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Reformist impulse in Saudi Arabia suffers setback

A journalist who questioned the power of the Saudi religious establishment is fired

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2003



RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA

The dismissal of an influential editor of a leading Saudi newspaper has dealt a sharp blow to the hopes of reformists here and underlined the deeply conservative nature of the kingdom.

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Jamal Khashoggi was sacked last week as editor in chief of the daily Al Watan after his newspaper published searing commentaries on the potent influence of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

The leading Saudi reformist's dismissal takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented soul-searching in the Saudi media. Since the suicide bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh on May 12, in which 35 people died, newspapers here have run a series of unusually bold editorials on the ills of Saudi society.

While the flourishing debate in the media has encouraged advocates of reform, not everyone here is happy. "Khashoggi went too far. He exceeded dangerous limits," says Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer and a representative of the more moderate strand of Islamist thought in the kingdom.

The May 12 attacks have to some extent further polarized the debate here between reform and tradition. Intellectuals, the business community, and the more liberal populations on the east and west coasts of the kingdom are pitted against the powerful religious establishment and the conservative desert heartland.

"Both coasts have been cosmopolitan for 5,000 years," says a Western diplomat. "In the middle of the country, they have been goatherders for 5,000 years. If they could close the window on the world, they would. That's the problem. You can't live like that anymore. Something has to give."

Saudis have a traditional aversion to public debate, preferring instead the time-honored tribal practice of deciding matters behind closed doors. Religion lies at the heart of Saudi society, dominating most aspects of life. Saudis adhere to Wahhabism, an austere and literal interpretation of Islam. The kingdom's traditionally insular society and the fiery sermons preached by extremist clerics are seen by many observers as the root cause of the anti-Western suspicion and hostility among many Saudis.

The promised withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia - a key demand of Osama bin Laden - has failed to dampen anti-American ardor. "They have announced their withdrawal, but in fact they are getting deeper and deeper into Arab land," says Abdullah, a professed extremist who served time in a Saudi jail for his views. He points to the continued US military presence in the neighboring states of Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. "Al Qaeda will continue their operations until the last American soldier has left the Arabian peninsula," he warns. "If Western countries and America continue their actions against Muslims, they will generate more hostility and there will be repetitions [of the May 12 bombings]."

These days, the Saudi government has little sympathy for such opinions. Since the May 12 attacks, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in place of his ailing brother King Fahd, delivered a speech in which he vowed to "confront and destroy the threat posed by a deviant few and those who endorse and support them."

Yet many Saudis remain reluctant to look within Saudi society for the roots of militant actions.

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