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.


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By William Fisher

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal last May, called attention to “Omar, one of the new Iraqi ‘bloggers’."

For the cybernetically challenged, a blog is a kind of website originally known as a web log. It is a usually free, often interactive way for almost anyone to post his/her thoughts on the Internet and have others respond with their own thoughts and messages. Blogging has been around since 1997 and has grown exponentially ever since. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of web logs originating from virtually every country in the world, and being read and often contributed to by millions of other people from virtually every country in the world.
Wolfowitz quoted from an entry Omar posted to his blog after a suicide car bombing killed Iraqi Interim Governing Council President Izzedine Salim last May. Omar’s entry: “We cannot . . . protect every single person, including our leaders and the higher officials who make favorite targets for the terrorists -- but we can make their attempts go in vain by making our leadership replaceable.”

Omar happens to be gung-ho pro-Coalition. But his blog – entitled ‘Iraq The Model’ -- is only one of hundreds that have sprung up in Iraq since the US invasion -- and they are not all pro-Coalition. They are communist, monarchist, Kurdish, Assyrian, Islamist, Shia, Sunni, nationalist, and secularist. Their political positions range from full support for the US invasion and occupation to calls for jihad against the Americans. They discuss – in Arabic or often-broken English -- religion, women’s issues, job loss and unemployment, and – most often – their sense of insecurity about the safety of their families and the future of their country.

The beginning of the blogging craze in Iraq probably dates from September 2002, when a 29-year old Iraqi living in Baghdad and calling himself 'Salam Pax' started posting descriptions of daily life on the internet. Incisive and recklessly irreverent, Salam's weblog describes his passion for music and pop culture, and his fear of death by allied bombs and Saddam's secret police. In the build-up to the invasion, thousands of people visited Salam's website every day, attracted by his accounts of the slide into war and the end of a dictatorship.

Salam has also been a rich source of blog intelligence for his audience. For example, last March he wrote: “I recently stumbled across this very unusual blog (in Arabic) apparently run by an Iraqi called Fadhil. He regularly posts periodic official statements by the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party'.. .He…hails the daily explosions and bombings in Baghdad and throws the title of 'traitor' or 'agent' at every official currently employed in government positions including former Ba'athists, he praises the 'resistance' for assassinating them and he laments failed assassination attempts. …”

The ‘awe and shock’ arrival of the Coalition last March generated torrents of blog invective. For example, a blog called Riverbend, run by a 24-year-old woman computer programmer. wrote: “Occuption Day, April 9, 2003: Day faded into night… the longest day of my life. The day we sensed that the struggle in Baghdad was over and the fear of war was nothing compared to the new fear we were currently facing. It was the day I saw my first American tank roll grotesquely down the streets of Baghdad -- through a residential neighborhood. And that was April 9 for me and millions of others. There are thousands who weren't so lucky- they lost loved ones on April 9… to guns, and tanks and Apaches… and the current Governing Council want us to remember April 9 fondly and hail it our "National Day"… a day of victory… but whose victory?”

Salam Pax wrote of the invasion: “What annoyed me most in the whole build up to the war was the act the US administration put on, the way they seemed almost surprised at how much of a baddy Saddam has been…The various documents that were produced to show how much of a bully he has been…were treated as if they were so new and startling… What the US administration didn’t put in those records and documents was the extent of its own involvement in building up this monster and now that he has grown bigger than they thought he could they thought it was time to get rid of him…”

Another blog, “A family in Baghdad” writes of the perception of American culture: “I don't understand why anyone would want to have this so-called American freedom…(which) means …that you can move out at the age of 18 from your parents' home and you will never have to speak to them ever again if you don't want to…you can say and do whatever you want to anyone without many consequences…you have the right to have sex at the age of 12, get pregnant, have a baby; live with someone you are not married to...all legally…you can do drugs and get a slap on the wrist…you never have to work a day and have as many children as you want, because the government will pay for everything! …is this all the freedom Iraqis want? I pray to god it will never be! “

Later, many bloggers wrote about the Iraqi prisoner abuses. “Riverbend” summed it up. “People are seething with anger- the pictures of Abu Ghraib and the Brits in Basrah are everywhere. Every newspaper you pick up in Baghdad has pictures of some American or British atrocity or another…Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places… seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow.. There are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained 'under suspicion'. In the New Iraq, it's "guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God". . People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison “.

Most Iraqi bloggers seem to share a common hatred of extreme Islamists. Sarmad Zangna wrote on June 27: “Today (I was on) a web site for ‘Al-Zarqawi’ and I was shocked by the images I saw. Those are our real enemy and we will take them down….”

For some Iraqis, blogging is a family affair. Faiza, the mother of a blogger known as “raed in the middle”, wrote: “Nobody understands the trend of the terrorist organizations which appeared these days…No Arab or Muslim approves of them…They are merely criminal organizations…”

“Road Of A Nation”, like many other Iraqi blogs, expresses outrage about the death and destruction that accompanied the occupation. One entry: “People… told me the story of an Iraqi man who was killed two days ago while driving at Al-Saidiia... he was surprised by the convoy, and found himself suddenly, accidentally, among them, so they shot him. He died instantly. The traffic stopped, all the Iraqis were silent, and the convoy went triumphantly on its way…Then I would get letters from some Americans, asking me why I do not like America??? And my answer would be: this is the ugly face of America, which I do not like…”

The June 28 handover of sovereignty triggered an outpouring of blogging. One blog, called “Hammorabi”, echoed sentiments expressed on many other web logs. “The Iraqi interim government was just sworn now while writing this! Good luck and cut the sources of the terrorists. The good thing is Paul Bremer directed his letter ending the occupation to the Head of the Justice in Iraq and not to the PM. The law is above every one!” Another, “Road Of A Nation”, wrote: “Great moments, great time, here in Iraq. The transfer of power to Iraq sovereignty has been completed 2 days in advance. This was great news for the Iraqis. From this moment we started to celebrate, and people all over here conciliation each other…”

The benefits of Iraq’s newfound technology are trumpeted on many weblogs. On “Road of a Nation”, a link posted by Sarmad Zangna said: “I (knew) a lot of people with different opinions (but) they didn’t speak about what’s happening… some of them (were) thinking that things never will be good, others were afraid to speak, others were supporting ‘Saddam’, others with USA, and I was trying to run a conversation with all sides, trying to let them share together what they think about, how they can cooperate with each other…But I am so happy now after one year to see those people beginning to understand things better.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Iraq situation, it seems clear that blogging will continue to provide a powerful vehicle to allow Iraqis to express themselves. As one blogger put it, “You will be surprised of the number of bright and intelligent young people in Iraq who are willing to start their own blogs and express their ideas and opinions freely, especially that they have nothing to fear from doing so any more…”

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other areas for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration