Controversial Saudi cleric transformed into moderate

The man once identified as a spiritual adviser to Bin Laden talks to MARY FITZGERALD , Foreign Affairs Correspondent

The man once identified as a spiritual adviser to Bin Laden talks to MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

THE STORY of Sheikh Salman al-Awda and his transformation from arch critic of the House of Saud and hero of Osama Bin Laden to something approaching what might, by Saudi standards, be considered moderate is one that intrigues many in the kingdom.

Saudis speak of two al-Awdas – pre-prison and post-prison. Born in Buraida, a town deep in Saudi Arabia’s conservative heartland, al-Awda became a key figure in al Sahwa – Arabic for awakening – a revivalist movement which called for the reasserting of purist Wahhabi traditions.

In the mid-1990s al-Awda was jailed after he and a number of other clerics denounced the Saudi regime for drifting from the principles of Islam and agreeing to the presence of American troops in the kingdom.


His fiery condemnation of the al-Sauds and exhortations to jihad earned him the admiration of Bin Laden, who praised him for “enlightening” Muslim youth. In the first World Trade Centre bombing trial, al-Awda was identified as a spiritual adviser to Bin Laden.

But he came out of prison a changed man. “You would think he spent his sentence in a western culture. His whole ideology took a 180-degree turn,” as one Saudi blogger put it.

In an interview with The Irish Times during his visit to Ireland this week, al-Awda welcomed the recent appointment of Saudi Arabia’s first woman deputy minister, hailing it a “wise decision”; decried those who flock to Afghanistan and Iraq for jihad; and said the kingdom’s ban on women driving had nothing to do with Islam.

The Saudi cleric was in Dublin this week for a series of talks and lectures at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland based in Clonskeagh. It was his second trip to Ireland. The first, in October 2007, proved controversial after the imam of Ireland’s only Shia mosque raised concerns over an article al-Awda had written for a Saudi newspaper describing Shias as “non-Muslims”.

Al-Awda denies he used such terminology. “There is a serious difference between Sunni and Shia and we should not deceive each other about that,” he says. “But, despite these differences, all the time I warn against clashes. I believe there can be good relations between the two.”

He bats away the suggestion that he was something of a hero for Bin Laden. “I consider it a rumour,” he says.

In September 2007 al-Awda caused a sensation across the Muslim world when he chose the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to broadcast an open letter to Bin Laden in which he railed against al-Qaeda, accusing it of “making terror a synonym for Islam”.

“My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt?” the letter said. “How many innocent people, women, children and the elderly have been killed or displaced in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions on your back?”

Asked to give an example of what he considers a justifiable jihad, al-Awda replies: “Palestine – the Palestinians are defending themselves and this is jihad.”

What about Afghanistan and Iraq – what would he say to a young Saudi eager to follow the thousands of others who have travelled there for jihad?

“I would tell him not to go. Even if he wanted to go to Palestine I would say no. We do not support young Muslims leaving their countries for fighting right now. If they go to another country, they are causing harm to themselves and to the country. They will cause nothing but chaos.”

It appears al-Awda has changed his mind on Iraq. In 2004 he and 25 other Saudi clerics declared that fighting US troops there was a religious duty.

Most recently he caused controversy in Saudi Arabia when he declared there was nothing wrong with celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, drawing the ire of those within the kingdom’s religious establishment who consider the practice unIslamic.

Al-Awda smiles when asked his view on Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. “This is not an Islamic rule. You will see women driving in other Muslim countries. It is merely a social decision in Saudi Arabia,” he says.

“If the ban is removed I would see that as a positive thing provided it is done in a way that is socially accepted.”

He is concerned about the fate of young Saudis, as they struggle to balance their experience of modernity with life in what remains a deeply conservative society. “In time they will hopefully find ways of reaching reconciliation with what they have been brought up with and what they are facing from outside.”

Asked about his own evolution, al-Awda becomes circumspect.

“Man should know that he is in need of being flexible enough to learn from others. He should not be very fanatic with regard to his views, and he should not only listen to himself. And he should also sometimes learn from his opponents.”