February 20, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 665

The Writings of Liberal Saudi Journalist Raid Qusti

February 20, 2004
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 665

The following is a compilation of articles written by Saudi journalist Raid Qusti, a columnist for the Saudi English daily Arab News. Qusti has written columns in favor of expanding women's rights, educational reform, and modernization, and is often critical of Islamism. During the Al Qa'ida bombings in Saudi Arabia last year, Qusti was interviewed numerous times by CNN to describe and analyze the attacks. The following are excerpts from Qusti's columns from May 2003 through January 2004:

'Many Muslim Scholars Have a Mindset of the Distant Past'

On November 19, 2003, Qusti published a column in Arab News titled 'A Good Sign of Change.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"The appearance on Saudi television of Sheikh Ali Al-Khudair, a hard-line religious scholar who encouraged uprisings against the government as well as attacks on non-Muslims, is the talk of the town. All major Saudi newspapers carried the story of how he had recanted his earlier beliefs and withdrawn his Fatwas - religious edicts. The fact that such a well-known hard-liner appeared live on Saudi TV and was interviewed by Sheikh Aaid Al-Qarni - who was once on the government's blacklist and who was jailed for his views - is not only revolutionary in the history of the Saudi media but also, at least to many, a long-awaited sign that ideological changes are taking place among some of our religious scholars.

"The sheikh told Al-Qarni that he had wept when he learned of the explosions in the Al-Muhaya compound. He also said that his description of militants as 'Mujahideen' before the events in Riyadh had been wrong and that it had been a grave mistake. He said that the militants were 'strayers from the truth…' [and] that it was wrong to call for Jihad against non-Muslims living in the Kingdom: 'Only the ruler has the right to call for Jihad. These people [non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia] should be given protection according to Islam.'

"He also admitted that his Fatwas, which many uninformed young Saudis have used as a basis for certain actions, had caused widespread damage which 'damaged the name of Muslims and obscured true efforts at religious propagation.' When asked about people using the Hadith – 'Get polytheists out of the Arabian Peninsula' as justification for killing non-Muslims, Al-Khudair replied: 'The Hadith is correct in its narration but has been wrongly interpreted.'

"That got me thinking. If this Sheikh had inspired young Saudis to turn to violence, how many other Sheikhs had corrupted other young minds? Those in Algeria who have slaughtered thousands - men, women, and children - hold beliefs which they think justifies their actions. Their beliefs are backed by Fatwas from religious scholars. The Muslim brothers 'Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen' who rose up against the government in Egypt were also acting according to religious scholars. And let us not forget the 19 young Muslims who hijacked four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11. They too were brainwashed and influenced by the religious ideology of Osama Bin Laden. [Al-Khudair's] statement also reminded me of Mahathir Muhammad, Malaysia's former prime minister, who said that these religious scholars were responsible for the widespread stagnation in the Muslim world. I could not agree more.

"It is unfortunate that many Muslim religious scholars have a mindset that belongs to the distant past. In earlier times, Muslim rulers called for translations of Greek and Roman works in order to use their knowledge. Building on what they learned, Muslims were pioneers in astrology, medicine, geology, physics, mathematics, and biology at a time when Europe was struggling in the Dark Ages.

"What is sad is that some scholars say that such science is 'earthly and will vanish.' They say that only religious science should be encouraged. What is equally sad is that we see religious scholars on MBC telling us that it is forbidden for women to drive because it can lead to great sins. They also say that a woman should not work unless [it is] absolutely necessary, and then only in a sexually segregated environment.

"By adhering to these pronouncements, millions of Muslim women all over the world would not be participating in their countries' development, not playing their roles as good citizens, and not doing what is required of them as members of families.

"Whatever we can say, Al-Khudair recanting and withdrawing his Fatwas is a great step forward for the Kingdom and for the entire Islamic world.

"Religious scholars whose Fatwas have been responsible for misguiding, brainwashing, and corrupting the minds of other Muslims should follow suit." [1]

Saudi Arabia as a Tourist Destination

On December 10, 2003 Qusti published an article in Arab News titled 'Are We Ready to Receive Foreign Tourists?' The following are excerpts from the article:

"For decades now our country has been dependent on oil and petrochemicals as our only source of income. Now, with the oil boom [becoming] a thing of the past, with a serious deficit in the budget, and with a soaring population growth and a decline in per capita income, oil alone can no longer serve a developing nation.

"We have come up with tourism as a new economic venture in addition to oil. What? Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination? A visitor interested in coming to this region might think of Dubai, Oman, or Bahrain, but certainly not Saudi Arabia. For starters, we do not issue tourist visas. The only visas are for business and work. Even journalists sometimes have to wait for months before finally getting a visa from one of our embassies abroad.

