A professor at King Abdulaziz University was giving a lesson last month on politics and activism, terrorism and tolerance. The recent killing of Egyptian secularist author Farag Foda by Islamic extremists came up.
“I said, ‘It’s one thing for Palestinians to kill Jews, or even for Palestinians to kill Arab collaborators, but Egyptians killing Egyptians? How can you justify the killing of Farag Foda?’ ” he recalled. “One student raised his hand and said, ‘He wrote an article criticizing Islam. He is an infidel.’ ”
Afterward, the student came to his office, and the young man’s voice was quiet but firm. He wanted to know why the professor wasn’t defending Islam, why the professor didn’t side with the men who had gunned down Foda: men, the young man said, who were montazemeen --determined in the path of religion.
“Before this happened, I was ready to be objective,” the professor said. “Now, that is finished. These people, they are so goddamned dangerous. To them, if you study in the U.S., you are secular. You let your wife uncover her face, you are secular. Really, in these times, we are wrong people in a wrong place.”
This is Jidda, the most cosmopolitan city in a country that is America’s staunchest ally in the Persian Gulf. But in the months since U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia, a period when the secretive desert kingdom has been largely shielded from the view of the world, a growing current of religious radicalism has swept the country, challenging Saudi Arabia’s moves for political and social connections with the West, demanding political reform and even raising unprecedented questions about the House of Saud’s right to govern in the land of Islam’s holiest cities.
While Saudi Arabia has always been a bastion of religious conservatism, governed by a historic coalition between the Saudi Royal Family and Islam’s conservative Wahhabi sect, it has been a marriage of convenience that has also permitted the kingdom to forge strong ties with the West and to implement modern industrial and economic networks.
Now, a new breed of radical young intellectuals is challenging the Saudi government’s true commitment to Islam. These powerful new Islamicists, with strong philosophical allegiance to Muslim leaders in Sudan and North Africa, are signing petitions to King Fahd and distributing volatile underground audiocassette tapes that demand greater public participation in government, the dismantling of Saudi Arabia’s Western-oriented banking system and an end to the kingdom’s peace overtures with Israel and its strong political interdependence with the United States and Europe.
One secret tape, popularly known as “the supergun” because of its unusually frank message, suggests that the House of Saud is a corrupt institution that may have forfeited its right to rule under the dictates of the Koran.
Saudi Arabia’s small but influential cadre of Western-educated liberals is mounting its own assault, raising similar demands for democratization in what they hope will be a means of countering the new wave of Islamic conservatism.
In recent weeks, for the first time in memory, young Saudi men have begun fighting back against the feared religious police, starting several brawls in shopping malls with the bearded men, who are often equipped with small whips and who harass shoppers for improper Islamic dress, illegal mingling of the sexes or failure to close shops during the five periods of prayer each day.
“A lot of people are beating them now. People are getting upset about this. They aren’t taking any more,” one Saudi intellectual said of the Muslim radicals, whose most extreme elements are represented in the religious police. “The government is to blame, because they never gave the rest of us (liberals) a pulpit to talk from to fight them. In Egypt, they’re dealing with them. They’re flushing them out like rats, they’re killing them. This is the way to deal with it.”
The rise of Islamic radicalism has set the stage for a showdown between the two forces in the kingdom, an unprecedented challenge to the Saudi Royal Family’s ability to unite and govern what was even in the days of old King Abdulaziz--long known in the West as Ibn Saud--a desert land of warring factions.
“In Saudi Arabia, there is more than one group that claims the right to reform the system. In the past, it used to be the liberals. But now, the ones who are taking the lead are the Islamicists. In the past, the religious leaders were always accused of being on the government’s side. It was always mosque and state together, against the liberals. But now, you find opposition from the mosque itself,” one Saudi writer who specializes in Islamic issues said.
“The things these new (underground) tapes contain are outrageous; no one is used to hearing these things,” he said. “We believe we have an obligation to obey the House of Saud, but there are conditions, and if those conditions are violated, there is no need to obey. This was a clear warning: ‘Don’t violate those conditions between us and you.’ It is the most dangerous thing ever said by a Saudi, this second tape.
“You see, nobody has ever talked about revolution in Saudi Arabia. Nobody was threatening the monarchy--until this second tape.”
The tape, whose author remains unknown despite rumors of a reward for his capture, accuses the Royal Family, ministers and army officers of corruption, alcoholism and free spending of the nation’s wealth, which, the voice contends, “ends up in some princes’ pockets, while it could be used for more sacred causes, such as the fight against Zionism and supporting the Palestinian people’s struggle.”
The tape exhorts the Saudi military “not to defend the corrupt Royal Family, but to serve Islam and the Muslims.” A similar cassette says that “God must destroy America the same way as with Russia, for America is an arrogant nation . . . a nation of beasts who fornicate and eat rotten food.”
The crusade is being taken very seriously because, in a much more moderate tone, it has been adopted by a broad segment of the country’s conservative intellectual and religious community as well. The leaders of that community, in a series of statements and petitions since the end of the Persian Gulf War, have called for measures such as a national consultative council to give the public more input into governmental decision-making.
In the latest and most controversial of these statements last spring, 107 religious officials delivered a 46-page statement that criticized Saudi Arabia’s invitation of foreign “atheist” troops to defend the kingdom; its spending of vast sums on national defense that nonetheless had left the nation unable to defend itself when threatened; its dealings with Western financial and cultural institutions, and its broadcast of American television programs that “glorify decadent Western lifestyles.”
