October 20, 2009
Posted: 01:42 PM ET
Robert Lacey is a frequent guest on LKL, and author of a new book: "Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia." His commentary is an LKL Web Exclusive.
“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer. Nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Possessed
I chose these words to open my new book Inside the Kingdom, because I needed to understand the tragedy of 9/11 and the nation that produced no less than fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on those planes. Saudi Arabia has never been a spot that wins much favor in the west. How can you love a country that charges you $70 or more for a product that costs less than $10 to get out of the ground – and then gives you terrorists as well?
But I wanted to go beyond that – to find out how the culture and religion of a society could go so wrong as to produce such a poisonous boiling-over of intolerance and hatred. In theory Saudi Arabia should not exist – its survival defies the laws of logic and history. Look at its princely rulers, dressed in funny clothes, trusting in God rather than man, and running their government on principles that most of the world has abandoned with relief. Shops closed for prayer five times a day, executions in the street – and let us not even get started on the status of women. For many the Kingdom remains one of the planet’s enduring – and, for some, quite offensive – enigmas.
But in these notorious distinctions lies an answer that I would urge you to consider – for when you look harder, the differences are not quite as great as they seem. It was not so long ago in the west, certainly in the memory of our parents and grandparents, that women were second class citizens denied the right to vote; most respectable people were devout and rather intolerant believers, scared and suspicious of other races and faiths: capital punishment was considered a necessity – with public lynchings of non-whites in the south; books and plays were censored (our movies still are); people dressed in stiff and formal clothes – a sort of uniform; father knew best, and ‘nice’ girls remained virgins until marriage. For centuries western life was lived within the comfort of those structures and strictures, and it is only in the last 90 years (one modern lifetime) that we have started to look for new values – which we sometimes seek to define by criticizing those who are reluctant to abandon the security of what went before.
In Saudi Arabia you are confronted by a deeply traditional society that is not yet ready to abandon the old ways in favor of bikini-clad, breast-enhanced girls shaking their booty on a “blind date” reality show. The Saudis want the best of the west – but they wish to keep at bay what they consider the worst. When a Jeddah radio talk show host boasted recently over the air of his pre-marital sexual conquests in some detail, the local prosecutor took him to court. The radio jock was sentenced to 500 lashes and five years in prison, and most ordinary Saudis nod their head at that.
Since 9/11 the government of King Abdullah has embarked on a radical reform program to try to drain intolerance from Saudi textbooks and pulpit preaching and to open Saudi minds. If things are to stay as they are, the ruling family has realized, things will have to change.
The proof of the battle now being waged came less than two months ago when an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up in the presence of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy minister in charge of the anti-terrorism program. Mercifully the prince was saved – and the battle against extremism continues. A few weeks ago I attended the opening of King Abdullah’s spectacular science and research academy on the Red Sea coast, KAUST, an attempt to create an Arab MIT – and to re-create the spirit of enquiry and rational truth-seeking that characterized the famous Bayt Al-Hekma, “The House of Knowledge” in Islam’s earliest golden age.
Saudi Arabia is the home of some 28 million people most of whom detest the extremism and violence of Al-Qaeda. In all my years there, I have never met a Saudi who praised Bin Laden, and the more introspective inhabitants of the Kingdom will acknowledge that there were profound and serious faultlines in their society which made Al-Qaeda’s viciousness possible.
In one sense, Al-Qaeda said it themselves – they were pursuing a Saudi quarrel on US soil. Bin Laden would later explain that he attacked “the far enemy”, as he liked to describe America, in order to bring down “the near enemy” that was his real target – the fabulously wealthy and powerful princes of House of Saud whom America protected and sustained.
Bin Laden’s personal burden of anger carried his rejection of modernity to extremes, and he was an evil-doer in practice – there can be no doubt about that. Yet if we are to follow Dostoevsky’s advice, can we also acknowledge that the man originally set out to accomplish what he believed to be good – the preservation of values that he saw as the best traditions of his society? Only when we have deployed open-minded enquiry to pair denunciation with understanding can we begin to work out where and how things went wrong.
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