THE Saudi government's crackdown on dissent has driven into exile one of the country's main Islamist groups. On April 20, the banned Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) moved to London to publicize human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Outraged by the move, the Saudi government renewed its campaign against the group with the arrest of many of its supporters, including relatives of Dr. Muhammed al-Mas'ari, its chief spokesman. Fearing for his own safety if he returned to Saudi Arabia, Dr. Mas'ari has applied for political asylum in Britain.
These government tactics may backfire. Stifling dissent may well radicalize the Saudi Islamist movement; violence may become attractive to a hitherto peaceful movement. Staving off such an outcome was one reason the CDLR resumed its activity. Remarkably, attempts by CDLR founders to enlist United States support for their right to peaceful dissent have failed. Neither government apparently wants to learn from the Algerian experience, where repressing the Islamist movement two years ago has thrown the country into a civil war.
The CDLR was formed in May of 1993 by six prominent jurists and university professors. Within days, the government Council of Senior Scholars denounced the effort as a heresy. The group was banned, its supporters harassed. Fifteen professors were jailed; 60 were banned from traveling or speaking publicly. Others were questioned and warned not to continue their political activity. Most were released - only after signing an apology promising never to discuss the ``government's domestic, foreign, financial, media or other policies,'' and to ``communicate with anyone outside the country, or any activist inside the country, by telephone or fax.''
Mas'ari was arrested last May and detained without trial for six months. In mid-March of this year, he was again warned against defying the ban and threatened with physical harm if he did. Fearing for his safety, he fled Saudi Arabia, and, on April 20, announced from London that he would resume his work in exile. In the following week more than a dozen CDLR supporters were arrested in Saudi Arabia. The arrest of three members of Mas'ari's family raises a serious concern that the government may be holding them as hostages.
The CDLR represents a significant, moderate trend in the Saudi Islamist movement, which has been growing in size and sophistication since the 1990 Gulf war. In early 1991, scores of Islamist figures signed a petition to the king calling for greater political participation. In mid-1992, they signed a 45-page ``Memorandum of Advice'' - a program of political reform which advocated greater autonomy for Islamic preachers and an end to torture and arbitrary arrests and searches.
This peaceful opposition became vocal in 1993; mosque sermons and underground publications and tapes criticized official corruption and favoritism, and called for public scrutiny of government decisions. Last June at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, dissidents embarrassed the government by distributing a scathing 27-page critique of the judicial system. These efforts and the formations of the CDLR last May led to the government's retaliation and the silencing of critics for a year, until the CDLR decided to regroup in London.
Unlike militant fundamentalists in Egypt or Algeria, most Saudi Islamists do not advocate violence. While calling into question some of the royal family's actions, they have supported the legitimacy of the Saud family rule. However, many Saudis believe the opposition may turn violent. If repression continues, radicals of the Algerian and Egyptian stripe could move into the movement. In an apparent reference to this possibility, an April 20 CDLR statement justified its reactivation as a ``bid to prevent the government's repressive measures from instigating violent trends that could submerge the entire country in an endless bloody conflict.''
During a recent visit to Saudi Arabia I heard Islamist activists draw parallels between Saudi Arabia today and Algeria in the 1980s. One leader cited an Arabic saying: ``When your horse and your camel are taken away, you are left with only the spear to ride to your destination.''
The CDLR is called a human rights organization - though it does not define itself as such. CDLR considers itself part of a Saudi Islamist reform movement of prominent persons working to eliminate injustice and restore rights as defined by the sharia, or Islamic holy law.
The Saudi government has denounced the CDLR to the West as religious intolerants; inside the country the government labels CDLR founders as foreign-inspired, un-Islamic renegades.
All the parties - the Saudi government, its appointed clergy, the CDLR, and independent Islamists - base their positions on a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The government attack is based on CDLR's advocacy of a reform program calling for limits on royal authority, and for real political participation. With its solid religious credentials, CDLR is capable of questioning the king's authority - namely, upholding the true interpretation of Islam. Equally threatening is CDLR's effort to report human rights violations, in defiance of the government's resolute determination to keep news of rights abuses hidden from the outside world.
The CDLR program poses a clear challenge to the Saudi government, which is intolerant of even mild dissent. Despite Saudi Arabia's special relationship with the US, Washington seems to take very little notice of these developments. The administration has yet to voice concern over the manner in which the Saudi government has dealt with the CDLR. Several meetings that CDLR founders held with US State Department and embassy officers gave these founders an apparently false impression that the US would actually support their right to peaceful dissent. Yet when CDLR spokesmen explained that they wanted to resume their activities from London instead of Washington, they cited the US government's ``disgraceful'' silence over their persecution.
The US risks being regarded as an accomplice in its ally's policies if it does not soon forcefully criticize Saudi repression of peaceful opposition activity. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.