Saudi Time Bomb?
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interview: ali al-ahmed

What is the role of the religious hierarchy in Saudi Arabia in relationship to the government?

The religious hierarchy is a governmental institution. Their role is to justify anything the government wants to do, using religious authentication.

... You mean they're paid by the government?

Yes, they are. The religious institution in Saudi Arabia is paid and hired and chosen by the government.

So there's no separation of church and state?

No separation between the Salafi institution and the Saudi government.

You say "Salafi institution." What does that mean?

Salafi is an understanding of Islam which starts in Saudi Arabia 200 years ago. And it is the official sect in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government adopts the Salafi understanding of Islam and implement it on all Saudis.


A Shi'a Muslim who grew up in Saudi Arabia, he is the executive director of the Saudi Institute, an independent human rights watchdog group based in McLean, Va. In this interview, he describes the conservative religious education all children in Saudi Arabia receive, which is dictated by the conservative Wahhabi religious clerics. He believes that the doctrines of intolerance and hate that are part of the compulsory Saudi religious education contributed to the attitude of Osama bin Laden and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. This interview was conducted on Nov. 9, 2001.

Salafi to us is what we call Wahhabi? Is that the same thing?

Yes. Salafi is what you call in the West Wahhabi.

Bin Laden learned this [intolerance] in Saudi Arabia. That message that Bin Laden received still is taught in Saudi Arabia. And if bin Laden dies, and this policy or curriculum stays, we will have other bin Ladens. And so then Prince Bandar is right when he says to us, "There is no Wahhabi sect, and this is a misunderstanding," that it's a fundamentalist sect that leads to extremism?

Well, they don't say it's a sect. The Salafis do not say they are a sect. They say they are a movement, a religious renewal movement. But it is, in practically, a sect, because it differs from everybody else, from Sunni Muslims and from Shi'a Muslims. And they have different ideas about life, about God, about religion, about relationship between men and among each other, which is totally different, probably, from the general Islam [ideas].

... You say totally different. Why totally different? ...

It's intolerant toward other Muslims who are not Salafis. You can see a book that is printed [by] a branch of Imam Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Washington area, and they printed this book where they say that 95 percent of Muslims are claimant to Islam, ... [that] they are not called Muslims. They are claimant to Islam, or claim to be Muslims.

So the official religion of Saudi Arabia says that 95 percent of people who say they're Islamic are just claiming to be Islamic?

Exactly. This is what is reflected in the textbook, and the books that [are] printed by the government. ...

The government obviously controls defense and the army and the economy, right?

Yes.

What does the religious side control?

The religious cleric in Saudi Arabia control the religious education. And they control any religious material that is public, in media and television. The Saudi television, government television, or government books, or any books that you find in the library, only represent Salafi understanding of Islam.

They control all education?

They don't control the education, but they control the religious curriculums for all schools, and they control the women's education.

[Are they] in public schools? Is it private schools? Are there parochial schools? How does it work?

They control all education. Saudi Arabia private and public schools, their curriculum is prescribed by the government. The religious curriculums are written and monitored and taught by Salafi Saudis only. And a Sunni cannot teach the religion. Shi'a cannot teach religious subjects in Saudi Arabia. It's against the law, especially for a woman. A Shi'a woman cannot teach religious subject for history in Saudi Arabia. And they are not even allowed to study history in college, because history, according to the Salafi interpretation, is much different.

Can you show me an example of what the teaching is in the schools?

Well, here, this is a book, Hadeeth, for ninth grade. Hadeeth is a statement of Prophet Mohammed. This is a book that starts for ninth graders. This is talking about the victory of Muslims over Jews. This is a Hadeeth that I truly believe it's not true, as a Muslim:

"The day of judgment will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews, and Muslim will kill Jews until the Jew hides behind a tree or a stone. Then the tree and the stone will say, 'Oh Muslim, oh, servant of God, this is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.' Except one type of a tree, which is a Jew tree. That will not say that." This is taught for 14-year-old boys in Saudi Arabia.

In middle schools...

In middle schools, yes. Official middle schools. This is a book printed by Saudi government Ministry of Education.

In what year?

This is in the year 2000. So this is a current curriculum. Also, curriculum talks about not only non-Muslims, but about Muslims, about Saudi citizens, in the same manner. That they will burn in hell, that they are paganist, that they will be destroyed in the day of judgment. The government has taken some steps to curb some of these curriculums. In 1993, there was a curriculum calling Shi'a derogatory terms ... and it was pulled after almost an uprising. People left schools because of that curriculum, and it was pulled. But the same writer, the same guy who wrote those books, he still write these books or curriculums. ...

So this is the attitude towards Shi'a? You are a Shi'a?

