Sheikh's TV fatwa is a symptom of the cancer of extremism

Sheikh Saleh al Lihedan is no ordinary man. He is a renowned religious scholar and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia. When he speaks, thousands listen

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Sheikh Saleh al Lihedan is no ordinary man. He is a renowned religious scholar and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia. When he speaks, thousands listen. His pronouncements on religious and social issues are embraced as absolute truth by people who believe in his judgment and follow his fatwas. That is why the Sheikh's recently publicised condemnation of the owners of television stations that broadcast "immoral" programmes is so alarming. The Sheikh said it was permissible to kill owners of television networks that air "corrupting" programmes. Those people are violating God's teachings, the Sheikh reasoned. By subjecting audiences to obscenity, seduction and even humour, the network owners are spoiling the belief system of the faithful. If they do not stop, says the most senior justice in Saudi Arabia, it is religiously sanctioned to kill them.

The lightness with which the Sheikh views human life is shocking. But equally disturbing is that a man who does not blink at issuing what could amount to death sentences against a large number of people remains in a position of power - and in a country whose leadership has recently launched a global effort to promote moderate and tolerant Islam. Such a worthwhile effort should also be aimed at hardliners inside the country. These people do a tremendous amount of damage to the collective culture and potentially set thousands of impressionable young people on the destructive course of extremism. The great harm that has been brought to Saudi Arabia and other Arab societies by hardliners who advocate intolerant interpretations of Islam is no secret. Managing this internal source of threat to the culture of tolerance is an essential first step towards rescuing the faith and its image and ensuring that its centrist and moderate nature prevails.

Pronouncements such as the one made by Sheikh Lihedan against the owners of TV networks could lead to the murder of innocent people. The question that cannot be avoided is this: how would the Sheikh - or judges appointed by him - rule should they have to try someone who kills one of the people condemned by Lihedan, and then pleads not guilty on the ground that he acted in implementation of the Chief Justice's fatwa?

That the Sheikh retracted his statement, first broadcast on Saudi radio four months ago and then highlighted by a satellite television station last week, does not solve the problem. The issue here is not just about this particular fatwa. It is about the still-lukewarm endeavours to root out extremism in the whole Arab world. Appeasement remains a plague from which no Arab country is entirely free. Hiding behind religion, many individuals and groups are still able to feed hatred, intolerance and extremism to thousands of disgruntled young people across the Arab and Muslim worlds. Fearing confrontation with religious figures, many governments shy away from standing up to those who consciously or unconsciously distort the faith and promote intolerance.

But the confrontation cannot be delayed any longer. In more than one Arab and Muslim country, religious fundamentalism is gaining credibility and attracting more followers. Reversing this process will require comprehensive reforms, not more crackdowns on public freedoms. The inevitable confrontation will yield the desired results only if its ammunition is reform and democratisation rather than guns and jails and restrictions.

Only by going through with wide-ranging reform will Arab governments have the public support they need to discredit extremism and deal with hardliners enjoying solid bases of support within societies. Force and oppression have failed to neutralise extremists; they certainly did not discredit hardliners who thrived on exploiting the image of being the victims of oppressive and corrupt governments. In the case of fatwas in particular, no government can stop religious figures from making pronouncements on all sorts of social and political issues. What officialdom can do, especially in Saudi Arabia, is ensure the presence of legislation that bans such individuals from using public office to make their pronouncements. More importantly, they must work to rehabilitate official fatwa councils and religious offices.

Most official Muftis in the Arab world enjoy little credibility. The public perception is that they are tools of the government who will rule in whichever direction governments point. In the absence of public fatwa councils that enjoy independence, people turn to "private" sources to address their religious questions. Quite often, these sources promote extremism. The case of Sheikh Lihedan, where it is an official figure who poses the problem, is rare in the Arab world. Usually, religious figures working with governments speak with moderation. But they face the problem of being distrusted by the public. This lack of public confidence must be the target of any genuine reform efforts that seek to have an impact in the fight against extremism. Governments will have to give up some of their control over officials' religious institutions if they want to reduce the influence of extremists groups. Certainly, in Arab countries where the state is not seen to be in full control of such institutions, "private" fatwas by extremists do not present an alarming threat.

Ultimately, it boils down to reform. This is a weapon that no Arab government has fully utilised to defeat extremism.

Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs