(June 24, 2019 / JNS) It was recently reported that Saudi cleric Salman Al Odah, who has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since 2017, has been sentenced to death and will soon be executed.
American Islamist groups, such as the Salafi publication Muslim Matters, have expressed their outrage at the news, portraying Al Odah as an “an Islamic reformer—one of the first in Saudi Arabia to reconcile Islamic values with living in the West.” Meanwhile, Western journalists painted Al Odah as a “moderate” being punished for “bizarre” reasons.
This portrayal is deceptive. For many years, Al Odah called on his followers to engage in violence, and openly preached anti-Semitic and deeply illiberal ideas.
Though he is reported to have moderated after his imprisonment by the Saudi government in the 1990s, recent tweets and statements suggest that he is still as extreme as ever. It is one thing to oppose the execution of a religious leader for his preaching; it is something else to portray one of the Arab world’s most extreme clerics as a martyr for moderation.
In the 1990s, Al Odah achieved a certain notoriety for his sermons such as “Come for Jihad” and “The Industry of Death,” of which audiotapes were clandestinely circulated throughout Saudi Arabia. In these sermons, he called for his followers to engage in jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the same period, he criticized the Saudi government’s decision to allow U.S. troops into the Kingdom during the first Gulf War. At one point, Al Odah was even a mentor to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
Odah’s overt support for violent extremism during those years led to a five-year jail sentence in the Saudi Kingdom. After his release in 1999, he was supposedly a changed man. His time in prison allowed him to become “more objective, lenient and well-reasoned in his thoughts and approach,” or so he claimed. Al Odah spent the following years presenting himself as a moderate—tolerant of homosexuality, willing to publicly condemn his previous student bin Laden and mostly tweeting inoffensive encouragements to his followers, such as “the best kind of security is the security of the heart from the negative feelings.”
Yet in 2005, he and other clerics issued a call to jihad in Iraq: “There is no doubt that the Jihad against the occupiers is an obligation incumbent upon any able person.” Shortly after, Odah defended himself, claiming he was saddened that “[people] are trying to distort the communiqué and are treating it, for example, as a call to the Arab and Muslim peoples to go to Iraq,” which was, of course, exactly what he had done.
Furthermore, Al Odah’s 2007 condemnation of Osama bin Laden appeared conveniently timed to keep him out of jail. A few months later, the Saudi government established the “Specialized Criminal Court” to try terrorism-related cases, part of a general policy to crack down on terrorism. Given the Saudi government’s newfound antagonism to Al-Qaeda in the wake of several bloody terror attacks, Al Odah surely feared a repeat of his years in jail in the 1990s. If his opposition to Al-Qaeda after 1999 were truly sincere, why would he have waited so many years to say so?
In 2009, Al Odah spoke at great length of his support for coexistence, which he described as “namely reaching ethical levels of dialogue and agreement on the foundations of living together and conciliation… and recognizing pluralism.”
But Al Odah dropped the mask again in 2012, when he gave an interview claiming that the Holocaust had been exaggerated and was “turned into a myth of tremendous proportions.” He then accused Jews of using the memory of the Holocaust to extort many governments worldwide.
For Al Odah, “the role of the Jews is to wreak destruction, to wage war, and to practice deception and extortion.” He excused anti-Semitic persecutions by explaining that “much of this stemmed from [the Jews’] moral values, their treacherous nature, their schemes, and the ploys, which made other nations be wary of them.” And to top it off, he then claimed that Jews bake Passover matzah from human blood, which they obtained by kidnapping non-Jewish children.
Three years later, Al Odah’s views were unchanged, as evidenced by a 2015 tweet in which he claimed that God knows that Jews are oppressors. And as recently as 2017, he issued a fatwa (“religious edict”) prohibiting women from wearing trousers in front of others as, according to him, they show the size of women’s sexual organs, causing “sedition and excitement.”
Al Odah is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Infamous preacher Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who has expressed his support for suicide-bombings and claimed that God turned Jews into apes and pigs, once described Al Odah as “one of my closest friends.” In fact, Al Odah is a board member of Qaradawi’s Brotherhood-linked organization, the International Union of Islamic Scholars.
In 2017, Al Odah was banned from entering Denmark for two years, along with other prominent extremist preachers, such as the Saudi cleric Muhammad Al Arifi. Danish Integration Minister Inger Stoejberg stated that the government “won’t accept that hate preachers … preach hatred against Danish society.”
Despite his views, several American clerics have expressed their support for Al Odah. Among these supporters is the prominent cleric Yasir Qadhi, who wrote that he “110 percent” supported Al Odah’s condemnation of Al-Qaeda, and that he considered him a “mentor.”
News websites favored by Western Islamist groups have sided with Al Odah. The Middle East Eye published an article on the sentencing, flatteringly describing Al Odah as an “internationally renowned scholar known for his comparatively progressive views in the Islamic world on Sharia and homosexuality.” Staff members of the Middle East Eye include former and current employees of Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded media outlet that has long openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
One can oppose Al Odah’s death sentence without lionizing him as a moderate. Al Odah’s statements over the past years, including after his supposed reform, clearly contradict this depiction. While American Islamists whitewash Al Odah, the truth is that he is an unreconstructed anti-Semite and extremist. Calling him a moderate betrays all those whom Al Odah’s decades of violent rhetoric have harmed.
Martha Lee is a research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.