Yes, I am a Shi'a, and the attitude toward Shi'a is that they ... are not Muslims; they are not full Muslims, at best. Some clerics stated [that] they should sometime be either killed or thrown away or deported, and they should not be allowed even to work. There's a cleric who wrote this in 1992, I think. He said that they should not be allowed even to work in any government position, and all their mosques should be controlled by the government. Their businesses should be taken over. And there's another cleric who will say, "Shi'a must be slaughtered," this word. And this guy is an official in the government.

This year, there is an another fatwa by a government official, who is still working for the government, who said the same thing: that jihad should be waged against Shi'a. So the hate message ... that some Salafi carries, started against it locally ... until it reached New York.

What do you mean, it reached New York?

Well, when it was a local problem, the American media did not really care much about it. But until Sept. 11, you saw how this faith of hate, I call it, did to all of us, to New Yorkers and to the rest of the world, honestly.

You're saying that the official government version of Islam inspired what happened on Sept. 11?

Yes, I am saying that. Because the hijackers, 15 hijackers who are Saudis, they studied this thinking -- destructive thinking -- in Saudi Arabia. They spent a few months in Afghanistan. But they lived their life, they studied this in government mosques. They studied this kind of curriculum that I talked to you about. ... Government curriculum inspired what happened in New York.

Prince Bandar says, to use his phrase, [that] this is bullshit. Wahhabism, or what we call Wahhabism, is purely a religion that comes from someone who made an alliance with his family many years ago. It has done no harm to anyone, and it is only trying to go back to basics.

I like Prince Bandar. But I think he has not been looking in his backyard. I have books distributed that I picked up from the embassy myself, that carries a message of hate against Saudi citizens who are not Salafi, books that says Jews and Christians are free game for violent acts. And these are books I picked up from the Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C., where Prince Bandar works. ...

So it's no surprise then that the Saudi government and its clerics would be supporters of the Taliban, for instance?

I'll ask you this. Tell me, how many Saudi clerics have condemned Taliban, and how many Saudi clerics have condemned bin Laden? None. And they cannot force them. Since Sept. 11, there have been no Saudi official cleric that condemned Taliban by name, or condemned bin Laden by name. They condemned terrorism, yes, but they didn't condemn bin Laden. They didn't condemn Taliban.

Clerics, maybe. But the Saudi government has condemned what happened on September 11. Prince Bandar says that the Saudi government has cut the Taliban off over the last three years.

I don't know if he cut the Taliban off from the last years. I'm not aware of such. But the Taliban Embassy was working in Riyadh, and it had officials working in it. And they had no problems visiting Saudi Arabia, and coming and going.

Yes, Prince Nayif condemned bin Laden, and other princes... Prince Turki condemned bin Laden. They did not condemn that message. They condemned bin Laden. ... Bin Laden learned this in Saudi Arabia. He didn't learn it in the moon. That message that bin Laden received, it still is taught in Saudi Arabia. And if bin Laden dies, and this policy or curriculum stays, we will have other bin Ladens.

So this religious education is compulsory for all students in Saudi Arabia?

Yes. Religious education in Saudi Arabia is compulsory, and you have no choice but to study this. You're Salafi or you're not Salafi, you have to study it, even if you don't believe in it -- which I don't believe in most of it.

So the Shi'a have to learn this as well?

Shi'a have to learn this. And they not only they have to learn it, they cannot teach their own understanding of Islam to their own children in homes or mosques. ... even in private schools, it's a Shi'a area are not allowed to teach different version of Islam, or their own version of Islam.

So how are those Shi'a beliefs passed down?

Passed down through secret channels, secret books, tapes. This is the only way Shi'a survives in Saudi Arabia. ...

If you go to school in Saudi Arabia, what do you learn about people who are not followers of Wahhabi, of the prophet?

The religious curriculum in Saudi Arabia teaches you that people are basically two sides: Salafis, who are the winners, the chosen ones, who will go to heaven, and the rest. The rest are Muslims and Christians and Jews and others.

They are either kafirs, who are deniers of God, or mushrak, putting gods next to God, or enervators, that's the lightest one. The enervators of religion who are they call the Sunni Muslims who ... for instance, celebrate Prophet Mohammed's birthday, and do some stuff that is not accepted by Salafis.

And all of these people are not accepted by Salafi as Muslims. As I said, "claimant to Islam." And all of these people are supposed to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed. And we have several clergy -- not one Salafi clergy -- who have said that against the Shi'a and against the other Muslims. And they have done it in Algeria, in Afghanistan. This is the same ideology. They just have the same opportunity. They did it in Algeria and Afghanistan, and now New York.

In other words, the definition of people who are not believers in the true believers in the right view of Islam is that they're basically subhuman.

Exactly. If you don't believe in Salafi, you are not a human being. You are something of a lower grade, that you can be persecuted or hurt, and it is OK, accepted, in that ideology. It's accepted to be killed, or maimed... The religious authority in Saudi Arabia control the justice system. This is very important. ... All the judges in Saudi Arabia are Salafi. ... And mostly Nejdi from the central region in Saudi Arabia, which creates a lot of problems for the rest of Saudi citizens. ...

What's the nature of the history that you learn in school in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia, you learn Islamic history only. You don't learn history of Europe, you know, of the Americas, of Asia. You only learn Islamic history, and you learn the Saudi state history, and you learn what they call the Salafi Da'wah, the Salafi movement ... in the West, the so-called Wahhabi movement. And of course, doesn't teach you anything about the world. It teaches you about Islamic history, and the Islamic states, until today. But nothing about the rest of the Western world, or Asia, or anything else. ...

Prince Bandar says that they are a government who are ahead of their people. The people are more conservative than the government, and they can't get too far ahead of the people. The people of Saudi Arabia are, as he would put it, very fundamentalist, very strict, and very much in favor of this view.

It's untrue. Yes, a lot of Saudis are conservative, you know. They follow Islam. But there are a lot of Saudis who are liberals....They want the government to move ahead. When it comes, for instance, to women ID card...

Women ID card? What do you mean?

Women in Saudi Arabia do not own ID card. They are not human, either, Because they are legally, from a legal point of view, Saudi women have a legal standing of a car, because they are transferred from their fathers to their husbands.

Property.

Property. And this is against Islam. This is against 95 percent, 98 percent of Islamic ... of Muslims who would think Saudi Arabian government stand only next to Taliban when it comes to this point that women have no legal weight. They cannot sign anything.

If a woman in Saudi Arabia is ill and she needs surgery, she can't sign the papers. Her son who is 15 can do that. If he is sick, she cannot sign for him. A woman who is 90 years old cannot accept a proposal of marriage, or sign papers of marriage. Her grandson can. And she cannot for herself, because again, she is not considered a full-functioning human being.

We hear reports that when Sept. 11 happened, there was a quiet celebration amongst many people in Saudi Arabia.

Yes. Saudi Arabia people celebrated. Not all, but there are people who celebrated who were happy to see this, because there is general dissatisfaction with the United States. But there are people who were so happy to see it, and they still today, they are happy and they support what happened in New York, because they are from the Salafi school of Islam.

There are people who said, "Well, maybe American now will taste what other people taste. They might reconsider their policy." And there are people who condemned it, obviously. But the people who first, or most supported what happened on Sept. 11 are followers of Salafi Islam. ...

Is bin Laden a folk hero of sorts in Saudi Arabia?

Bin Laden is a folk hero to a lot of Saudis who are followers of the Salafi school of Islamists.

It would seem to me that he's a folk hero because he defies the United States, or he defies the royal family, no?

Yes. He is a folk hero because he defies the United States, and because he defies the royal family. And because he is a symbol of this rich man who left all of this, and lost his relationship with the royal family, who gave him millions and millions of dollars to stand behind his message. ...

When I asked Prince Bandar about the Saudis involved in Sept. 11, he said, "They're a very small minority in the country. They're like Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, or the Weather Underground in the United States," that it's a fringe group.

It's not really a fringe group, because these people were recruited from Saudi Arabia just recently, less than two years ago. There are a lot of them who are willing to do the same. And bin Laden in Afghanistan has a few hundred Saudis with them, with him now, fighting. Some of them have been killed already in the American bombing. And these people receive support from the clerics, the official clerics who get paid by the government. ...

It seems like the government then is sort of schizophrenic. On the one hand, it embraces the United States. They sell us oil, they do our bidding with OPEC, they invest in the United States. On the other hand, you're saying they support a clergy that hates the United States.

They do support the clergy that hates the United States, and I do not know why, because it is not for the benefit of the royal family and for Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia needed to modernize, they should sever this historic relationship between the House of Saud and the House of Abd al-Wahhab. This has done tremendous harm to the nation. ... I really thought about why... the Saudi Arabia government. I really thought hard about why also [they] insist on allying themself with Abd al-Wahhab, the Salafi family who [founded] Salafis.

I think it is a ... a Nejdi thing. Nejd is the center of religion in Saudi Arabia. This is where Salafi Islam started. And because all Saud are Nejdis, they and Nejdis by nature -- and I'm originally Nejdi myself -- are very racist people. And they think themselves of a higher standing than others. ...

The chosen people?

The chosen people. And this is a racist thing, because the system in Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that's based on tribal alliances and religious alliances. And because it started from Nejd, religion has been given to Abd al-Wahhab, and politics has been to Al Saud, and they don't want to change that equation. ...

I'm a little confused. You're saying that there is unrest in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia, there is different type of unrest. There is people who are talking on the Internet, for instance. They find their freedom on the Internet. Although the Internet [is] very, very tightly controlled. ...

It's tightly controlled in Saudi Arabia?

