Builder of the ideological groundwork for violent uprisings
It is bold to blame Western companies and the oil boom in Saudi Arabia for the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Yet apparently, according to this week’s “Preacher of Hate” Nasser Al-Omar, the events of the siege were a warning, not only that the “ship (of Saudi society) had drifted,” but that it was the fault of Western assistance to the Kingdom.
For Al-Omar, such views are par for the course. He gave a fascinating interview to PBS, the US public broadcaster, in 2004, repeating on issue after issue that all of the ills facing Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East were the fault of the West.
US troops on Saudi soil were, according to him, the “biggest mistake committed by America,” and that removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was “the excuse they gave for their coming.”
Of course, it is perfectly normal for people to oppose the presence of foreign troops on their soil. It happens all over the world, including in the UK, where US military bases are frequently the target of demonstrations.
But the center of Al-Omar’s complaint was not sovereignty but conspiracy: The West is a persecutor and an oppressor, even when the reality was military assistance at the request of local governments.
Like many radicals, Al-Omar has been described as “moderate” in some quarters over the past year, on the automatic principle that those who oppose the Saudi government must be moderate.
The problem with that view is that the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend.
Al-Omar has defended Islamist terrorism on the grounds that “Western terrorism” is worse. It is not too much of a stretch to believe that his followers — and he has a great many on social media — might take this as a nod and a wink to resist “Western terrorism” by joining a jihadist group.
This is what he is prepared to say in public. What might he say in private? Yet he is regarded as a moderate.
There is plenty in the published writings and videos of Al-Omar that one can laugh at. He does not like colored contact lenses or foreign travel.
Mockery is an effective assault on extremist preachers who take themselves terribly seriously.
But it is not in itself an answer: The UK media used to call Omar Bakri Mohammed the “Tottenham Ayatollah” in mockery, but it was still his followers who went to join Daesh when the time came.
The fact is, even Al-Omar’s laughable positions are potentially dangerous. The corollary of his injunction against travel “especially to infidel lands” is that those who do travel, or worse (in his view) stay there, are not proper Muslims.
Nasser Al-Omar may not have openly called for a violent uprising against those with whom he disagrees, but his ideas have laid the groundwork for those who do.
It is this kind of divisive attitude that creates fissures in society — belonging neither here nor there — that can lead to social unrest and violence.
Daesh and Al-Qaeda agree with Al-Omar that Muslims in the West, even those who live under laws that provide for the five higher principles of Shariah, are not proper Muslims and require the “true Muslims” of the West to fight.
Much of Al-Omar’s poison drips out via his website, almoslim.net. One of the virtues and perils of a world globalized so instantaneously via the internet is choice: If you are not satisfied with a fatwa (religious edict) from a local scholar, then go and get one from further afield.
If, as is the case with one of Al-Omar’s fatwas, you do not want people from different religions to mix, then go and find a fatwa from a sheikh who will agree with you.
The argument for such choice — the marketplace of ideas — is that what is good will survive and spread, and what is bad will vanish from sight. To an extent this is true, but what is good has more to do with charisma and appeal than ethics or real value.
In practice, violent ideas can gain a following if they appeal to a particular audience’s sense of self-worth.
It is a common human tendency to seek exclusivity — to find value in being part of a small group that holds on to the truth against the greater forces of falsehood — and ideas that support this tendency will find their followers.
It can be harmless, as when the exclusive group that is greater than its rivals is a football team.
But when it is accompanied by a demand to fight for the “truth” one supports until the total abasement of its enemies, it becomes supremely dangerous. This is a tendency that Al-Omar belongs to.
He may not have openly called for a violent uprising against those with whom he disagrees, but his ideas have laid the groundwork for those who do.
It is for this reason that he belongs fully within our “Preachers of Hate” series. The fight against extremism is not only against those who preach violence, but also against those who preach ideologies that make it possible.
• Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby