The Saudis are planning to convict and execute three clerics in June after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends. According to an exclusive report in the Middle East Eye, all three are being held on multiple charges of terrorism. It seems that none of the clerics have actually committed any actual terrorism but rather have expressed views contrary to the current stance of Saudi’s leaders — ranging from Islamist to liberal.
The three clerics are: Sheikh Salman al-Odah (Ouda), Ali al-Omari, and Awad al-Qarni. The news outlet cites as their sources for the report two different government officials and relatives of one of the clerics.
Sheikh Salman al-Odah is an internationally recognized Muslim scholar, a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and has a huge online following. He has a history of being both pro- and anti-Saudi government policies and positions — and spending time in and out of jail because of it.
Most currently, it seems that the Saudis consider him a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. He was arrested the late time in 2017 for a tweet in which he offered a prayer of reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It wasn’t the only time Odah tweeted critically about Saudi Arabia, challenging the authority of the kingdom’s rulers.
Yet Odah is also known for preaching against Osama bin Laden and was even criticized by bin Laden himself for advocating peace with the Jews and other religions. He is known for his open views on sharia and homosexuality. (Odah believes homosexuality is a sin that is only punishable by God — as God sees fit — rather than a punishment ordained and carried out by men.)
He has been banned from entering Denmark because he was considered a hate preacher.
The other two scholars said to be slated for conviction and execution are Ali al-Omari and Awad al-Qarni. They were also arrested in 2017.
Omari is a well-known broadcaster and, according to the Middle East Eye, has campaigned for more rights for women and against violent extremism. Qarni is a popular imam, scholar and author. He was on a no-fly list and banned from entering the U.S. in 2012 and 2015 to attend a convention in Chicago.
In 2016, Qarni was targeted for assassination by ISIS and was shot while lecturing in the Philippines. According to Gulf News, in May 2019, he appeared on a talk-show, apologized for his previous “hardline interpretations” of Islam and called for a modernization of the religion.
He said that after reading interpretations of the Quran by classical scholars, travelling to “40 countries” and reading “thousands of books” as well as meeting intellectuals, religious scholars and poets, he now embraces the reformist Islam of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
Needless to say, this story is complicated as are the agendas of those that drive the story.
While Saudi Arabia has not formally commented on the story, Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, notes:
“We see this as a clear departure from past practice and an indication of just how much the repression level has increased since MBS became crown prince nearly two years ago.”
And that is probably the most accurate point. The world has embraced the future king as a reformist. They have rallied behind his vision for transforming Saudi Arabia and renewing the Arab Middle East.
Yet, MBS is lagging behind in real time from actualizing his own aspirations. For example, at the same time that he “graciously” allowed women the right to drive (Saudi Arabia was previously the only country in the world where women were not allowed to drive), he was arresting the women’s rights activists who had been agitating for this right for years and throwing away the key to their jail cells.
MBS needs to grow up and allow the free exchange of ideas in the public realm. He needs to institute the concept of tolerance in his desert kingdom, instead of being spooked by his own shadow.
A few days remain before Ramadan is over. Until then, the convictions and executions of the three clerics remain in the realm of speculation.
This means MBS has time to stop them. If he doesn’t, the world needs to stop giving him a free pass.