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How Do Saudis View the 9/11 Attacks?

September 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Ten years later, how do people in Saudi Arabia view the events and the aftermath of 9/11? Jeffrey Brown speaks with GlobalPost's Caryle Murphy about attitudes in the country that was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers.
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JIM LEHRER: And we turn from Egypt across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, of course. Ten years later, how is that event and its aftermath seen there?

Caryle Murphy has been one of the handful of American correspondents living in Saudi Arabia. A Pulitzer Prize winner for The Washington Post, she’s now a correspondent for our partner the online international news site GlobalPost, and author of the book “The Passion for Islam.”

Welcome to you.

CARYLE MURPHY, GlobalPost: Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, does 9/11 still resonate in various ways among Saudis as it does in Egypt? What attitudes do you hear?

CARYLE MURPHY: Well, you know, initially, Saudis were in denial and disbelief that Saudis were among the perpetrators of 9/11.

But, gradually, and especially after they had their own al-Qaida insurgency there in 2003, they accepted the fact that Saudis were involved. And the government has now accepted that, too. But you still run across some Saudis who are in — they just don’t believe the official story. They don’t believe that Saudis were involved. And they have this theory that it was — 9/11 was the act of some dark forces in a Western government.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what attitudes — do you get a range of attitudes towards the U.S. today, towards the government and the people?

CARYLE MURPHY: Definitely.

The Saudis, both the government and the people, are very unhappy with U.S. foreign policy. They were very unhappy about the invasion of Iraq. They don’t like what’s going on in Afghanistan. They feel the United States is biased towards Israel. So, for all these reasons, they are they’re quite angry with the United States.

However, that doesn’t mean that they are anti-American. Over half of the students who are studying abroad are now studying in the United States, and they chose to come here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the exporting of a certain kind of Islam, Wahhabism, a fundamentalist and seen as a more doctrinaire form, that of course came from the Saudi money, Saudi government. Has all that changed since 9/11 in these 10 years?

CARYLE MURPHY: Yes.

Experts I have talked to who study the Salafi movement say that the Saudi government’s approach to proselytizing and promoting Islam abroad has changed. It’s become much stricter with the funds it gives foreign Islamic groups. It’s tried to move closer to mainstream Islamic groups abroad, and it’s toned down some of the extremist rhetoric of some of the Wahhabi clerics who were promoting Islam abroad.

So, 9/11 and the insurgency they had in 2003 has made them much more wary of the more aggressive rhetoric of Wahhabi Islam. And they’re taking steps to tone that down.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of course the much more recent and huge event in the region, the so-called Arab spring, why Margaret is back in Egypt to look at what has happened there, what kind of impact has all of that happen — on Saudi Arabia? What — is it perceived as a threat to the government there?

CARYLE MURPHY: The Saudis were put off-kilter by the Arab spring, and especially when their great ally and friend Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

JEFFREY BROWN: They didn’t know what to make of it.

CARYLE MURPHY: They didn’t know what to make of it. They were just taken by — totally by surprise. And they are feeling very insecure, because they don’t know where all these events going on in the region are going to end.

So there has been some retrenchment from the reform program that King Abdullah was espousing. The government’s given a little bit more leeway to the religious police to control people in public. And it’s given them more money, and there is — there’s less tolerance for criticism.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, as they get more insecure, they pull back on any new openings, particularly — I mean, for — one thing that got a lot of attention was women, right, even women wanting to drive. So things like that, you think there’s less room for as they’re less secure?

CARYLE MURPHY: In a certain way, yes.

Right now, the government’s waiting to see where things are going to go. And if they feel that the Arab spring is not going to mean a toppling of the monarchy, which I don’t think it does mean, then they will probably be more tolerant to let this campaign that started in Saudi Arabia recently to let women drive, they will probably let that go on for some time, and, eventually, women will be able to drive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just to end where — you just said you didn’t see this as toppling — potentially toppling the monarchy, do you get any sense of vulnerability there, when you’re there, after what’s happened in much of the rest of the Arab world?

CARYLE MURPHY: You know, Saudis is sui generis, and the people there are content for the most part, although there is growing discontent with problems.

The government is able to give financial benefits to people. So there is not as much discontent there as there is in Egypt. And I just don’t see where there would be any type of rapid change in Saudi Arabia right now.

Having said that, they’re facing a lot of challenges, including unemployment for the biggest youth bulge ever. So, down the road, there are big challenges that could mean a challenge to the government.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Caryle Murphy on Saudi Arabia, thanks so much.

CARYLE MURPHY: You’re welcome.