A Few Saudis Defy a Rigid Islam to Debate Their Own Intolerance


July 12, 2002


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, a native son, was somehow

involved, he was led astray by his rabid Egyptian


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, they took their ideas not inside Saudi

Arabia, but outside Saudi Arabia." 

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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