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Saudi Protests So Far Subdued (UPDATED)

4:34 PM, Mar 14, 2011 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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An example of Abdullah’s reformism that may seem trivial to Westerners but has great significance for the Saudi public occurred at the Riyadh Book Fair, which opened on March 2. For some years, the book fair has served as a barometer of trends toward easing of cultural and religious restrictions in the country. This year, it was disrupted on its inaugural day by a gang of up to 500 ultra-Wahhabis who denounced the presence there of “un-Islamic” love poetry and women journalists without the face-veil (niqab). The mob was expelled from the fair. In another example of the convoluted and self-contradictory nature of life in the kingdom, Saudi culture minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja, who attended the book fair and was confronted by the radicals, condemned them sharply.

Khoja first issued the incredible claim that “The Ministry of Culture and Information has never exercised suppression of any kind towards any one. . . . We have never censored writings that criticized the kingdom or silenced critics.” But the minister then derided the extremists, who castigated Saudi television channels for broadcasting “immoral and un-Islamic” programs. Khoja commented, “when we ask about the nature of this material or when it was seen, they reply that they don’t watch those channels. How can you judge something without seeing it?” Khoja described the fundamentalists as promoters of “exclusion under the umbrella of faith.”

Discontent in Saudi Arabia is marked by an essential difference from the revolutionary crises in other Arab states. Saudis do not face a dictator whose influence is limited to his family and a few parasites. Rather, as in China, Saudi subjects must contend with a powerful and long-established state ideological apparatus, in the form of Wahhabism. In this, Saudi Arabia more resembles Iran, except that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do not enjoy the credibility with their subjects visible in the attachment of the ordinary Saudi populace to King Abdullah.

UPDATE: Saudi Arabian troops have now entered the neighboring state of Bahrain to support the reigning Sunni dynasty there.

Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK. Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony. 

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