Saudis to retrain 40,000 clerics

via http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7308040.stm published on March 21, 2008

Saudi Arabia is to retrain its 40,000 prayer leaders – also known as imams – in an effort to counter militant Islam.

Details of the plan were revealed in the influential Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

The plan is part of a wider programme launched by the Saudi monarch a few years ago to encourage moderation and tolerance in Saudi society.

The ministry of religious affairs and new centre for national dialogue will carry out the training, the paper said.

The centre was created five years ago to disseminate a moderate interpretation of Islamic tradition.

There is growing awareness in Saudi society that security measures alone are not enough to counter the threat of Islamic militancy.

Scepticism

Saudi clerics have long been accused of encouraging Saudi youth to join global jihad and of inciting hatred of non-Muslims.

Nearly 1,000 imams have already been sacked over the past few years.

The Saudi royal family has come under increasing pressure – mainly from Washington – to change religious textbooks and to rein in militant clerics.

But critics are sceptical about whether such initiatives would work as long as the powerful, and ultraconservative, religious establishment in Saudi Arabia continues to exert enormous influence over society.

Only last week, a prominent cleric called for the beheading of two liberal writers who had questioned the orthodox view that Muslims can not change their religion.

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