Saudi Arabia is playing rough with senior officials who favor Islamic terrorism. This month, the kingdom's senior judge, along with the head of the religious police, were fired and replaced with men who are less cozy with Islamic conservatives. The judge, Sheikh Salih Ibn al Luhaydan, went over the line last year when he declared that it was permissible to murder the owners of satellite TV channels that broadcast material Islamic conservatives considered sinful.
The head of the religious police (officially, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, refused suggestions from the king that he clean up his force. There were too many instances of the religious police using violence, either on the street or in their police stations, against those accused of "un-Islamic behavior." The religious police have been particularly aggressive in going after users of drugs (heroin and opium from Afghanistan) and alcohol (either smuggled in, or produced locally in makeshift stills). The religious police had taken to raiding the homes of suspected users or dealers, and many of the suspects have turned out to be innocent. The population, including many Islamic conservatives, are terrified of the religious police, and their arbitrary use of violence.
These two dismissals are just a continuation of a policy that has been in play for over a year. Last year, the Interior Minister ordered the most pro-terrorist clerics to shape up or shut up. The Interior Minister also assembled all the senior clerics, and told them that they were not doing enough to fight Islamic terrorism. This terrorism not popular in Saudi Arabia, not since al Qaeda attacks have killed 264 Saudis in the last four years.
While the Saudi leadership does not like to dwell on it too much, their country is the place where most al Qaeda recruits come from. The conservative form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism) forms the basis of al Qaeda ideology (that non-Moslems are scum and the everyone must be persuaded or forced to become Moslem). Although the Saudi government expelled most known al Qaeda members in the 1990s (and drove many other underground), there are still many Islamic conservatives that support Islamic terrorists directly, or indirectly via contributions to Islamic charities.
What has been most embarrassing has been the Saudis who continued to be identified as suicide bombers in Iraq or elsewhere. The U.S. strives to identify the dead bombers in Iraq, and the Saudis help, if only to get the remains returned to their families for proper burial. But then word got out that the sons of some prominent clerics had gotten themselves killed as suicide bombers. The Saudi Interior Minister was quite scathing about this when he chewed out the senior clergy.
While the Saudi royal family presides over a kingdom of very conservative Moslems, the royals believe that Islam has to change, to reform, if it is to survive. The Saudi royals have their own share of bad apples (corrupt, decadent or religious fanatics), but the majority see the problems that Islam faces (corruption, bad government, feeble economic and scientific progress), and have backed efforts to change things. This includes seemingly radical efforts, like the Arab Reform Movement, to more mundane ones, like more education, and personal freedoms, for women.
From the founding of the kingdom 80 years ago, the Sauds have been pushing the Wahhabis to loosen up. There's been a lot of progress, but not enough to prevent the creation of al Qaeda (which got going with a lot of help from Egyptian Islamic radicals). While the royal family pushes for change, many Saudis are content to blame the West for all their problems, and openly, or secretly, cheer on the Islamic terrorists. But the removal of the judge and religious police commander sends a signal to the Islamic radicals, and their supporters, that the times, and attitudes, are changing.