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Winds of Change in Saudia Arabia?
by Saima Alvi
12 July 2002 17:57 UTC
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A Few Saudis Defy a Rigid Islam to Debate Their Own
The New York Times Fri Jul 12, 9:15 AM ET 


JIDDA, Saudi Arabia Prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks
on the United States, a cautious debate is taking
place in Saudi Arabia's closed society over
intolerance toward non-Muslims and attitudes toward
the West that are now viewed by some as inspiring
unacceptable violence.
The debate appears to represent a significant shift in
a society whose Wahhabi branch of Islam tends to make
such questioning taboo.

Mention that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in
attacking America were Saudis to almost any room full
of people here, and denials still pour forth. There is
no concrete evidence, people will argue, adding that
even if Osama bin Laden ( news - web sites), a native
son, was somehow involved, he was led astray by his
rabid Egyptian coterie.

But cracks are beginning to appear in this facade of
disavowal. A small group of intellectuals, academics,
journalists and religious scholars are quietly
suggesting that change is needed.

"We have to confront a lot of things that we thought
were normal," said Khaled M. Batarfi, the managing
editor of Al Madina, a daily newspaper pushing the
limits of what can be published. "We have to examine
the opinions that resulted in these bad actions and
see if they are wrong, or people just took them out of

"Before Sept. 11, it was just an opinion, `I think we
should hate the others,' " he said. "After Sept. 11,
we found out ourselves that some of those thoughts
brought actions that hurt us, that put all Muslims on

Such positions remain controversial. After scores of
Saudi religious scholars and academics issued a
manifesto this spring suggesting that Muslims might
find common ground with the West, they were subjected
to withering rebuke by those who accept the Wahhabi
notion that Islam thrives on hostility toward

"You give the false impression that many people
condemned the war against America," read one such
denunciation on a popular Web site, "But the truth is
that many people are happy declaring this war, which
gave Muslims a sense of relief."

In another, Sheik Hamad Rais al-Rais, an elderly blind
scholar, suggested the manifesto writers showed too
much sympathy for the victims of Sept. 11 and debased
Islam by neglecting to mention that jihad, or holy
war, remains a central tenet.

"You cry for what happened to the Americans in their
markets and offices and ministries and the disasters
they experienced," he wrote, "and you forget the
oppression and injustice and aggression of those
Americans against the whole Islamic world."

A number of factors have spurred such debate. Since
Sept. 11, the monarchy has eased some suppression of
free speech. In addition, a deadly fire at a girl's
school in Mecca exposed some of the domestic costs of
extremist opinion when trapped students reportedly
died because enforcement of modest dress codes kept
male rescuers away. In June, the government announced
the arrest of a Qaeda cell after months of royal
denial that there were any local supporters.

But open discussion of the effects of Wahhabism faces
daunting hurdles, not least that hard-line clergy and
other scholars with significant influence instantly

The austere teachings of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab,
who rejected the worship of saints or idols, have been
prevalent in Saudi Arabia for more than two centuries.
The ruling Saud dynasty owes its very control over the
peninsula's once fractious tribes to the fact that
their ancestors championed his teachings.

Saudis abhor the term Wahhabism, feeling it sets them
apart and contradicts the notion that Islam is a
monolithic faith. But Wahhabi-inspired xenophobia
dominates religious discussion in a way not found
elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Bookshops in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, for
example, sell a 1,265-page souvenir tome that is a
kind of "greatest hits" of fatwas on modern life. It
is strewn with rulings on shunning non-Muslims: don't
smile at them, don't wish them well on their holidays,
don't address them as "friend." 

A fatwa from Sheik Muhammad bin Othaimeen, whose
funeral last year attracted hundreds of thousands of
mourners, tackles whether good Muslims can live in
infidel lands. The faithful who must live abroad
should "harbor enmity and hatred for the infidels and
refrain from taking them as friends," it reads in

Saudis in general, and senior princes in particular,
reject the notion that this kind of teaching helps
spawns terrorists. 

"Well, of course I hate you because you are Christian,
but that doesn't mean I want to kill you," a professor
of Islamic law in Riyadh explains to a visiting

Prince Sattam bin Abel Aziz, at 61 one of the youngest
brothers of King Fahd and the longtime deputy governor
of Riyadh, holds audiences in a soaring office half
the size of a football field. The walls are of white
stone and the carpeting a sort of modern Bedouin bands
of triangles and other geometric shapes executed in
pink and blue.

When asked about such fatwas, the courtly prince
responds, "You cannot say those people represent
Islam," and mentions that he attended a Roman Catholic
university in San Diego. 

"I am not saying Saudi Arabia has no extremists, but
not as many as people think or the press shows to
people," he said, eventually bringing the conversation
back to Sept. 11. "They say the 15 people who have
done this are from Saudi Arabia. But those people were
in Afghanistan ( news - web sites), they took their
ideas not inside Saudi Arabia, but outside Saudi

That is undoubtedly the prevailing view here, despite
the widespread perception outside Saudi Arabia that
Osama bin Laden tries to justify the violently
anti-Western views of his Qaeda organization partly by
using Wahhabi teachings.

Some Saudi businessmen, intellectuals and religious
figures, however, believe that the clerical
establishment does foster intolerance.

A Jidda business executive says of the Saudi clergy:
"If you are against them, you are against Islam. If
you criticize them, you criticize Islam." Hence no one
dares argue directly against the teachings of bin Abd
al Wahhab. "He is a larger-than-life figure in Saudi
Arabia, like George Washington," said Mushairy
al-Zaidy, who writes about religious issues for Al
Madina newspaper. "Some scholars in the kingdom try to
write that he lived through unique circumstances and
since times have changed, practices could be changed
in some ways."

The royal family has started to encourage limited
discussion. Men jailed during the 1990's for attacking
the government on everything from corruption to
inviting in American troops have been given license to
speak, for example. 

Mohsen al-Awaji spent four years in jail and lost his
job as a professor of soil sciences in Riyadh. Freed
in 1998, his passport was only returned after Sept.
11: This gave him the ability to appear on Al Jazeera
satellite broadcasts recorded outside the country.

He broached the topic, radical for Saudi Arabia, that
the way other schools of Islam look at issues be more
widely discussed. "Wahhabism looks at every situation
as black and white, there is no `in between,' no gray
area," said Mr. Awaji, who now works as a lawyer. "We
have to be more open and more tolerant inside our
sects. If we solve that within our sect, then we can
be more tolerant than others." 

Mr. Awaji was among some 160 scholars and
intellectuals who signed a manifesto this spring
suggesting more dialogue with the West. But the outcry
was such that a few of the signatories withdrew and
others issued a clarification suggesting that they
were not ignoring crucial concepts like jihad. 

The outcry from the more unbending clergy was believed
to be particularly fierce because they were already
feeling under assault in the fields they dominate,
especially education.

The first two private universities have been
authorized, and starting next year English will begin
in Grade 4. Religious conservatives complained that
the emphasis on Arabic needed to read holy texts is
being diluted.

But the most controversial change followed the fire at
a Mecca girls' school, which was housed, like many, in
a converted apartment building of dubious
construction. Press reports said 15 girls had died
after men from the country's religious vice squads
blocked male rescuers from entering and girls from
fleeing because they lacked their enveloping cloaks.

The government denied the reports. But during the
ensuing outcry it shifted responsibility for women's
education from a special presidency supervised by the
clergy to the Ministry of Education, which calls it
merely an administrative shift. 

The kingdom's newspapers, however, announced the
change with eight-column banner headlines, "as if
Jerusalem itself had been liberated," as one editor
put it.


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