When his teenage male pupils asked about love, Mohammed al-Suhaimi would describe it as a great and noble feeling. When they asked whether Islam permits music, he would tell them the matter is disputed, but that music is a gift from God.
Today the 37-year-old Saudi schoolteacher faces three years in jail and 300 lashes. His crime: deviating from the interpretation of Islam laid down by the extremist wing in the kingdom’s religious establishment.
Al-Suhaimi’s predicament illustrates the difficulties facing Saudi Arabia’s reformers as they try to liberalize a society whose legal and social codes are dictated by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab, an 18th century cleric.
Wahhabism is the doctrine that the royal family embraced long ago as a trade-off for wielding absolute power. It is the thinking which some U.S. and Western officials, as well as ordinary Saudis, believe shaped the minds of Osama bin Laden and the 15 Saudis who were among the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks.
To gauge how conservative Saudi society is, look at the Internet chatter swirling around Education Minister Mohammed al-Rasheed. He’s “secular,” it is claimed. He “took women to Beirut,” a city religious hard-liners see as a cesspit of Western liberal ways.
True, he’s not a hard-liner. But he’s certainly no nonbeliever. And the women were college professors who happened to be at a conference he attended in Beirut.
Al-Rasheed’s real crime, according to Saudis and foreign diplomats, is the expurgation from religious textbooks of material offensive to Christians and Jews and of chapters on armed jihad, or holy war.
“Wahhabism is like an octopus, shiny and smooth from outside but from the inside, it strangles you,” said Hasan Malki, an Islamic scholar who was among the first Saudis to speak out against extremism before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Wahhabism follows a literal interpretation of the Quran, revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, and has left no room for more flexible strands that would have eased the kingdom’s fast transition from desert wilderness to modern, technologically advanced nation of 19 million citizens.
As a result, the kingdom today has a 21st century infrastructure but 18th century mores, particularly where the sexes are concerned.
New, shiny cars fill Saudi streets. But women may not drive them, and may only get into a car with men who are relatives, or they all risk jail for the crime of “mixing.”
Step into a trendy restaurant in Riyadh and it will be partitioned, like all eateries, into a men-only section and a family section for men accompanying female family members. The family section is further subdivided into rooms with tables screened off lest men from other families peek at female diners.
An Arab waiter, a foreign newcomer, stands in front of a screen and asks with exasperation: “I want to go in. How do I go in?”
Malls boast famous designers and tempting underwear. But the country’s religious police prowl about to make sure not a hair is showing from beneath a veil, that men do not stare at women and that queues at food courts are segregated.
A woman arriving by plane cannot leave the airport unless escorted by a male guardian.
While many Saudis feel stifled, they still turn to clerics for rulings on the minutest aspects of life.
A woman caller to a TV program, “Edicts on Air,” pleads for permission for her daughter to pluck her eyebrows which are bushy and hurting her marriage prospects. The on-air cleric is adamant: God made the eyebrows bushy, and bushy they must stay.
Wahhabism emerged in the central Nejd area of Arabia to stamp out pagan customs that had crept into Islam 1,000 years after its emergence, such as visiting graves and using amulets. Abdel-Wahhab based his ideology on the Hanbali school, the most orthodox strain of Islam, and branded all dissenters as heretics.
Nejd, which includes Riyadh, the capital of 4 million people, remains the kingdom’s strictest region.
A pact between Abdel-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud allowed the Saud clan to gain territory through holy war.
In the early 1900s, when a Saud descendant consolidated control of Arabia, the debt to Wahhabism was not forgotten. Today, the Islamic affairs minister and other senior officials and clergy are Abdel-Wahhab’s descendants.
As modernity seeped in and Western investors arrived, the clerics desperately resisted threats to the purity of Wahhabism — the telegram, radio, television and later girls’ schools.
At one point, according to al-Malki, they resisted the teaching of physics and chemistry. The Al Sauds overruled them on that, but they have been reluctant to challenge them on social ones, especially those pertaining to women.
Today, to assuage the conservatives’ anger at the textbook changes, the government has left the door ajar for hard-liners the Education Ministry to impose yet more restrictions on schoolgirls.
The ministry recently issued a list of guidelines. According to Abeer Mishkhas, who wrote about the list in Arab News, they go beyond advice to behave well, study hard and trust in God, and extend to “plucking eyebrows, wearing unacceptable abayas (robes), wearing makeup and perfume, carrying mobile phones, … .”
“As I looked at the list,” she wrote, “I had the vague impression that we are developing our own version of George Orwell’s Big Brother.”
In Abdel-Wahhab’s time there were no cars, restaurants, airports or malls. So the keepers of his message justify their edicts by decreeing that certain actions, such as a woman driving a car, while they may seem harmless, could lead to behavior unacceptable to Islam.
A government-commissioned poll of 15,452 Saudis, 9,614 of them men, indicated that Saudis favor some change. Almost 85 percent said they want reforms, while 91.6 percent said “yes” to the empowerment of women.
However, only 11.8 percent think favorably of liberal-minded reformers and 58.9 percent viewed government-appointed clerics positively. More than a third supported the driving ban. That part of the poll has a margin of error of 3 to 5 percentage points.
The part on extremism, with a margin of error of between 1 and 2 percentage points, found that 48.7 percent think favorably of bin Laden’s sermons but only 4.7 percent would want him as their president.
“It was very clear that extremism is definitely on the downward slope,” said Nawaf Obaid, a national security consultant who supervised the poll. “People want economic reforms, they want jobs. They see social reform as secondary to having a job.”
Al-Suhaimi, the teacher, has until April 20 to appeal his sentence, and the mere fact that he feels free to speak to reporters about the case is indicative of a more outspoken tone in Saudi conversation and media.
When he joined Al-Abna high school in 1999, he was carrying a lot of “secular” baggage. His thesis was on Egyptian writer Taha Hussein and he admired the work of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, both dead and considered heretics by the religious establishment.
In an interview, he said he was convicted by uncorroborated testimony from students and teachers who had been told to watch him and to report his responses to questions on love, music and smoking.
For instance, he said, he had once told his students it was unfair to punish them, but not their teachers, for smoking. He said his accusers made that seem as though he encouraged students to smoke.
They claimed that he was promoting love, and by extension homosexuality and adultery, and leading his students to decadence by speaking favorably about music, according to court documents.
The head of the Riyadh religious court, Sheik Salman al-Muhanna, refused to comment when contacted by the AP.
“These people lie in the name of religion,” said al-Suhaimi. “They consider it a jihad if you strike against a secular person or a modernist.”