November 28, 2003 - NY Times

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

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

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