In 1996, A. Z. was arrested for attempted murder for attacking A.A. with a butcher’s knife after the dawn prayer. The incident took place in the city of Ha’el, north of Riyadh. The victim was a preacher who had acquired training in Sharia studies. The killer had judged him to be a “snitch” for the state and a more broadly dishonorable cleric.
In September 1994, dozens of men gathered in front of the the largest government building in the province of Al-Qaseem. The crowd consisted of locals and other Saudis from across the Kingdom. They came to express solidarity with Sheikh Salman Al Awda — an activist of the Saudi “Sahwa” (Awakening) movement who had found, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a fertile ground in the Kingdom to disperse his ideas — after his arrest. Al Awda’s sermons enticed young people to join the Muslim Brotherhood and serve the movement’s political agenda. His followers amounted to a dark shadow that lingered over the Kingdom for years. The Qaseem protestors managed to breach the gate of the government facility. An hour later, the ranking prince and his deputy still refused to receive representatives of the protesting crowd. After two zealous speeches, riot police surrounded the demonstration and arrested several dozen.
Qaseem’s seminal Salafi scholar Ibn Athemein, reportedly unhappy with the situation, did not intervene to calm the demonstration.
The incident captured attention in Saudi Arabia at the time. But behind the headlines lays details known only to a few eye witnesses. Al Awda had been betting that Ibn Athemein would not neither endorse supporters of the Sahwa nor denounce “political Islam” as illegitimate. In a private meeting with his followers, Al Awda said, “Shave my beard, I ask of you, if Ibn Athemein does anything for you. He will disappoint you.”
Ibn Athemein was indeed aware of the events surrounding the arrest of Al Awda. The day of the arrest, a mob encircled Ibn Athemein in public and pressured him to stand with Al Awda. He replied, “You have crossed the line. You surrounded the main government building and breached its gate. You damaged the state’s prestige.” One of the crowd shouted, “You are dishonorable cleric.” Another said, “You are a coward.” Another member of the crowd was A.Z. — the young man who two years later would be arrested for attempted murder. He told Athemein, “Let us be your guests. Open your door and allow us into your home.” The cleric replied, “Not under these circumstances,” and barely managed to enter his home and lock the door.
Around the same time, in Al Diriya, west of Riyadh, the Imam of the Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab mosque was shot from a moving car as he left his mosque. He had been opposed to the Sahwa movement. Others who shared his views were meanwhile under psychological assault from the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” which at the time was leaking private information about clerics who disagreed with the tenets of the Sahwa.