One year after the tragic attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, it may come as a surprise to many Americans, but in a strange way the attacks have brought good to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world. You wouldn’t come to this conclusion if you paid attention to only one segment of the Saudi press that has focused on bewailing the vicious American attacks on the Kingdom and Islam in the press and on television. You have to read a little bit more closely, and there you will find the voices of moderation rising up and saying: “Enough is enough!”
The horrific attacks by Muhammad Atta and the 15 other hijackers who were Saudis, have brought the whole Saudi nation to a crucial crossroads: Either keep ignoring the harm being done to Islam and all Muslims by a minority of violent extremists or grasp this rare opportunity to take our society into a new direction and use it to also explain the peacefulness and beauty of Islam to the whole world.
Unfortunately, most Saudis have not been in the habit of thinking for themselves, being analytical or being insightful. From an early age, Saudis are taught to memorize facts in school and not question authority or ask the question “what if?” The fabulous wealth that oil brought us, and that has enabled us to develop spectacularly in the past 30 years, has also been a curse that has lulled too many of us into a state of complacency.
This same complacency leads many of us into vehemently denying the criticism we hear of our society coming from America, but I think we are reacting so violently because the criticism is hitting home in a very hard way. What many don’t realize is that we have given foreigners the chance to criticize us because of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Before Sept. 11 there was occasional grumbling about the way women are treated in the Kingdom, but this didn’t jeopardize our relations with the United States because they needed our oil and we had never attacked them.
Today it’s a totally different story. Everything done or said by Saudis is now examined under a very sharp microscope in the US: the way we treat foreigners, our educational system and our form of governance are all being dissected and analyzed by angry Americans who want to know why the US was attacked last year and what sort of society produced 15 of the 19 hijackers.
To overcome this immense crisis, one that the Kingdom has never faced before, we must begin to right the wrongs in our society and at the same time show the world our many positive attributes and achievements. It will be a long and rocky road, but it is a journey that we must undertake if we want to be proud once again of ourselves, and if we want to remain independent.
First, we must stop denying that any of the hijackers were Saudis or even Arab. We must also stop saying that the Sept. 11 attacks were a CIA-Zionist plot to make the Arabs and Islam look bad. This is utter nonsense! We must be mature and responsible enough to admit that these sick minds that hatched and perpetrated these dastardly attacks were, sadly, a product of a twisted viewpoint of our society and religion. We must ask what went wrong and how we can change our society and education system so that this won’t ever happen again. Blaming others for our shortcomings as a society won’t get us anywhere, and will only serve to alienate us further from the rest of the world.
Second, we must stop the hatred being taught to our children in schools. Why are they being taught to hate non-Muslims? Is this a reasonable way to bring up future citizens of the world? Hardly.Although I didn’t grow up in Saudi Arabia, being half-American, I too have personally experienced the intolerance preached by too many in this country: Just after the Gulf War I was driving two Christian friends to my house for Iftar (the breaking of the fast) during Ramadan. As I was running a little late, I picked them up after Iftar had begun. Since everyone was already at home eating, the streets of Jeddah were empty. Just as I was pulling out of the parking space in front of a closed toy store, a police patrol car came by and stopped. Two policemen motioned for me to step out of my car, which I did. They asked to see my ID card and my driver’s license, both of which I handed over. My two friends, one Filipino the other American, also handed over their identification. The policeman asked me to open the trunk of my car, telling me that perhaps I had just robbed the toy store! I opened my car’s trunk and they looked inside. Satisfied that they hadn’t found anything, I thought they would let us be on our way. Was I mistaken! They ordered my two friends to step into their vehicle. When I asked why, the said “just because”. One of the policemen took me aside and began giving me a lecture on how I shouldn’t be associating with non-believers. I couldn’t believe my ears, and told him that since they were Christians, and thus People of the Book, that it was perfectly OK to associate with them and even marry women from that religion. He looked at me as if I was crazy and shook his head: “No, no, no. I don’t care if they are People of the Book or not. They’re not Muslims!” I couldn’t argue anymore as I saw it wouldn’t change this man’s mind. After a few tense minutes they released all of us, and laughing, told us we could go on our way.
Now I knew that they in no way represented a common Saudi viewpoint on Muslims befriending non-Muslims, but obviously this policeman’s personal beliefs had been shaped while growing up in such a way that he just considered all non-Muslims as being beyond the pale. What a shame. It is this type of thinking that must not be allowed to be propagated. Millions of non-Muslim foreigners have worked hard to develop the Kingdom’s infrastructure and economy.
To America and the rest of the world, we must show them that we are indeed striving to be a just society, a moderate one, where the rights of women, foreigners and non-Muslims are respected and honored. We must prove that Saudis are not the arrogant and lazy SOBs that the Western press likes to characterize us as being.
I personally am optimistic about the future of Saudis and of Saudi Arabia. Every day I see more and more Saudis willing to take on the lowly paid jobs of supermarket cashiers and salesmen. Just ten years ago it was unheard of to have a Saudi working in a fast-food restaurant or as a cashier at a furniture store. Today I see plenty, from the sleepy-eyed cashier at Ikea to the friendly guy at my local supermarket who always greets me with a smile and chats away.
Of course, much of the change in attitude has come out of sheer economic necessity: We no longer have the wealth that once enabled many of us to stay at home and be non-productive.
Our government and private sector must find ways to keep young Saudis busy, productive and working. It is the idle minds of unemployed youth that are so vulnerable to the seemingly sweet song of hate and death sung by extremists. Parents must also be more involved in the lives of their children, guiding them by example and giving them sound advice that will prevent them from following the path of intolerance and hatred.
We moderate Saudis must speak up now and make our voices heard. The government can’t do it for us, and neither can anyone else. It is after all our own lives and religion that are at stake. The clock is ticking and there is no time to waste!
— Rasheed Abou-Alsamh is a senior editor at Arab News. (e-mail: [email protected])