Yes, in Saudi Arabia. It is probably one of the [only] country in the world that controls Internet access. And they block websites that does not fit with them, especially the political website, where people express their views. And I am personally responsible for setting up several chat rooms, or chat boards, for Saudis to be able to talk, and say anything they want. And these sites are usually blocked, so we have to move them all the time.

So the government blocks the Internet; requires a fundamentalist religious education, even of Shi'a, of a peculiar brand of Sunni Muslim belief.

Yes.

Women are not allowed to work?

They're allowed to work only in woman education and health care.

That's it?

That's it. That's why women unemployment rate is over 70 percent. And that's not by choice, as they say. It is because many of them are not able to find a job -- for years.

And for men, what is the overall unemployment rate?

I think they admitted to one million unemployed, the Saudis. But I think the number is twice as that.

One million out of...

Fourteen million? Saudi work force now [is] maybe four, maybe six million. One million is unemployed. This is according to the government numbers. I believe the number is much higher.

And Prince Bandar would say to us, "Wait a minute. These dissidents who you've talked to, they're not democrats. Like Saad Fagih, they want a more restrictive fundamentalism. They want a more restrictive fundamentalism than we have currently."

True. That opposition that Prince Bandar is talking about is not democratic, and they are not advocating democracy. ... But people, liberals in Saudi Arabia like myself and others, who want more openness, who want a parliament, who want free press, who want more freedom of religion, of human rights organization. I have asked them to set up a human rights party in Saudi Arabia. They declined. I didn't ask them to overthrow the government.

Who declined?

The government, the Saudi government.

Let me understand. Saad Fagih is a fundamentalist?

Yes. Victor Saad Fagih is a fundamentalist. He is a Salafi. He is Salafi more than the government. I know Victor Saad, and I know his ideas. He is more extreme than the official Salafi institution.

But he says he is not a backer of bin Laden.

...What does that mean, he is not a backer of bin Laden?

He doesn't believe in violence, he says.

I think he doesn't. I think he doesn't. My knowledge of him, he doesn't believe in violence himself. But I haven't seen Victor Saad also condemning it. He didn't condemn it.

So he and others look at bin Laden as, in a sense, a positive force from their perspective?

Well, maybe Victor Saad Fagih see bin Laden as from a political point of view, that bin Laden helps Saad Fagih. Bin Laden is the extreme, and Saad Fagih looks much better next to bin Laden. And maybe that is why Saad Fagih likes the presence of bin Laden. ...

Does it surprise you that the blind sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, was invited to teach at a girls' school in Saudi Arabia?

No. In Saudi Arabia, because he's blind ... a lot of blind clerics are allowed to teach, because they don't see the girls. ...

But he's a revolutionary. He's a fundamentalist's fundamentalist.

At that time, there was no clashes with the West. He didn't have clashes with the West. He was just developing. But he carried that Salafi understanding of Islam, and they wanted somebody, and they wanted to bring him over, and they liked so many Muslim clerics, seeing the lure of petrodollar, came to Saudi Arabia. They denounced their own background because they wanted to live in a villa and drive a Mercedes. They came from Egypt, they came from Syria, from Sudan. And they became Salafi, because they like the dollar. ...

So it's really the fact that these fundamentalists had the backing of all the Saudi money -- that they were able to spread this form of Islam?

Yes, true. ...

So it's all the oil money, linked from the government, that has helped to spread this form of Islam throughout

Yes. That's true. The Saudi government has systematically financed the propagation of Salafi Islam, by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on three out of seven universities in Saudi Arabia [that] are religious universities. They built thousands of mosques around the world, including the United States. They have given free scholarships to non-Saudis, to come and study Salafi and become Salafi. They sent 2,000 Salafi clerics around the world every summer. They print books by the millions in every languages to promote Salafi Islam. They have conventions, conferences.

They spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the Salafi thinking of Islam. They do not support Sunni Islam, they don't support Shi'a Islam. And I noted that, in our report about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, they don't give money to other Muslims. If they were interested in spreading Islam, they don't give other Muslims. This is the government. ...

Are there any other excerpts you want to read to us from any of these books?

It says here, it says number four: It is permissible in Islam to destroy, burn, and vandalize the fortresses of kofar. American or Christians are kofar. And everything that they destroy, everything that they use ... against Muslims ... if the destruction was to support Islam and destroy the kofar. This is very hard.

And Americans are kofar?

Yes. American. The United States of America.

Why is that?

Because you're non-Muslim. You're non-Muslim. You are kofar because you have denials of God. This is what this [is].

And this is an official ... printed by the government?

This is an official book. This is printed, yes. This is for ninth grade, printed by the year 2000. This says here, the minister of education decided to teach this book, and print it on its own cost. And this is the first page.

And it's distributed...

This is to school curriculum. It's taught. It's mandatory for ninth graders in Saudi Arabia.

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