The New York Times, May 25, 2003
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 24 ó When he was a teenager issuing his own fatwas, Mansour al-Nogaidan ordered his followers to blow up a video store in downtown Riyadh because it was spreading Western corruption. Now, years later, a completely changed man has dropped a philosophical bombshell in the fervent national discussion swirling around the suicide attacks this month against residential compounds here.
“The main problem is that these radical groups draw their justification from Wahhabi thoughts,” Mr. Nogaidan, now 33 and a newspaper columnist, said in an interview this week, referring to the teachings of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, which have been prevalent for over 200 years.
“They think the only religiously sanctioned way to spread Islam is through jihad,” he said, using the term in the sense of “holy war.” “It’s a huge problem. It’s an octopus with its arms everywhere, building these thoughts in everyone’s mind.”
Public debate has undergone a transformation since the bombings on May 12 that killed 25 people, including seven Saudis, at three residential compounds in the Saudi capital. It used to be taboo to even mention the word Wahhabi in print, and if you said it in conversation almost any Saudi would deny it existed as a separate school of thought.
That still happens, of course. But the terrorist attacks in the heart of Riyadh have, at least for the moment, transformed the discussion about the religious roots of Islamic militancy and how it spreads through mosques, schools, state television and other official institutions.
The religious establishment has been thrown on the defensive by repeated accusations that denigrating anything they don’t like as “infidel” has helped breed a generation of Saudis whose radical fringe thinks it acceptable to kill Westerners and even Muslims who get in the way.
Still, support for the bombings flows through the Web sites favored by those on the religious fringe and even among Islamic militants, some of whom refuse to condemn the attacks outright. The conservative establishment has also been trying to fight back by contending that the liberals are trying to exploit the bombings to undermine the faith, the very pillar upon which the country was built.
The ruling Saud dynasty basically established its kingdom early in the last century through the zealotry of Wahhabi warriors. So it is unclear how far they will go in allowing the Wahhabi teachings to be attacked, much less changed.
In its essence, Wahhabism sought to simplify Islam to its purest form, rejecting the once prevalent worship of things like rocks and saints’ tombs. It also supported a permanent jihad to spread the faith to other lands, and much of the current debate centers on whether violence should be part of that effort.
“Wahhabism is an extremist dialogue,” said Abdel Aziz Qasim, a young former judge and Islamic scholar. “The challenge is whether the government is willing to disregard the Wahhabi teachings or not.”
Signs are mixed. Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the longtime interior minister and one of the surviving sons of the founding monarch, denies that Saudi Arabia faces a particular problem.
The prince said at a news conference that the kingdom faced a terrorism problem just like any other country. “Why so much concentration on Saudis?” he said.
But the younger Saudi generation, even if they didn’t accept all the criticism, said they believe that the kingdom had reached a turning point.
“This is no joke; we are not just fighting crime,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said during a six-hour dinner for visiting correspondents held in a 10-lantern Bedouin tent on the grounds of his residence. “This is a defining moment in Saudi political life.”
There were timid attempts to discuss local sources of violence after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi natives, but they were drowned out by a wave of denial.
The official line has long been that any deviants with false notions about jihad learned them outside Saudi Arabia. Some of that continues, but the explosions in downtown Riyadh brought home the fact that Al Qaeda, the prime suspect behind the bombings, probably wants to change the Saudi leadership.
The renewed debate does not label religion the sole source of the problem. Young Saudis are frustrated by falling living standards and their inability to find jobs. “If you have 15 percent unemployment, this is a recipe for people to be deviant,” said Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent investor.
Beyond that, many Saudi intellectuals contend that the country needs political liberalization, a means for people to express dissent. Broadly they seek an elected assembly, a constitution and more rights for women.
The religious establishment paints these demands largely as an assault on its role by Westernized liberals.
“They are trying to use this event to attack the entire religious establishment, which is completely unacceptable,” said Mohsen Awaji, a lawyer active in conservative Islamic causes, referring to the bombings.
“Without Islam this regime could not exist for more than a few minutes,” he said. “Wahhabism is not a corrupted sect in need of reform.”
In a closed society like Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to gauge how much support various views garner. Saudi analysts maintain that at least 20 percent of the population believe that non-Muslims should be driven out of the Arabian peninsula, the heartland of Islam. Those resorting to violence are believed to be a tiny fraction of that.
Prince Bandar puts their number at 50, probably veterans of Afghanistan’s wars, who have recruited several hundred others. Everyone sees the Arab-Israeli conflict, and lately the American-led invasion of Iraq, as a recruiting tool.
Sympathizers appear reticent to voice their views, seemingly because of the death of Saudis and other Muslims horrified many people here. They dance around the topic.
“We are obliged to force the infidels out of the Arabian peninsula,” said Sheik Abdullah Sadoun, a 35-year-old religious activist.
How should they be driven out?
Were the attacks on the compounds jihad?
“Those who committed the blasts meant to force the foreigners out.”
Asked directly if the bombings constituted jihad, Sheik Abdullah demurred, saying more needed to be known about the attackers.
In general, the religious establishment believes that only a small, fanatical faction needs to be tackled. The problem is how to do it.
“What is the news among the infidels?” Mr. Qasim asks of a Western reporter, joking about the Saudi propensity to see all non-Muslims as the “other.”
Mr. Qasim thinks the way to counter those who advocate violence is to counter their religious arguments. He is in the midst of a major research project to publish the most tolerant sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers. He believes Saudis are ready for this.
“You can feel an unease in the community that wasn’t there after attacks like the one on the Cole,” he said, referring to the attack on the American destroyer in Yemen in 2000 in which 17 United States servicemen were killed and 39 others were injured. “These men are seen as criminals, not Islamic fighters.”
But given that extremists believe they have had religious justification for their actions for centuries, they say a more open political system remains the only solution.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s de facto ruler, said in a rare, nationally televised speech after the bombings that violence in the name of Islam would not be tolerated. But besides making promises of reform, the government has yet to say how it would be dealt with.
Younger princes admit that they see the need for action, and fast.
“I don’t believe the problem is deeply rooted in Saudi Arabia, but we have to hit with an iron fist,” said Prince Alwaleed, citing Egypt’s suppression of hard-liners as a model.
The religious establishment must maintain its role, he believes, because the violence is “more associated with bin Ladenism rather than Wahhabism.”
“People at the lower echelon are hijacking Islam and saying you cannot do this, you cannot do that, we have to kill Jews, we have to kill Christians,” the prince said in an interview.
“I am telling you they are a minority, but they are a vocal minority. They are a very harsh and violent minority. These people have to be stopped and put to bed completely.”
But there is no apparent consensus among Saudi princes about how to confront the extremism.
“That kind of thinking ought to be attacked, ought to be eradicated, but you won’t do it by throwing everyone in jail,” said another prominent younger prince. “It would be naÔve to think you can eradicate them completely, what you want to do is marginalize their influence.”
Mr. Nogaidan believes what happened to him could prove instructive.
He said that extremist discussions and fanatical readings in his public high school’s Islam Club led him to drop out of school, open his own mosque and issue fatwas labeling virtually anything Western as “infidel,” including the video store that his followers blew up.
That led to various stints in jail, where he began reading outside the Wahhabi canon. Eventually he was convinced that the concept of permanent jihad was incompatible with modern life.
“Before, I wanted to make Wahhabi ideology active, and the sheiks were not doing it,” Mr. Nogaidan said. “I thought change was the priority, and even if you use violence, it’s legal, because you are trying to build a city of God.”