Saudi Arabia

Providing the Discourse That Attracts Terrorists

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly become the target of terrorist attacks. But regime critics say that it was government tactics that have provided a fertile feeding ground for terrorist ideology. Reinhard Baumgarten about the necessity of reforms

photo: AP
Saudi civil defense personnel search for bodies in the debris of the Al-Hamra compound following an explosion in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 13 May, 2002

​​The Saudi government has finally understood the enormous threat to its own rule posed by fanatics adorned with religious motivations: 15 of the 19 perpetrators of the September 11th attacks were of Saudi origin. It took officials in Riyadh one year before they were able to admit this. And now terrorists are committing murder in their own kingdom.

A self-critical reflection on the reasons for this home-grown terror is not on the agenda of those ruling and governing in Saudi Arabia. Dr. Abdurrahman Zamil, who has close ties to the King himself, is one of the 120 members of the Majlis ash-Shura, the King's advisory council.

"Saudi Arabia never brought forth extremists. It is America that has produced the extremists because in the 1980s not only did they come to Saudi Arabia, but also to Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan. They recruited all these people to fight against communism in Afghanistan."

Saudis in Afghanistan

In fact, thousands of young Saudis went to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and many were treated as suspected terrorists after their return to the Wahhabist kingdom, thereby possibly having been further radicalized. But according to Dr. Turki al-Hamad, a liberal, this is only one side of the coin.

"We provided the thoughts, the religious discourse that attracted the terrorists. So they went to Afghanistan, to Chechnya and all these countries, only to come back with the idea that they can pass judgment and declare everyone and everything heretical. It is a mix of both. But we cannot repudiate the internal roots of terrorist ideas."

The value system of Saudi society, which is based on a pact between the al-Saud clan and the religiously reactionary Wahhabist clergy made more than a hundred years ago, clears the way for radicalism, according to Turki al-Hamad.

Creating a climate of terrorism

"Certain values must be spread by our education system, for example tolerance, getting along with others as human beings, as other races, or as 'nonbelievers.' There are values that must be planted inside the minds of young children if we are to have a new society. If we continue teaching our children hatred and intolerance, then these ills will grow and a climate for terrorism will be created. They are just waiting to be picked up by someone."

According to a survey carried out between August and November of the past year, almost half of the 15,000 Saudis questioned said they feel sympathy with the terrorist leader bin Laden. This does not surprise Turki al-Hamad.

"We have, for example, many good doctors and engineers whose minds are full of terrorist ideas because of the values that have been imparted to them."

Fighting the symptoms, not the disease

So far the Saudi government has relied mostly on their security forces to fight terrorism. But Turki al-Hamad says that this only wards off the symptoms but not the illness itself.

All signs point to further confrontations in Saudi Arabia, despite recent successes in fighting terrorists. In the past year the Saudi security forces have shot three suspected terrorists –mostly recently in Riyadh Abdel-Aziz al-Murqrin.

The leaders don't understand that the constant influx must be stopped if the quagmire of terror is to be dried up for good. Reformers such as Turki al-Hamad would like to change the climate, starting at the roots of the problem in the upbringing and education of young people. This means that the curricula in schools and universities must be changed, their contents must be oriented much more around the needs of the modern world.

But people like representative Abdurrahman Zamil think this is an empty gesture given the US's apparent strive for democracy in the Middle East, which is ultimately aimed at gaining total control of the whole region under Washington's whip. Al-Zamil says.

"Criticizing the King creates problems"

"Our religious schools create what we call young religious Muslims, who are for the government. Our teachers, our prophets and our clergy here tell us to never revolt against your king or your rulers and to never criticize them publicly. This is against our belief because it creates problems."

This may have worked well fifty years ago, when Saudi Arabia had a population of about 3.5 million. Now there are 23 million. And there is a rapidly growing rate of unemployment, in some areas over 30 percent, the per capita income has dropped by two-thirds over two decades, and the religiously motivated intolerance of young men has drastically increased. For Turki al-Hamd, there is only one way out:

"Reform is a must for everything. You cannot remain a child your whole life. Countries, states, political systems are the same. Even if you have a system that is good, it must be reformed so that it can survive. That's why we need reforms."

Reinhard Baumgarten

DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE © 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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