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Saudi citizens react to terrorism

by Sulaiman Al-Hattlan Saturday, May. 24, 2003 at 1:31 AM

Saudi's get the message loud and clear!

On Monday night, Riyadh didn't sleep. Phone lines were jammed and streets were crowded. The news was devastating: three suicide bombings at housing complexes for Westerners here in the Saudi capital had killed more than 20 people and wounded nearly 200, some of them Saudi. Only days earlier Saudi officials had described Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as "weak and nonexistent." But on Monday night, Saudis were asking, "Is Osama behind these attacks?"

Even if it turns out that Al Qaeda wasn't directly responsible for the bombings, its influence is to blame for an atmosphere that has allowed such horrible deeds. Though few would publicly admit it, Saudis have become hostages of the backward agenda of a small minority of bin Laden supporters who in effect have hijacked our society. Progressive voices have been silenced. The religious and social oppression of women means half the population is forced to stay behind locked doors. Members of the religious police harass us in public spaces, and sometimes even in our homes about our clothing and haircuts. A civil cold war is raging, one we have long pretended doesn't exist.

Some here still won't acknowledge that their fellow Saudis were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, pinning blame instead on the C.I.A. or Zionists. But what happened in Riyadh on Monday evening must wake us up to the reality that fanatics and terrorists live among us. Suicide bombers are attacking Muslims, too. And fanatical religious leaders have issued religious decrees, or fatwas, calling for the deaths of Saudi liberal intellectuals.

It is time to stop blaming the outside world for the deadly fanaticism in Saudi Arabia, which some Saudis have done in saying that the Sept. 11 attackers had been brainwashed elsewhere. As Mansour Al-Nogidan, a former religious fanatic who has become fundamentalism's strongest Saudi intellectual critic, wrote in a Saudi newspaper last Sunday, Saudi Arabia suffers from a homemade brand of fanaticism propagated by members of the conservative Wahhabi school of Islam. Hamza Al-Muzini, a prominent Saudi linguistics professor, recently wrote in another Saudi daily that his young son is being taught the culture of death at school, and that many teachers influence young Saudis with their extremist political agenda, a situation tolerated by the Ministry of Education. After this article, Dr. Muzini received death threats from Saudi fundamentalists.

Because of the dominance of Wahhabism, Saudi society has been exposed to only one school of thought, one that teaches hatred of Jews, Christians and certain Muslims, like Shiites and liberal and moderate Sunnis. But we Saudis must acknowledge that our real enemy is religious fanaticism. We have to stop talking about the need for reform and actually start it, particularly in education. Otherwise, what happened here on Monday night could be the beginning of a war that leads to the Talibanization of our society.

On the streets of Riyadh yesterday, I saw thousands of angry Saudis. I am angry too. What our extremists exported is coming back to hit us, dreadfully, at home. This Saudi anger could be a sign that our society soon might be able to start looking at itself.

Sulaiman Al-Hattlan, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al Watan, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.

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