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Saudis dangerously split over religious reform

Riyadh, May 20 (Reuters): Saudi Islamist Suleiman al-Deweesh won’t send his children to school because he doesn’t want them exposed to liberal ideas. He also believes non-Muslims have no business in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

Deweesh, 30, won’t say how he feels about last week’s triple suicide bombings — but his reluctance to condemn them shows the enormity of the task the Saudi government will face if it responds to calls for a shake-up of the country’s religious establishment.

“The actions of their governments make Westerners legitimate targets in the eyes of their opponents,” Deweesh said.

No one knows how many among the Saudi population of about 17 million share his views. Some clerics say that between 20 and 30 per cent “secretly sympathise” with the goals of the attackers.

But it is clear that Saudi society is deeply and dangerously split as demands for reform of its religious institutions increase following the attacks on three foreign residential compounds in Riyadh, blamed on Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network.

“We are at a crossroads. One turn is the right road, the other leads over a cliff,” 30-year-old Saudi banker Raid Ismail said. “I was shocked and angry by the attacks. I lost my best friend — something has got be done, this was a wake-up call”.

Thirty-five people died in the bombings, including several Saudis. It was the first time civilians — including women and children — had been targeted indiscriminately in the kingdom.

“It is terrifying,” said Saudi poet Fowziyah Abu Khalid.

“We always thought this place is secure. Is this violence a form of expression' It shows there is a need for reform, for political participation. If people are involved in the daylight there will be less need for doing this in the dark.”

The bombings have given liberals the upper hand in their campaign for democratic reforms which they believe will allow people to express resentment about Saudi Arabia’s conservative Islamic society, and curtail religious extremism which provides the only real outlet for opposition.

Such reforms, leading to an elected Assembly, a constitution and more rights for women, are anathema to religious conservatives who see them as un-Islamic and fear their influence will be eroded. The kingdom rests on an alliance between the ruling Saud family — which carved it out of the Arabian peninsula a century ago through war, inter-marriage and diplomacy — and religious scholars who impose an austere brand of Islam on society.

“We will not allow the liberals to use this opportunity to attack our principles — it is very unjust,” said moderate Islamic activist Mohsen al-Awajy.

“We will support the government on condition they limit their action to those responsible for the bombings. They must not punish the innocent religious establishment.”

GROWING PRESSURE ON RELIGIOUS LEADERS

There has been growing domestic and foreign criticism that giving religious leaders a free hand to act, preach, and police society fosters the kind of fanaticism and intolerance which encourages young Saudi men to become suicide attackers.

With unemployment at 13 percent and half the Saudi population under the age of 16, the problem is set to worsen.

”It is not enough to confront terrorists in terms of security,” said Khalil al-Khalil, a professor at the Imam Muhammed Bin Saud Islamic University.

”Our religious institutions have to be shaken up and reformed. They are not doing enough to confront radical ideas and groups and to condemn them by name.”

Khalil said the problem was that anyone brave enough to take this approach was accused of siding with the enemies of Islam.

But he said it was vital to allow more modern, enlightened Islamic scholars to play a more active role in religious institutions and promote public debate on sensitive issues.

”We have a crisis that could split society. There is polarisation in Saudi Arabia. Extremism is widespread,” said Jamal Kashoggi, editor-in-chief of al-Watan newspaper.

”People feel the threat. They are starting to realise they can no longer have a foot in each camp. There are more tolerant forms of Islam which should be encouraged and allowed.”

In a landmark speech late on Saturday, King Fahd pledged to expand reforms and appealed to religious scholars to spread a message of tolerance and national unity.

”It is mainly the responsibility of our good scholars...to disseminate tolerance...and to save our youth from the evils of destructive thought,” he said.

Saudi religious authorities have condemned the attacks as un-Islamic. They acknowledge that something must be done to halt the spread of radical ideology.

”Intellectual exchanges between Islamic scholars and educators and young men and women must be enhanced,” said Saleh ibn Abullah Humaid, imam of the main mosque in Mecca.

Awajy thinks it may be too late.

”This movement, the people who are ready to commit these crimes have no trust in the religious authorities, they have their own people. Now moderates are being targeted Ä they are calling us unbelievers who deserve capital punishment.”

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