Global economic instability and the threat of terrorism are two topics one can read and hear about in the media, briefings, speeches, and lecture halls. Not unexpectedly, Saudi Arabia is identified with both. This is due to Saudi Arabia’s centrality to Islam, its austere Wahhabi ideology, Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, and its possession of huge oil reserves. In light of Saudi Arabia’s religious and economic influence on the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims, the Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) and The Heritage Foundation held an educational public debate on March 25th, 2010 in Washington, D.C. Five speakers were invited to address different aspects of religious extremism and propose policy recommendations for decision makers and others to confront Muslim extremists’ looming threats to Muslims and non-Muslims. As has been documented since 9/11, Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for religious extremism, suicide bombers, and financing of outside groups and institutions that breed deadly ideologies.
Among the speakers was Mr. James Phillips, Middle Eastern Affairs expert at The Heritage Foundation, who set the tone for the conference and concluded his remarks by saying that Al-Qaeda is totalitarian and the Saudi ruling family is authoritarian, therefore the latter can be reformed. He was followed by Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour, a former professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, his native country. Dr. Mansour, author of twenty-four books on Islam, refuted the Saudi implementation and exportation of their austere interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism. He argued that the most effective way to undermine Muslim extremism is to show the contradictions between the Islam he knows and understands and the twisted form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and exported to the rest of the world. He concluded by saying that there is no ideological difference between the Saudi royals and Bin Laden.
Lee Smith, a former reporter for different American newspapers in the Middle East, attributed violence not to Islam, but to Arab culture. He pointed out that Muslim extremism is only the most recent manifestation of the Arabs’ use of power to spread ideology. He was followed by Dr. Farzana Hassan, an author and advocate of Muslim women’s rights, who spoke about the need for empowering Muslim women, specifically Saudi women. She argued that women can provide a stabilizing and modernizing influence on Saudi society which will lead to a gradual decrease in religious extremism and its by-product, terrorism, in Saudi Arabia and beyond.
Finally, Jack Pearce, a CDHR board member, former government anti-trust lawyer, and businessman, addressed structural problems in the Saudi state, as demonstrated by its modern infrastructure and by the total absence of public participation in any decision-making process. He argued that modernity, industrialization, and globalization need modern institutions that can absorb transparent changes including public participation in decision-making processes. He suggested that the US and other oil consumers have to be prepared to ensure the flow of oil in case the Saudi state collapses under the weight of inability to change its pre-modern ruling methods.
Dr. Ali Alyami, Executive Director of CDHR, closed the session by reiterating that religious extremism is real and must be confronted and undermined at its source, Saudi Arabia. He suggested that one of the best ways to undermine the spread and threats of Saudi austere religious ideology is by empowering Saudi women who are in the forefront in the fight against religious oppression in their homeland.
Video and Audio of the conference can be found at: http://bit.ly/980WLh