RIYADH: Britain has banned a conservative Sunni preacher from Saudi Arabia with over 9 million Twitter followers from entering the country, as it tries to deter young Muslims from going to join Islamist militants in Syria.
Mohammad al-Arifi, who has called for jihad against Syrian President Bashar Assad, has visited Britain several times. British newspapers said this week he had preached in a Cardiff mosque attended by three young Muslims who have travelled to Syria to fight.
“We can confirm Mohammad al-Arifi has been excluded from the United Kingdom,” said a Home Office spokesperson in a statement.
“The government makes no apologies for refusing people access to the U.K. if we believe they represent a threat to our society. Coming here is a privilege that we refuse to extend to those who seek to subvert our shared values,” the statement said, without elaborating.
While Arifi has frequently spoken and tweeted about the necessity of helping Syrians in their fight against Assad, he has been careful not to call explicitly for Muslims from Saudi Arabia or other countries to go there to fight.
After the ban was announced, Arifi tweeted a link to a statement posted in English on his website, saying he rejected “right-wing media allegations that he may have contributed to the radicalization of three British-born Muslims.”
He added that he was “vehemently opposed to the brutal methods” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has staged attacks in Syria and this month seized towns and cities in Iraq.
Although Saudi Arabia backs rebels fighting Assad – an ally of its main rival, Shiite Iran – it also fears that citizens who take part in the war may become radicalized and later launch attacks inside the kingdom.
In February King Abdullah decreed long prison sentences for anybody who travelled overseas to fight or encouraged others to do so, and ordered jail terms for people who joined or glorified extremist groups.
Arifi has long been a controversial figure in Saudi Arabia, where he has used his media and social media platforms to attack liberals, women’s rights, Shiites and homosexuality.