the Eastern Province, and 65 in Madinah region.

In addition, the ministry said that 1,211 patients had recovered from the disease, increasing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom to 511,318.

The region with the highest recovery rate is Riyadh at 267, followed by Makkah at 217 and Eastern Province at 200.

Saudi Arabia had so far conducted 25,443,550 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, with 106,517 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Testing hubs and treatment centers set up throughout the country have dealt with hundreds of thousands of people since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

Among them, Taakad (make sure) centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or only mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual. Tetamman (rest assured) clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms such as fever, loss of taste and smell, and breathing difficulties.

Appointments for both services can be made via the ministry’s Sehhaty app.

Meanwhile, 28,492,380 people in the country had to date received a jab against COVID-19, including 1,496,037 elderly people. About 55.9 percent of the population had received the first dose, while 25.9 percent had completed both doses. At this rate, 70 percent of the population is expected to have completed both doses by September 28, 2021.

Meanwhile, Rafha Health Affairs in the northern region of the Kingdom, represented by the Central Hospital, has activated virtual clinics for patients benefiting from its services in outpatient clinics.

This gives patients the option to remotely attend medical appointments in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. The management of Central Hospital explained that this service allows direct communication between doctors and their patients through interactive video communication.

“We have made remote clinics available to save people’s time and efforts, as it is possible to communicate directly with the doctor, without the need to come to the clinic,” the minister of health said earlier.


High-flying Saudi women are making the most of new career opportunities

High-flying Saudi women are making  the most of new career opportunities
Updated 05 August 2021

High-flying Saudi women are making the most of new career opportunities

High-flying Saudi women are making  the most of new career opportunities

 

JEDDAH:  Saudi women continue to embrace the new career opportunities that have opened up to them in the Kingdom in recent years, with a determination to succeed. One of the sectors in which they are increasingly making their mark is aviation.

Flight attendant Anhar Tashkandi joined Saudia airline two years ago.

“We completed the training period, which focused on ensuring the passengers’ comfort and safety,” she said. “This job offers us the opportunity to visit different countries and learn from their cultures.”

Saudi women now work as flight attendants alongside male colleagues, a job that was previously restricted to women from other countries.

Ashwaq Nasser told of her pride at being one of the first Saudi women to work in the profession.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents for supporting my choice of becoming a flight attendant,” she said. “I would also like to thank Saudia airline for providing us with the opportunity to join this program.”

Her colleague, Reham Bahmishan said that since childhood she had wondered why there were no Saudi female flight attendants.

“When I later saw that the Saudia airline was accepting applications for this position, I was very excited and applied immediately,” she said. “Thanks to Saudia, I am currently living my childhood dream.”


Counter-extremism center Etidal calls for ‘proper reading of religious text’

Counter-extremism center Etidal calls for ‘proper reading of religious text’
Updated 05 August 2021

Counter-extremism center Etidal calls for ‘proper reading of religious text’

Counter-extremism center Etidal calls for ‘proper reading of religious text’
  • Says some extremist groups were “trying to embrace the texts to interpret them according to what they want”

RIYADH: Religious text must not be a “prisoner” to the interpretations of extremist groups, the secretary-general of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (Etidal) has said.

Dr. Mansour Al-Shammari stressed that some extremist groups were “trying to embrace the texts to interpret them according to what they want” and he looked forward to an integration with specialized institutions to find a proper reading of these religious texts.

Al-Shammari's comments came in a press conference on Wednesday in Riyadh, in the presence of Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Center for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT).

Al-Shammari said that Saudi Arabia spared no effort in supporting international efforts to combat extremist ideology and terrorism, believing that they are the main enemy of the development and stability of any society.

The success of development plans, he added, depended on the ability of countries to protect their capabilities and citizens from the dangers of this ideology.

HIGHLIGHT

Dr. Mansour Al-Shammari, the secretary-general of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, said that Saudi Arabia spared no effort in supporting international efforts to combat extremist ideology and terrorism, believing that they are the main enemy of the development and stability of any society.

He praised the UN’s efforts in combating terrorism, stressing Etidal’s keenness to exchange experiences to serve the common goals and strategies of Etidal and the UNCCT.

“Etidal’s and UNCCT’s partnership came after many meetings and fruitful efforts between the two parties,” said Al-Shammari, stressing that the goal was to reach projects on the ground.

He said that Etidal and UNCCT’s efforts had culminated in the signing of a joint memorandum of understanding last April. One objective was to cooperate in building international capacities to prevent violent extremism, and to combat the use of the Internet and social media platforms to spread extremist ideology and terrorist agenda.

“Etidal is working to expose the methods of extremist organizations in targeting young people, educating them about the dangers of this thought, and disproving the suspicions that the organizations exploit in their recruitment processes,” he said.

Al-Shammari added that Etidal was aware of the dangers of this way of thinking and of the organizations that employ all means to spread it, and they had developed specialized plans and strategies to refute such thought.

Additionally, Etidal had launched a number of initiatives to increase societal interaction with the center’s goals including: Moderate, refutation, research cooperation, university training and the Gather2 Initiative, which aims to raise awareness among people with hearing disabilities about the risks of extremism.

Khan praised Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the international community in confronting extremism and protecting current and future societies and generations from its dangers, valuing the Kingdom’s efforts to cut off funding for terrorists.

He said that Etidal was a pillar of the UN’s strategy to combat terrorism, stressing that the issue of terrorism was “complicated,” and that the international community must be active and prepared to confront terrorists.

“Terrorism has no religion or homeland,” he said, noting the importance of developing anti-terror projects around the world. He warned that terrorists sought to influence young people in various forms such as video games.

 

Decoder

Etidal

Based in Riyadh, Etidal is the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology with a mission of fighting extremism. To do that, it seeks to identify such the root causes of such ideologies and address them using tools and technologies such as social networks and the Internet as well as other media outlets. Its membership is open to countries, organizations, or any participating entity.