PARIS (Reuters) - The head of a Saudi-based organisation that for decades was charged with spreading the strict Wahhabi school of Islam around the world has said those times were over and his focus now was aimed at annihilating extremist ideology.
Former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, appointed secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL) just over a year ago, told Reuters during a European tour that his organisation would no longer sit by and let Islam be taken hostage by extremists.
The push for a more moderate Islam underscores efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise the kingdom, which finances groups overseen by the organisation, and cleave to a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam.
The ambitious young prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive next year.
“The past and what was said, is in the past. What happened in the past and the way in which we worked then, is not the subject of debate,” Issa said in an interview late on Thursday.
“We must wipe out this extremist thinking through the work we do. We need to annihilate religious severity and extremism which is the entry point to terrorism. That is the mission of the Muslim World League.”
Saudi Arabia has used the MWL to export its strict Wahhabi version of Islam since it was set up in 1962 as a bulwark against radical secular ideologies.
The missionary society controls mosques and Islamic centres around the world, which critics say promote hatred and intolerance of other sects and religions - a charge the group has denied.
Issa said the MWL would be much more hands on now and aim to tackle any sign of extremism in areas where it operates, but also if it became aware of any other schools, centres or mosques where an extremist ideology was being propagated.
While he declined to give specific details, a week earlier he was in Geneva where he vowed to reform the city’s largest mosque after French and Swiss authorities raised concerns that it had become a hub of extremism. The mosque is supported by the MWL.
“Every time we spot such a message, we won’t keep our arms crossed, we will do everything to annihilate this ideology,” the 52-year-old said through a translator.
“What we are doing and want to do is purify Islam of this extremism and these wrong interpretations and give the right interpretations of Islam,” he said. “Only the truth can defeat that and we represent the truth.”
The emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq with its thousands of foreign fighters has highlighted how Europe in particular has become a breeding ground for angry and fragile people to turn to radical Islam.
In France alone, a string of attacks that saw hundreds of people killed since 2015 were in large part carried out by French Muslims.
Issa said part of his work was to address the difficulties Muslims may have in adapting their religion to non-Muslim nations.
“We try to bring answers to face down these messages that change the reality of Islam. We want to offer the real interpretation of the sacred texts that have been taken hostage and interpreted in a wrong way,” he said.
As part of those efforts, Issa said he was also working with other faiths. After the Lebanese Maronite patriarch made a historic visit to Riyadh last week, Issa visited religious officials at Paris’ landmark Notre Dame Cathedral, but also Paris’ Grand Synagogue.
“We have a common objective to end hatred,” he said. “The Muslim World League really believes that we can accomplish that, and religions are very influential in doing that.”
Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by William Maclean