The liberals, although less vocal, have echoed some of the same demands as their religious opponents: an effective consultative council to advise the king, an end to corruption, a freer press.
King Fahd responded earlier this year by promising to appoint a consultative council by Sept. 1. So far, only its Speaker, former Justice Minister Mohammed ibn Jubair, a relatively non-controversial conservative with close ties to the Royal Family, has been named. The close control to be maintained by the king established in the council’s rules of operations has made many Saudis skeptical about how independent it will be.
One joke making the rounds in Riyadh these days has a courtier running to the king to see what to do about a bejeweled naked woman riding a donkey in a public square. “Send the jewels to the treasury,” the king advises, “send the woman to one of the princes, and send the donkey to join the consultative council.”
“You don’t have here simply an absolute monarchy,” one Islamic intellectual said. “You have more than that. If you go back to Europe even before the Middle Ages, where the sovereign ruled the whole country and the people were just property, we are living like that here. You can’t imagine it unless you live here.”
Saudi Arabia’s vocal young Islamic leaders have been slapped by the senior religious Establishment, which officially criticized them in September for taking their case to the public. But the entire religious community is largely of a single mind when it comes to the need for reforms, diplomats and analysts say.
Just how far the government was prepared to go to appease the new Islamic fervor became dramatically clear on Sept. 3, when a 22-year-old man who had publicly questioned God and the prophet Mohammed at the age of 17 was beheaded in a public square in the eastern city of Qatif.
In its official report on the case, the government noted that the young man, Sadeq Abdelkarim Malallah, had repented when religious leaders met with him in prison, but emphasized that his statements against religion constituted “a crime that calls for death, even in the presence of repentance, as a way of avenging what is due to God’s prophet.”
The case marked the first time in memory that Saudi authorities had imposed death for slandering religion, and it has widely been viewed as the government’s attempt to answer demands from the religious community.
“This was not just a fluke,” added Aziz abu Hamad of the New York-based Middle East Watch, which investigated the affair. “This case went through the entire judicial system and was ratified. The government apparently felt it was time to seize the high ground from the fundamentalists.”
It was largely the shock of Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, and the subsequent influx of 500,000 foreign troops into the sheltered kingdom, that began politicizing the religious community, the diplomats and analysts say.
“I think people then started worrying about the future,” said Ahmed Tuwaijri, an Islamic intellectual and former dean at Riyadh’s King Saud University who resigned in a conflict with the university leadership.
“In the past, people took things for granted: We are a strong society, we are stable, we have strong laws. And then suddenly those things were called into question. We became a society that could be invaded, that could face various enemies from all directions, consequently a society that could be exposed to the world.
“Among the young religious leadership, the discovery of our needs was great: the need for a constitution, the need for institutionalization of our government, the need for protection of rights, all became very apparent. We looked at Kuwait, where the Royal Family was out of the country in a few hours (of the Iraqi invasion). We realized that, even for the sake of the Royal Family itself, we needed public representation to take those kinds of decisions. We needed to ensure that the mistakes would not be repeated.”
Saleh Wohaibi, a linguistics professor at King Saud University and one of the signers of the petition for reform, said the Islamic movement shares the concerns many Saudis have for the future of the country.
“We think the country is ailing, has been ailing for some time,” he said. “We are a wealthy country, but we are in debt, and probably my children will not have the advantages I have because so much money will go to paying our debts. To whom? For what? Why? All these questions are not answered.”
Saudis were humiliated when American and European troops had to be called in to defend the kingdom, he and others said.
In a meeting in Riyadh of Islamic intellectuals, many of whom signed the reform petitions, it was the younger ones--bearded young scholars and teachers wearing the characteristic short robes of Islamic fundamentalists--who were most vehement in their warnings to the regime, and to the West, about the Islamic tide that is sweeping the modern Middle East.
“It is not in the long-term interests of the West to side with the dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world,” one young professor said. “These regimes will be thrown out, and people will not forget this long support of their oppressors. . . . Nations, regardless of how long dictators last, will one day revolt and control their destiny, and America will face a similar fate as it did in Iran.”
“Nobody is interested in the overthrow of the system,” countered Tuwaijri. “And we all recognize the danger of this. To be very frank, Saudi Arabia could not afford a change of the system. We could end up in a huge mess. A lot of the demands for reform are meant to enhance and stabilize the system. I think the major danger we are facing is the collapse of the system by self-deformation--the inability to reform and cope with the changes, internally and externally.”
The Saudi regime is hoping to maintain the delicate balancing act it has established throughout the kingdom’s history: concessions to the religious conservatives, but not enough to overly upset the liberals; a gradual move toward an appointed consultative council, but not the kind of freewheeling electoral democracy that could plunge the country into tribal warfare.
This kind of approach is precisely what is being counseled by Saudi Arabia’s powerful merchant class, which believes that the long-term path to democracy and stability in Saudi Arabia is by way of economic and technological opening to the outside world.
“Someone asked me, what message would you have for President Clinton?” said one influential Jidda businessman with close ties to the ruling family. “I said, three things: Stop talking about democracy. Stop talking about human rights. But start talking about privatization. Once you create a free enterprise system, then you create the way for democracy.”