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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

Saudi Islamists consider democracy, confront royal dogma

Thinkers supports blending Islamic values with some Western ideas.


In a Riyadh office where a wall of 15 television screens carries satellite news stations from around the region, Mohsen Al Awajy spoke of how he and other Islamists “are trying to modify our society.”

A writer once jailed for his activities in the Sahwa movement, Al Awajy said that he, like Al Ahmari, is part of a generation influenced by time spent as students in the United States.

“We were sent to the West, we studied there, and adopted a lot of values. We believe these values are not contradicting our Islamic teaching,” said the tall, gregarious Al Awajy. “One is democracy, free elections, to be represented in our assembly, men and women equally ... We have to share in decisions which are related to our lives.”

Unfortunately, he added, “there is no single step taken by the government towards democratizing our society. We are quite angry about that. We are not happy to see this. Of course we are not going to [raise] weapons against them. But we feel shame when we compare our society to those … like Ghana and Burkina Faso.”

Still, there is a small but growing slice of Saudis who are politically discontented, as evidenced by several pro-reform petitions sent to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz earlier this year. One demanded a constitutional monarchy. Another more Islamist-oriented petition, signed by Al Auda and Al Ahmari, asked for an elected parliament with oversight of state funds and “the right to grill” ministers.

Political parties are banned here, so when ten moderate Islamists launched the Islamic Umma Party in February, most founders were promptly arrested. One organization that has managed to survive, at least for a while, is the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Established in late 2009, it includes intellectuals, lawyers, school teachers, academics and human rights activists from both Islamist and liberal-secular orientations.

Its website carries a demand that Interior Minister Prince Nayef be fired for abuse of his powers, blasting his ministry for “reprehensible methods to suppress and intimidate people through arbitrary detentions, tortures, ill-treatments, and secret court trials.” A co-founder of the group, Mohammed Al Bjady, has been held since July without formal charges.

Lately, the group has taken up the cause of detainees held for years without charges. Association co-founder Mohammad Al Qahtani estimated the detainees at 30,000, almost three times the official number. The Saudi government says that of the 11,500 persons it detained for alleged terrorist-related activities in the last decade, 5,800 have been released. Saudi society “is really yearning to develop into a civic society rather than a religious or military society,” Al Qahtani said in an interview. “Yet ... the regime is resisting any change.”


Over tea in his Qatar office, Al Ahmari said he grew up in the southwest part of the kingdom and was a critic of the government even in his youth. He went to the United States in 1985 to get his master’s degree in history from the University of Northern Colorado.

For several years, he was president of the Michigan-based Islamic Assembly of North America. This organization was scrutinized by U.S. law enforcement after the 2001 terrorist attacks for possible ties to extremists. It also was criticized for its website’s links to sites glorifying violent jihad.

In the end, a former president of the Assembly pleaded guilty to bank fraud. And a Saudi student who managed its websites, Sami Omar Al Hussayen, was acquitted by a jury of charges that he promoted terrorism online.

Al Ahmari was never charged with any crime and said he was visited only once by the FBI when it was questioning many Muslim groups soon after 9/11.

Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and an expert on U.S. Muslims, wrote in an email that in the American Muslim community the Assembly was viewed as a “moderate” Salafi group, “which means they did not focus on condemning other Muslims as heretics … [and they] were also not wedded to the Saudi Salafi establishment ... I did not have the sense that they were sympathetic in any way with al-Qaedah and other jihadist groups.”

Al Ahmari said the group did “educational” work to spread Islamic ideas, publishing books and holding annual conferences. Now defunct, it “never got a penny from any government,” he said, because even then he was critical of the Saudi government and it “didn’t like what I was doing.”

The rubble of the World Trade Center smolders following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in New York. The all-out war on terrorism unleashed by Washington after the attacks marked a turning point in US-Arab relations and nowhere more so than in once top ally Saudi Arabia. With 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers carrying Saudi nationality and mastermind Osama bin Laden being the scion of a leading Saudi family, the desert kingdom and world oil kingpin suddenly found itself on the frontline of the war on terror prosecuted by U.S. President George W. Bush.
(Alex Fuchs/Getty)


The 2001 attacks were a wake-up call for Al Ahmari. “After September 11 it became clear to us that ... these kind of fanatic people are among us,” he said. He realized the need to “put a clear, clear line between our thoughts and these kinds of groups like Al Qaeda and people we don’t know who they are because we didn’t know they were doing these kinds of things.”

The attacks also made him more aware of the importance of democratic concepts.

“Before that, we talked about democracy, we accepted that, but it was not as strong and clear as after 9/11,” he said.

He left the United States for good in 2003 because he found the post-9/11 environment increasingly difficult. But he did not feel comfortable back in Saudi Arabia, where “you never feel safe” from being arrested.

So in 2007, he moved to Qatar, where he works as a consultant to a cultural project. He occasionally returns to his home in Riyadh, most recently this spring, but said he always fears arrest when he does.

Al Ahmari began being noticed in 2006 after writing an article criticizing religious authorities’ involvement in politics. In a 2008 article, he called President Barack Obama’s election a sign of the freedom in U.S. society, and bemoaned the Arab world’s dictatorships.

“I said this frankly on TV, that the problem behind September 11 was the jails of Saudi Arabia,” Al Ahmari said. “If you say anything against the government, you will end in jail. You have no rights. Nothing. You can’t talk. You can’t write. You can’t say the government is bad. Then what can you do?”

The government’s recent expansion of the clergy’s facilities so they can issue religious opinions on local issues is a way “to control people,” Al Ahmari said. “We should de-legitimize the religious establishment,” he added, so people realize it is “the voice of the government, and they never will be with the people.”

And the royal family’s propensity to dispense money to keep Saudis content is only a temporary fix, he believes. “You can’t pay money every time,” he said. “You have to give rights. There is no other solution.”

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)