Monday, February 28, 2005

Virtual Glasnost for Arabia

A religious court in the Saudi port city of Jeddah recently sentenced 15 people to flogging and prison for an unusual crime: peacefully demonstrating against their government. They were demonstrating at the behest of Saad Al Fagih, a London-based Saudi dissident who heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) and runs his own website, radio channel, and TV station. A few days earlier via streaming audio and satellite, he had called on his countrymen to march in Riyadh and Jeddah. Al Fagih claimed that tens of thousands had planned to march. But hundreds of police and security forces were dispatched to prevent any large assembly. A small number persisted in protesting, and they were rounded up by the police. Al Fagih claims he has more than 50,000 supporters in the Kingdom, and his website features audio statements of allegiance from 99 Arabian tribes and clans. (I have listened to ten of them; each had dozens of signatories. For every person who had the gumption to give his or her name--a choice that carries severe consequences in the authoritarian desert kingdom--one may assume that others harbor similar sentiments, but quietly.)

The movement's heightened profile comes at a time of mounting Al Qaeda violence in many Saudi cities and towns. Since May 2003, about 170 have been killed in several incidents, and Osama Bin Laden's most recent audio message calls on the faithful to step up attacks on oil installations. Though London-based MIRA officially eschews violence as a tactic, the Saudi government insists that Saad Al Fagih and his minions are dedicated to the overthrow of the royal family and to replacing it with an Al Qaeda-inspired form of government. And Western governments seem to agree. After the United States named Al Fagih a suspected Al Qaeda financier in late December, the United Kingdom froze his London assets, and the United Nations imposed anti-terrorism sanctions on him. Meanwhile, according to the Open Net Initiative at Harvard University's Berkman Center, MIRA's website has been blocked by Saudi authorities since at least 2002. And, if Al Fagih's Arabic-language broadcasts are to be believed, Saudi security has conducted waves of arrests and interrogations of his sympathizers, jammed his satellite transmissions, and also blocked many of his mirror sites on the Web. (Full disclosure: I worked for a private firm that consulted for the Saudi Telecommunications Company, which has near monopoly control over Internet access in the country, before it was privatized in December 2002; as a result, I'm familiar with its practice of blocking mirror websites. And I would not be surprised if Al Fagih's claims in this regard are right.)

This response won't work; it only gives him a hero's status. Al Fagih may be far from a sympathetic character, but the Saudi campaign of suppression should be eased. A pragmatic carrot and stick approach--letting reformist elements in the Saudi government try to win over some of his sympathizers while the security services continue to monitor others--would be more successful in eroding his support. This view relies neither on faith that Al Fagih believes in liberal democracy, nor on the wishful thinking that Islamists across the region are reformists clad in traditional garb. Rather, it's simply practical advice stemming from a constellation of factors unique to Saudi Arabia today.

By publicly rounding up protestors and blocking websites, the Saudi government signals that it can't defeat Al Fagih in an open war of words and ideas. But it can. In the world of Internet and satellite broadcasting to which Al Fagih is confined because he lives in faraway London, he stands to be severely outsquawked, by state and society alike, once enough Saudis get the chance to hear what he has to say. MIRA seeks to win followers by persuading them that the Saudi government is insufficiently committed to Islamic tenets. Most of the people who take the trouble to search for Al Fagih's signal today--whether online or via satellite--are zealous enough to buy into this argument. If the broadcast were more easily available, however, Al Fagih would have to reckon with a larger and vastly more discriminating audience. The most progressive and worldly segment of the population, on balance, is that subset of techno-savvy Saudis, now about two million strong, who use the Internet regularly--fans of Western pop culture who generally believe that the Saudi regime and its enforcers are plenty committed to the conservative tenets of Islam already, thank you very much. Al Fagih would get an online earful from the many Saudis who want fewer Islamic mores in their country, not more--a demoralizing dose of democracy, if you will, for a London-based dissident with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. Only the regime's censorship shields him, in effect, from this backlash.

He poses a more serious challenge to the House of Saud when he complains about its corruption and ineptitude. The same young people who like American pop music also detest their government's failings, and many if not most also resent its pro-Western foreign policy. But here, too, he has a weakness vis-à-vis his potential audience: Most of what he says is old hat. Civil discourse in Saudi coffeehouses and media has evolved somewhat and now allows for open criticism of government, provided it is not existential. The other day I listened to Al Fagih, via streaming audio, rail against the rulers for not having conducted a population census in many years. Big deal; on business trips to Jeddah and Riyadh I have seen similar grievances aired in local newspapers. Al Fagih's novelty is limited to his strident personal attacks on the royal family and unbridled calls for regime change. Once he descends to the level of domestic policy, his criticism is comparatively banal. His ultra-Islamist views make him an unattractive symbol of political reform among the more progressive Saudis who clamor most loudly for it.

Which leaves the problem of his ultra-Islamist base. The real reason Saad Al Fagih is a potential threat to the government is not that he makes a compelling case to a majority of urban Saudis--which he doesn't--but that his Islamist puritanism is most winsome among the clique of tribal and clerical elites that the royal family leans on for legitimacy and security. They populate the Saudi armed forces and police and serve as teachers and guardians of public virtue. Al Fagih supporters tend to sympathize with bin Laden as well. But why suppress one in the name of defeating the other? If the problem is how to purge the state apparatus of its malcontents, then a nonviolent shadow movement such as MIRA is more useful out in the open than underground. The conservative stalwarts of the regime would be better served to simply monitor and rebut Al Fagih's dispatches. This exercise in virtual counteragitation could win back some of the group's minions for the establishment even as the government keeps tabs on the rest.

None of this is to suggest that Saad Al Fagih is a benign influence on Saudi Arabia. Nor is it to suggest that the government should, or will, ever let MIRA function as a full-fledged political party in Riyadh. Indeed, adopting a softer approach towards Al Fagih carries risks for the Saudis. But cracking down on his broadcasts and followers may well carry more. And besides, if risks must be taken either way, perhaps it wouldn't hurt the House of Saud to try erring on the side of liberal risks, for a change.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on January 26, 2005.


At November 7, 2005 at 2:42 PM, Blogger Hoodia said...

Help me Dude, I think I'm lost..... I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw him in a car lot yesterday, which is really strange because the last time I saw him was in the supermarket. No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender". He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a San Diego cosmetic surgery doctor ,to fit into those blue suede shoes of yours. But Elvis said in the Ghetto nobody can afford a San Diego plastic surgery doctor. Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger. Then I'm gonna go round and see Michael Jackson and we're gonna watch a waaaay cool make-over show featuring some Tijuana dentists on the TV in the back of my Hummer. And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . . "You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on " Strange day or what? :-)

At November 22, 2005 at 6:02 PM, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

Friendship... is not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.
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At November 22, 2005 at 6:12 PM, Blogger Blog World said...

The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.
Lord Acton- Posters.


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