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January 14, 2002 No.
331

Saudi and other Arab Intellectuals: The Fault Lies in Our Education Not in American Society

Along with the usual letters to the editor denying any Arab or Muslim role in the September 11 attacks - or, alternately, calling on the U.S. to amend its foreign policy - the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has published a few letters calling for a thorough self-examination in the Islamic world. On December 21, 2001, the paper published a letter by Dr. Sahr Muhammad Hatem of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; her letter was headlined, "Our Culture of Demagogy Has Engendered bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, and Their Ilk," and read as follows:

"…The mentality of each one of us was programmed upon entering school as a child, [to believe] that [Islam] is everything. Instilled in our small heads was the [notion that the Muslim] has a right – whatever the cause – and that he will triumph – even if he is armed with a stick of wood against a tank – because he [represents] the truth and the others represent falsehood. Instilled in our small heads was the [notion] that we have a monopoly on good values..."

"They have taught us that anyone who is not a Muslim is our enemy, and that the West means enfeeblement, licentiousness, lack of values, and even Jahiliya [i.e., ignorance – a term used to describe the pre-Islamic era] itself. Anyone who escapes this programming in school encounters it at the mosque, or through the media or from the preachers lurking in every corner… This is the culture that has made each of us able to determine the fate of the universe."

"We have become a society completely subjugated to those who speak in the name of religion. With a mentality like this, what could we do to those who say that Islam is the solution, without [actually] offering any solution?…"

"…Anyone who doesn't like it holds his tongue, or retires to a corner in fear or embarrassment. If, however, anyone with any sense remaining dares to use it, his fate is determined by one of two [groups]:"

"[One,] by the group [of Muslim Brotherhood clerics]; if he is lucky, they only separate him from his wife,[0] and if he is unlucky, his blood is permitted. [Second,] by another group [the Jihad organization and others like it]… who kill him immediately, as in the case of Dr. Farag Fouda,[1] who was at the time the only one to stand up while we looked on in fear or embarrassment."

"…We began to turn to those who claim to be clerics, to rule for us on matters of medicine, engineering, space, and all the life sciences. Life moves on, [yet] we are stuck."

"We have begun to live an imaginary life that exists only in our heads, while the reality around us is entirely different. This is the [personality] split which engendered people like bin Laden. Since reality differs from [the picture] in his mind, he sets out as a Mujaheed; whether he kills or is killed, he wins…"

"We all focus on bin Laden and his ilk… but we have yet to focus on the more dangerous people, and I mean those who fill our heads with this rhetoric in the schools, the mosques, and the media, who disseminate words without hesitation and without considering the consequences or even understanding that in this era, the entire world hears what is said."

"What do they care? Every one of them thinks that he has a divine mandate. The outcome is that they have distorted our lives – which were distorted even before then – [and] our tolerant religion, and set us at odds with the world. How long will this damage to the lives of Muslims everywhere in the world continue? The solution is the Islam that was taught us by the Prophet of this nation – an Islam of tolerance – and not the Islam of those who control our media."[2]

Dr. Hatem's letter was warmly welcomed by the paper's liberal columnist Khaled Al-Qashtini, who called it "the best letter of 2001." This letter, he wrote, "alleviated my distress of years – years of despair, years of pessimism about the future of our nation. But now, I see a spark of light. If we have among us a woman from Riyadh with a head full of such enlightened ideas and a heart with sufficient courage, and if we have a paper that will publish her opinion – then we still have hope. As far as I am concerned, this is the letter of the year for 2001, and this is the woman worthy of the title 'Woman of the Year 2001.'"[3]

Dr. Hatem was also commended for her article by Abd Al-Salam bin Al-Hussein of Morocco, who wrote in another letter to the editor: "She has put her finger on one of the causes of the disease – fanatical thought stemming from miscomprehension of [the Koranic verse that says Muslims are] 'the best nation brought to mankind' – a phrase that does not mean that all the other nations are evil. Islam introduced tremendous human values; this, however, does not mean that the non-Islamic nations are lacking in noble values and are all Jahiliya… We must stop seeing ourselves as the center of the world while we live on its margins. We must consider the rest of the nations as human beings, with the same absolute value that Allah instilled in man, regardless of creed or race…"[4]

Ahmad Othman of London expressed a view similar to that of Dr. Hatem, in two letters that appeared in the paper. In the first, written just after September 11, he wrote, "…As usual, we always blame others, and refuse to acknowledge our mistakes. There can be no doubt whatsoever that all those who participated in the World Trade Center operation were our youth, and our sons. We are responsible for their education. They carried out this operation thinking, mistakenly, that they were sacrificing their souls for the Arab nation and the Islamic faith. [No one] can deny that we – not America – taught them these things with our media, our schools, and everything we do. We taught the youth in our lands to hate America; we taught them the sanctity of martyrdom [in dying] as we kill our enemies…"[5]

Some two months later, Othman had another letter published by the paper; in it he wrote, "…By now it has already been proven beyond doubt that all those who participated in the suicide attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon… were Arabs and Muslims. They are our sons, born and educated in our Arab societies. These terrorists attended our schools and were educated by us. They got their information from our press and our media. If they came to the conclusion that killing themselves and destroying the culture of others was the only way they could express their identity – doubtless something in our society – not in the society of the American victims – is very wrong…"

"Instead of acknowledging our blunders in giving our sons a proper Islamic education, we sought out the wrongs of the Americans and of globalization to justify our children's crimes… Instead of offering political pretexts to justify the terror operations, wouldn't it have been better for us to be honest and to participate, with the other peoples of the world, in defending humanity from this peril, of which we are the first victim?..."[6]


[0] A reference to the case of Egyptian anthropologist Nasser Abu Zeid, in which an Egyptian court ruled that his marriage was null and void after he was convicted of heresy in 1993.

[1] A liberal Egyptian intellectual murdered in 1992.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 12, 2001

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 2, 2002.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 6, 2002.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 18, 2002.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2001.