A week ago yesterday I was supposed to appear at the Sahafa police station to receive 75 lashes on my back. I had been sentenced by a religious court because of articles I had written calling for freedom of speech and criticizing Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's official religious doctrine. At the last minute, I decided not to go to the police station and undergo this most humiliating punishment. With the nation at a virtual standstill for the holiday Id al-Fitr, the sentence remains pending. I will leave this matter to fate.
Even before the attacks on foreign housing compounds in Riyadh in May, many writers and intellectuals in the kingdom, myself included, were being bombarded with letters and e-mail and telephone messages full of hate. We still receive death threats from Al Qaeda sympathizers. I have informed the Saudi authorities of the threats and provided them with the names and numbers of some of the people involved, against whom I have also filed a lawsuit. So far, no official action has been taken.
The most recent government crackdown on terrorism suspects, in response to this month's car-bombing of a compound housing foreigners and Arabs in Riyadh, is missing the real target. The real problem is that Saudi Arabia is bogged down by deep-rooted Islamic extremism in most schools and mosques, which have become breeding grounds for terrorists. We cannot solve the terrorism problem as long as it is endemic to our educational and religious institutions.
Yet the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs have now established a committee to hunt down teachers who are suspected of being liberal-minded. This committee, which has the right to expel and punish any teacher who does not espouse hard-core Wahhabism, last week interrogated a teacher, found him "guilty" of an interest in philosophy and put on probation.
During the holy fasting month of Ramadan, imams around the country stepped up their hate speech against liberals, advocates of women's rights, secularists, Christians and Jews — and many encouraged their congregations to do the same. I heard no sermons criticizing the people responsible for the attacks in Riyadh, in which innocent civilians and children were killed. The reason, I believe, is that these religious leaders sympathize with the criminals rather than the victims.
I cannot but wonder at our officials and pundits who continue to claim that Saudi society loves other nations and wishes them peace, when state-sponsored preachers in some of our largest mosques continue to curse and call for the destruction of all non-Muslims. As the recent attacks show, now more than ever we are in need of support and help from other countries to help us stand up against our extremist religious culture, which discriminates against its own religious minorities, including Shiites and Sufis.
But we must be aware that this religious extremism, which has been indoctrinated in several Saudi generations, will be very difficult to defeat. I know because I once espoused it. For 11 years, from the age of 16, I was a Wahhabi extremist. With like-minded companions I set fire to video stores selling Western movies and even burned down a charitable society for widows and orphans in our village because we were convinced it would lead to the liberation of women.
Then, during my second two-year stint in jail, my sister brought me books, and alone in my cell I was introduced to liberal Muslim philosophers. It was with wrenching disbelief that I came to realize that Islam was not only Wahhabism, and that other forms preached love and tolerance. To rid myself of the pain of that discovery I started writing against Wahhabism, achieving some peace and atonement for my past ignorance and violence.
And that is what Saudi Arabia, as a nation, also needs: a rebirth. We need to embrace the pain of it and learn how to accept change. We need patience and the ability to withstand the consequences of our crimes over the past two decades. Only when we see ourselves the way the rest of the world sees us — a nation that spawns terrorists — and think about why that is and what it means will we be able to take the first step toward correcting that image and eradicating its roots.
What are the chances of such a change occurring? Some of the younger generation of princes, including Abdul Aziz, son of the ailing King Fahd, have been trying to create alliances between the liberal and the religious wings of society, which could possibly play a pivotal role in the future of the country. But can any of these young men become a truly great leader like the country's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, or his son King Faisal?
Those in charge must realize that to avert disaster we will have to pay the expensive price of reforms, to be ready to live with the sacrifices that starting over entails. Only then will I be hopeful of the future of my country.
Mansour al-Nogaidan is a columnist for the newspaper Al- Riyadh. This was translated by Faiza Saleh Ambah from the Arabic.
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