RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A radical Muslim cleric was taken from his prison cell during the weekend to recant his support for violent extremists and denounce suicide bombings on prime-time television.
Sheik Nasser al-Fahd, 35, told millions of Saudi viewers that “blowing oneself up in such operations is not martyrdom; it is suicide.”
He added, “We did not think matters would reach this point. My message is: Fear God, and repent your mistakes. It is not shameful to admit mistakes.”
The sheik’s public self-abasement comes after a series of attacks on compounds housing foreign workers in the capital, Riyadh, which have claimed 54 lives since May.
Sheik al-Fahd’s appearance was intended to drive home the official message that Saudi Arabia is clamping down on Islamic extremism. Western diplomats agree that real steps have been taken.
Sheik al-Fahd was among three radical clerics who were arrested in May after they issued a string of inflammatory “fatwas,” or edicts.
They declared the killing of Saudi security forces permissible and ordered Muslims not to inform on 19 al Qaeda suspects named by the authorities. The wanted men were “virtuous and devout,” the clerics said.
When Sheik al-Fahd appeared on television late Saturday, he described this as a “grave mistake.” Referring to the suicide attack on Nov. 9 that killed 18 persons, mainly Egyptians and Lebanese, he asked: “How can they kill Muslims, innocent people and destroy property in the name of Islam?”
Sheik al-Fahd spoke calmly, betraying no sign of tension or reluctance throughout his appearance. He insisted that his statement was voluntary.
Another of the three clerics, Sheik Ali al-Khudair, recanted on television last week. The third, Ahmed al-Khaledi, is expected to follow suit.
Since suicide bombers attacked two expatriate compounds in May, security forces have arrested 600 terrorist suspects and killed 18. The diplomatic quarter that houses Western embassies has been sealed off from the rest of the capital.
The ministry of Islamic affairs, seeking to curb inflammatory sermons in mosques, has withdrawn more than 1,300 preachers for “re-education.” Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has promised victory over the “powers of evil.”
Yet Saudi officials are deeply suspicious of the U.S. war on terrorism. One said the real aim of the United States was controlling Middle Eastern oil supplies.
Officials also say American policies, notably support for Israel and the occupation of Iraq, are undermining their campaign against the extremists.