In mid-August, as the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque began to gain international attention, a leading Saudi journalist wrote two opinion articles opposing the project. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, then manager of the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al-Arabiyya satellite television network, first produced a column for the August 16 edition of the international Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East], of which he is the former editor-in-chief.
In that first column, Al-Rashid cautioned, “I cannot imagine that Muslims want a mosque on this particular site, because it will be turned into an arena for promoters of hatred, and a symbol of those who committed the crime. At the same time, there are no practicing Muslims in the district who need a place of worship, because it is indeed a commercial district... The last thing Muslims want today is to build just a religious center out of defiance to the others... [T]he battle against the 11 September terrorists is a Muslim battle... and this battle still is ablaze in more than 20 Muslim countries. Some Muslims will consider that building a mosque on this site immortalizes and commemorates what was done by the terrorists who committed their crime in the name of Islam. I do not think that the majority of Muslims want to build a symbol or a worship place that tomorrow might become a place about which the terrorists and their Muslim followers boast.”
Al-Rashid returned to the theme in a second column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat two weeks later, titled, “The Ground Zero Mosque Was Never an Issue.” There he wrote, “The Muslims here are burdened, as usual, with the political opinions adopted by some Muslim radicals, and their Jihadist attitudes, declared in the name of each Muslim individual in the U.S. and around the world. This is deception and we must dismiss it. I read an article in which the writer claimed that the Islamic world is brimming with anger because of the attempt to prevent the mosque's construction, adding that Muslims view what has happened as being directed against them, and subsequently this will have adverse consequences… The most important question is also the simplest: Are Muslims indeed in a state of anger because the mosque will not be built near the site of the [September 11th] attacks? My conclusion is no, and there is a great deal of evidence [to support this]… There was not a single demonstration on any Arab street. We did not hear mosque imams addressing the Ground Zero mosque saga, and making it their Friday prayer sermon. Likewise, the issue was not adopted by intellectual or even religious institutions. Nothing was written against it except a handful of articles, and it has not become a contentious issue… Americans believe that Muslims want to build a mosque on the bodies of their loved ones and kin, as an act of provocation.”
Last week, news came that Al-Rashid has been prevented from writing further columns in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, and that he resigned, in a “constructive dismissal,” from his post at Al-Arabiyya television. Neither Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, nor Al-Arabiyya, nor Al-Rashid himself, commented publicly on his fate. But other dailies in the region, including Saudi Arabia’s own semi-official Arab News, reported his removal from Al-Arabiyya and the controversy over his work at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
According to the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm [The Egyptian Today], the dismissal of Al-Rashid from his media posts was impelled by another exercise in common-sense candor. Al-Arabiyya had broadcast a program titled “Islam and the West,” in which Wahhabism, the state sect in the Saudi kingdom, was criticized for “stigmatizing” Islam among non-Muslims, as “a religion of violence and extremism,” and Saudi Arabia was named as complicit in Wahhabi misdeeds.
The Egyptian newspaper noted that Al-Rashid’s colleagues at Al-Arabiyya television have expressed their solidarity with him and may resign in protest. Under the rule of Saudi King Abdullah, who has sought political reform in the country, restrictions on media have been relaxed, women have been employed as television hosts and commentators, and new, Western-style programs have been introduced. The media is therefore a major battleground between the king and his opponents in determining the destiny of Saudi Arabia. Whether for his forthright opposition to the Ground Zero mosque, or for his satellite network’s criticism of Wahhabism, Al-Rashid may be a casualty, at least temporarily, in the collision of the past and future in the kingdom.
UPDATE (September 21, 2010): According to sources inside the Saudi-owned and Dubai-based Al-Arabiyya satellite television channel, the resignation of general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashid has not been accepted, and al-Rashid continues in his post. The news site Gulfnews.com, quoted Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al-Ibrahim, head of Al-Arabiyya’s owner, MBC Group, saying he would comment further on the matter when he returns from a trip abroad and that “if he decides to retain, or resign, his current administrative role in Al-Arabiyya, I would like to confirm that al-Rashid will remain a prominent part the MBC group for any position he holds, both in the present and the future.” Al-Rashid himself told the Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that he “will remain with MBC group in any appropriate capacity. Accordingly, I am postponing my resignation for the time being, to have more time to think, ponder, and work.”
In the same report, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s editor-in-chief, Tariq Alhomayed, “clarified” that al-Rashid had not been dismissed from writing for the daily, but “himself had taken the decision to stop sending articles to the newspaper.” This morning, however, a column by al-Rashid was published by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.