Wednesday, June 30, 2004


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By William Fisher

Saudi Arabia has finally been compelled to hear the terrorists’ wake-up call. But the task it faces is far more daunting than that of the United States or any other Western country. The reason is that, for the Kingdom, defeating terrorism means reversing powerful and deeply ingrained jihadist ideas that Saudis learn from childhood onward. Moreover, these ideas find their way into school textbooks, into the largely government-controlled press, and into the everyday conversations of ‘the Arab Street’.

Long before the recent beheadings, the Kingdom had begun to take some baby steps toward curbing extreme Islamic fundamentalism. For example, it identified some 3,000 clerics it judged to be ‘extreme’, called for ‘moderation in all things’, removed or arrested some clerics, and sent others for ‘re-education’. Currently the Kingdom claims to be reorganizing its educational system. Yet it has only just begun. For example, it has not shut down the many Islamist websites that provide the Muslim clergy with the language of jihad that can be heard at Friday prayers throughout the Kingdom – and throughout the Arab Middle East.

One such website, known as Al Minbar (the pulpit) is visited weekly by thousands of Muslim clerics from all over the Middle East, to whom it provides ‘off-the-shelf’ sermons. These are a few examples of its texts.

“O young Muslim men! …Embark upon training… small numbers can overcome large numbers regardless of their force and power…Jihad is the language of power even if it means small stones and rocks…Use military arms which utilize state-of-the-art technology.”

Christianity is a “false faith…that deviates from the path of righteousness… (a) distorted and deformed religion….[Only] Islam is worthy of delivering the human race from its misery and despair. Only Islam is capable of bringing happiness to the human race.”

“How long are we going to be made forcibly subservient? When are we going to rise up against the evil of the enemy? …Who can believe that a small number of these ‘brothers of monkeys and pigs’ (Jews) are making the entire Muslim nation suffer?”

The Arab-Israeli peace process, one sermon concludes, “is nothing but a change to the Zionist plan to control the world and especially the Islamic regions.” It cautions against any dialog with the Israelis: “Negotiations are the introduction to submission…The last hour will not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews…”

These are only snippets of what is being said week after week by the fundamentalist clergy; the full texts make Pat Robertson sound like Teddy Kennedy. While there are more moderate voices to be heard in some Saudi mosques, those cited above still represent the norm.

Against this background, it undoubtedly took considerable courage for Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, to put forward his two-state Israel-Palestinian peace plan last year. And, last week, for the Saudi Government to ‘declare war’ on terrorism.

These and other modest reforms may be baby steps, but optimists see them as part of a process former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Edward S. Walker, calls “The Quiet Revolution”. Writing in the Middle East Times, Walker -- now head of the Middle East Institute, and a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration -- said: “There is a quiet revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. No one knows its depth, its breadth, or its ultimate impact, but the reform effort is very real and probably unstoppable.”

The House of Saud, divided by disagreements among family members, now finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope. Will it find the political will to go full-bore after the terrorists and thus risk alienating a powerful fundamentalist clergy and its millions of followers? Given the gruesome events of the past month, the world can only hope that Ambassador Walker is right about the Kingdom’s ‘quiet revolution’. But time is certainly not on the side of the Saudis.