He was Osama bin Laden’s mentor. The Saudi government imprisoned him for five years in the 1990s to stop him from reaching the millions of young Saudis that were inspired by his fiery messages of anti-American hatred and demands for change within Saudi Arabia. And yet Shaikh Salman al-Awdah continued to command the lives of a whole generation of Saudis. Osama bin Laden specifically mentioned Shaikh Salman’s imprisonment to justify his declaration of war against the West and Saudi Arabia. So what happened to the angry, radical, and confrontational Shaikh Salman?
Today, he is the Saudi with the highest number of followers on Twitter. On Facebook, he has over five hundred thousand followers. I follow Shaikh Salman on Arabic Twitter, and gone is the man who cites chapter and verse to incite young minds towards agitation. Now in his fifties, he is mild and mature. He tweets contemplative questions about love, compassion, spirituality, forgiveness, and humanity. He remains a vastly popular preacher on more than ten regional Arabic television channels, as well as through his website and writing.
Recently, he was the talk of the town across Saudi Arabia because he was suddenly banned from traveling. What did the Saudi government know that others did not? In subsequent television interviews, he maintained his calmness and did not provoke action against the regime. Unlike other Saudi clerics, Shaikh Salman is not employed by the government. His independence only adds to his popularity and unrivaled credibility inside the Kingdom, and within the broader Middle East.
His most public break with Osama bin Laden came in a 2007 television program when Shaikh Salman, addressing bin Laden as a brother, said:
My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed…in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions of victims on your back?
Shaikh Salman was vital, not just through this statement but though his broader discourse, in disconnecting swaths of Saudi Wahhabism from violence. But that is not enough.
Followers of Wahhabism, or Saudi Salafism, are on the rise across the broader Middle East. In countries such as Egypt, they have formed right wing, conservative political parties in the new-found freedom brought to them by the liberal, secular Egyptian Twitterati. Last week, I wrote about the increased demands by Wahhabi groups for new governments to enforce their extremist readings of sharia as state law. This obsession with tatbiq al-sharia is emerging as the central policy challenge for secularists and different shades of Islamists in the Arab world.
What does Shaikh Salman say about this? His words matter to grassroots Wahhabis in Egypt and elsewhere.
Condemning violence is not enough. The intolerant and illiberal Wahhabi milieu in which terrorism is born must be challenged too. In a recent interview, Shaikh Salman had words of advice for his Egyptian Salafi brethren. ‘’The Arab Street’’ will return to this important theme tomorrow.