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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.'

Ten years after 9/11, Saudi Arabia slowly modernizing

Saudi’s royal family disavows religious extremism while staving off the popular ‘Arab Spring.’

Saudis point out that Wahhabism teaches absolute obedience to political rulers, so it would never sanction violent revolts like Al Qaeda’s. Indeed, it is widely accepted by scholars that this aspect of Al Qaeda’s ideology comes from another strand of Islamist thought articulated in the 1960s by theorists like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyed Qutb. A radical rejected by his movement, Qutb taught that governments following man-made laws are un-Islamic and must be overthrown.

The marriage of extremist expressions of Wahhabism with Qutb-derived justifications of violence was sealed in the 1980s in the mountains of Afghanistan, where the Saudi and U.S. governments armed Afghans battling Soviet occupiers. Both governments encouraged young Arabs to join this jihad, where they became radicalized and eventually waged jihad against Arab regimes and the United States.

That war, in hindsight, was a tragic error now acknowledged by Saudi officials. Since 9/11, “the first lesson, and it’s the biggest lesson, is that mistakes were committed by the international community when they supported the travel of young guys to go and fight in Afghanistan,” said Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, general director of the Saudi Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate.

Then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz salutes during a welcoming ceremony prior to the start of a counter-terror conference in Riyadh in February 2005. Saudi Arabia, hit by a wave of attacks by suspected Al Qaeda militants, called at the start of the conference for the establishment of an international center to combat and preempt terrorism.
(Rabih Moghrabi/Getty)


Since 2003, Al Hadlaq has been deeply involved in the Saudi government’s moves to combat “deviant thinking,” which is what it calls Al Qaeda’s ideology and the most aggressive expressions of Wahhabism.

A program to promote tolerance and dialogue among representatives of different Islamic groups, including Wahhabis, Shias, Sufis, Ismailis and Malikis was launched in 2003.

“We must study what has happened,” then-Crown Prince and now King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz told the first dialogue participants, according to historian Robert Lacey. “Something serious has gone wrong here, and we must try to put it right.”

The dialogue sessions formally recognized the kingdom’s religious diversity — a blow against Wahhabism’s view that there is only one way to practice Islam. But they have failed to produce much grass-roots tolerance or ameliorate the tensions between the Sunni majority and Shiite minority.

“We in Saudi Arabia still need a larger dose of tolerance,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former newspaper editor who now heads a forthcoming 24-hour all-news satellite television channel owned by Prince Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a stalwart of the pro-modernizing wing of the ruling family.

“I still want more [change], especially in the war against the ideas which breed intolerance and extremism,” added Khashoggi during a recent interview on the 57th floor of Kingdom Tower, Riyadh’s sleek, iconic landmark built by Prince Waleed. “For example, it is not enough to preach against using violence against foreigners and at the same time you allow a preacher to say you should hate non-Muslims.”

In another initiative to promote religious dialogue, King Abdullah hosted an international gathering of religious leaders, including Jews, Hindus, and Christians, in Madrid in 2008. Displeased that the king was openly rejecting another core tenet of Wahhabism — to avoid contact with non-Muslims — many state-employed Saudi religious authorities declined to attend. While the king set a new example for his subjects, little else concrete has emerged from this initiative.

Saudi Arabia also got serious about reforming its educational system, which was heavily loaded with Wahhabi religious discourse. More class time is now going to math and science. Religious textbooks were revised, removing many passages critical of non-Muslims.

But reform in this area is far too slow, retarded by stiff headwinds from conservatives who object to “Westernizing” influences and decreases in religious studies. Girls still cannot play sports in government schools because of religious conservatives’ opposition. And despite new religious textbooks, teachers’ attitudes have not necessarily changed. As of 2010, more than 2,000 teachers had been removed from the classroom because of extremist views and 400 others jailed.

To rehabilitate thousands of Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers arrested during the insurgency, the government implemented a reeducation program in prisons. Taught by government clerics, the courses promote a moderate, more tolerant version of Wahhabism. A second program designed to reintegrate around 120 returning Guantanamo detainees into Saudi society is widely recognized as highly successful, despite a recidivist rate of almost 20 percent.

Another priority has been the retraining and stepped-up monitoring of imams and preachers. Hundreds of mosque personnel suspected of militant sympathies were relieved of their posts. And symposiums on “The Saudi Moderate Approach” were organized at mosques, as well as at universities and schools, to caution against extremist thinking.

The government is also trying to regain control of takfir, the practice of labeling other Muslims apostates from Islam and therefore liable for execution. The concept has a long pedigree in Wahhabi thought, and extremists have used it to justify killing other Muslims. But Saudi state-affiliated religious scholars argue that excommunication is the sole prerogative of Muslim rulers and their appointed cleric. The government is planning an international conference to promote this concept of takfir this month.

“We did a lot as a country to counter violent extremism….[and] right now Al Qaeda ideology is not as it used to be eight or nine years ago,” said Al Hadlaq. “The ideology does not enjoy any popularity in Saudi Arabia.”

Conversations with many Saudis indicate that support for Al Qaeda dropped off dramatically after it began murdering civilians in the kingdom. But the same cannot be said for Osama bin Laden, whose killing by U.S. special forces in May provoked a variety of responses.

One American in Riyadh said he was approached in a supermarket line by a Saudi who said, “Osama bin Laden — Thank you!”

But some Saudis described co-workers who had tears in their eyes as they lamented the passing of a “hero” and “martyr” who, they said, is now surely in heaven.