Prominent Saudi preacher apologises for hardline past

Aaidh Al Qarni is one of the most vocal clerics in the kingdom and has long courted controversy

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 23, 2014, the flag of  Saudi Arabia is hoisted onto the world's tallest flagpole in Jeddah.   The US Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 26, 2019, urged action against ally Saudi Arabia after its mass execution of 37 people, most of them Shiite Muslims. The Commission, whose members are appointed by the president and lawmakers across party lines but whose role is advisory, said the State Department "must stop giving a free pass" to Saudi Arabia.
 / AFP / STR
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A prominent Saudi preacher has apologised for his previous hardline interpretations of Islam and said that a period of puritanical thought by a group of the kingdom’s clerics had been a mistake.

Aaidh Al Qarni was part of the Sahwa clerical movement in the 1990s that criticised the government for allowing US military personnel into the country because of the threat that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein could invade.

The Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia grew out of a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 1950s.

"I apologise in the name of the Sahwa to the Saudi society for the mistakes that were not related to Islam and for the extreme fatwas," Mr Al Qarni told Saudi TV show Al Laiwan on Monday evening,

"Our religion is a religion of peace, safety and mercy. Thanks to God, we discovered this in the texts and interpretations of our scholars," Mr Al Qarni said. "You cannot compare my ideas that I had when I was only 24 or 26 years old to my current thoughts.

"Now, I visited 40 countries and read thousands of books. I also knew and met intellectuals, scholars and wise people."

Mr Al Qarni said he now supported the moderate Islam advocated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But many on Twitter criticised the cleric’s contrition, saying his apology was far from enough.

“A real apology lies in presenting a detailed written criticism from within the movement, which gives clarity on its origins, who was associated, and how it originated,” popular Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi said.

“This is not enough because the price was too high.”

The Sahwa movement promoted isolation from the West and non-Muslim states, called for limits on the royal family’s rule and for more power to be given to clerics as a bulwark against westernisation.

The group was outlawed and Mr Al Qarni was imprisoned for five years from 1994.

In 2003, he wrote the widely popular Don't Be Sad, a book that gave advice for living a fulfilling Islamic life and being happy.

After 2011, Mr Al Qarni began to push for greater social tolerance.

But he again courted controversy a few years later for praising Qatar shortly before the start of the Gulf boycott of Doha for supporting terrorism.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut off political and trade ties with the country in 2017.

Mr Al Qarni was arrested again in 2017, reportedly on terror charges.

On Monday, he also apologised for his praise of Qatar and said he would devote his efforts to writings that support the Saudi government.

Mr Al Qarni is one of the kingdom’s most prominent preachers and has about 19 million followers on Twitter.

In 2016, he was shot by a gunman as he left a university in the southern Philippines city of Zamboanga where he had been giving a lecture.

Mr Al Qarni's name was also published on an ISIS hit-list in the militant group's internal magazine Dabiq.