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    Middle East
     Jan 21, 2005
SPEAKING FREELY
Saudis caught in a vicious cycle
By Amir Butler

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

With Australia conspicuously committed to both the "war on terror" and the occupation of Iraq, the threat of terrorism is always in the background. It has, thankfully, always remained just that: a threat. However, on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, I entered a society where terrorism has gone beyond merely a threat to become a reality with which every citizen and resident must, in some way, contend.

On the evening of December 29, 2004, terrorists attacked the Interior Ministry in Riyadh with car bombs. I had been eating dinner at the time, with some Saudi friends; one of whom was the imam of a mosque adjacent to the ministry building. Witnessing the flood of phone calls he received from family and friends, anxious to confirm he had not been harmed in the blast, it became apparent that, regardless of what might be commonly believed in the West, Saudi society is and continues to be a victim of terrorism.

The effects of the nation's struggle with domestic terrorism are visible everywhere. At times, Riyadh looks like a city under siege. There are regular checkpoints established along the city's freeways; tanks and armed vehicles sit outside government offices and "at risk" buildings; and even a trip to a popular city shopping center requires one's car to be searched extensively for bombs.

To untrained Western eyes, there may appear little visible difference between the fundamentalism of the Saudi population and the extremism of the terrorists. After all, both dress the same, practice similarly austere interpretations of Islam, and are concerned about similar issues, such as social justice and American intervention in the Muslim world.

However, it takes only a brief visit to a Saudi city and some conversations with a small sample of the Saudi population to see that such simplistic reasoning is far removed from reality. Without exception, the Saudi people - regardless of their religiousness - are repulsed by the horror that has visited their cities and consider it anathema to the faith on which they were raised and by which they live.

Despite that, Saudi-bashing has emerged as a popular post-September 11 sport. The electronic and print media are littered with self-styled "Middle Eastern analysts" pontificating on the cause of Saudi Arabia's problem with terrorism and its alleged role as the financial and intellectual epicenter of Islamic extremism. Although the arguments may differ in their detail, the blame is almost always leveled against the country's religious establishment, its system of Islamic education, and the role of Islam in Saudi culture.

Such analysis is fundamentally insincere. It begins with the intended culprit of fundamentalist Islam or "Wahhabism" firmly in mind, and then seeks to cobble together arguments to indict it - regardless of how detached from reality those arguments might be.

For instance, they argue that the Saudi education system is, in part, to blame for both the domestic terrorism and September 11; the entire system must be radically reworked in order to reduce the threat of future terrorism. Although millions of Saudis passed through this same system and studied these same texts without succumbing to terrorism or extreme anti-Western sentiment, reformists argue that the religious content of these textbooks must be radically diluted.

However, when contemporary textbooks are considerably less conservative in their outlook than the textbooks of 30 or 40 years ago, and the problem of anti-Western terrorism is a relatively recent phenomena, it is difficult to see the casual connection between the two.

Likewise, the kingdom's Islamic scholars have been cast as the handmaidens of terror; portrayed as a coterie of rabidly anti-Western zealots whose stranglehold on the country is responsible for every social and political ill. Such criticism is disingenuous as it ignores the fact that these same scholars were issuing edicts directed against al-Qaeda and terrorism in general, years before September 11. Such critics should remember that the people most capable of confronting religious extremism are these same scholars who argue using terms of reference that the extremists themselves accept.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the extremists and Saudi Arabia's domestic and international hecklers. Each gain made by the secularists in promoting their "reforms" in Saudi society feeds popular dissatisfaction and recruits more to extremism and terrorism; each terrorist attack is then cited by the secularists as a justification for further "reforms"; with further change begetting further terrorism.

Domestic terrorism will not end until this vicious cycle is broken. It requires Saudi Arabia to continue its dialogue with its extremist minority, defusing their arguments and aggressively pursuing those who graduate to terrorism; but it also requires the West to realize that trying to force its own vision of change on Saudi Arabia isn't the solution, but is part of the problem.

Amir Butler is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

(Copyright Amir Butler)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


Al-Qaeda's unfinished work
(Jan 20, '05)

House of Saud shows its colors
(Dec 18, '04)

Saudis face up to security failure
(Dec 9, '04)
 

 
 

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