"Even if there were tourist visas, a visitor would have a difficult time adapting to our strict ways. The first signs of a conservative and even rigid society would greet visitors on their arrival. A chopped-off Ronald McDonald's head at the food court of Al-Faisaliah, Riyadh, is a sign that Westernization - even in the form of a food chain - is not wanted here.

"And then you have the quiet and dull atmosphere - no music allowed - in the coffee shops all over the city. In the family areas, compulsory curtains are put around every table, making some of those inside feel they are in a kind of cell. The idea of going out to eat and seeing other people eating and enjoying their meal in a public place would not apply in this part of the world. That is simply because other people do not want you to look at them and do not want to look at you either. As for prayer times, Muslim or not, you and your family are kicked out - in a polite way of course - ten minutes before the call for prayer, even if you are in the middle of your meal.

"Other disturbing signs that reflect our intolerance and rigidity appear in our streets and our malls - faceless people on signs. The faces of men in an advertisement are covered with paint, tape, or plaster. Others, displaying women, are the same. Even the faces of children are blotted out - and let's not forget about women's products sold in pharmacies. And then there is sexual segregation and what almost amounts to a phobia when men and women are together. How many times has a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight been delayed because stewards and stewardesses are busy rearranging seats because a man and a woman - for cultural reasons - feel they cannot sit next to each another?

"I am still wondering how the Ministry of Transport and the Higher Commission for Developing Riyadh plans to build our first metro system. Will some of the trains be mixed or will they be segregated … with women in the back behind a barrier?

"As for meeting new people - men and women who are non-relatives - and inviting them out to dinner, do it at your own risk. Families going to recreation centers will be shocked to find that there is a day for men and one for women. In other words, families will be split, with the sons going with the father on one day and the daughters with their mother on another. The truth is that no matter what we do, we are not ready to receive foreign tourists." [2]

'Attack the Roots of Our Problems'

On January 14, 2004 Qusti wrote an article in Arab News titled 'Attack the Roots of Our Problems.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"… A columnist in Okaz newspaper wrote about something dangerous that happened in one of our government girls' intermediate schools. In a class of girls under 15, a Saudi home economics teacher was … telling her students that the terrorists responsible for the deaths of dozens of Saudis and non-Saudis in the Kingdom since May, were 'mujahideen' - fighting a holy war - and not terrorists… The teacher went even further by distributing leaflets and tapes from religious extremists … calling people infidels and saying it is permissible to wage war against them. Those same men who had expressed those beliefs later recanted on Saudi TV but according to what the teacher told her students, their doing so was not genuine.

"The teacher is not a religious expert or a well-known religious scholar. She is a teacher, paid by the government to teach home economics, so what led her into areas far beyond her abilities? The columnist concluded that in order to root out terrorism in our country, we must begin by looking carefully at our education system. We must look at textbooks that do not encourage tolerance and teachers who take advantage of their jobs to spread poisonously destructive bile and venom.

"After reading his column I sighed. This was not the first time I had heard such a story. In fact, shortly after the May 12 attacks in Riyadh, an acquaintance who teaches at the Girls College told me of something frightening that she had personally experienced. One day during a discussion class in the English department where she teaches, she asked her students: 'If you had the chance to be anyone in the world, who it would be and why?' Students of course gave all kinds of answers, each idolizing someone she wanted to be - from parents to a statesman to a scientist. One reply, however, left her speechless. 'I want to be one of the bombers. They are doing so much for the country.'

"Imagine a 22 year-old college student whose ultimate desire is to become a suicide bomber! The killer of scores of people who believed that not only would she go to heaven but that the act would also be good for the country since it would plant fear in the hearts of infidels, causing them to leave the country! This same college student with her twisted ideas may one day be a mother, responsible for rearing a few members of another generation of Saudis. It is a frightening possibility but also a very real one which must be confronted and overcome.

"As a journalist who has reported the terrorist attacks in our country, I have always believed that our war against terror is really a war against an ideology. Yes, we have accomplished much in finding the terrorist cells in major cities and rounding up hundreds of suspects, but if we do not attack the root of the problem, it is only a matter of time before other terrorist attacks take place.

"The root, however, cannot be attacked given our continuing state of denial that we are beyond error and shortcoming. In fact, the very denial that we have a major extremist problem in the country has only helped the problem to grow. We have awakened to find the country full of sleeping terrorist cells.

"The first step, as many Saudis who debated fiercely in the National Forum for Dialogue held in Makkah, is to change our school textbooks. Not only are the books breeding a sectarian culture but they fail to encourage diversity, dialogue, tolerance and harmony among different groups of Saudi society. The second step should be a change in the methods of teaching. And the third - this may be the most important - is to teach that those who differ with our opinions, even when it comes to religious matters, are not our enemies. Differences of opinion are signs of a healthy society, not a backward one. Early Muslim societies were models of tolerance and we would do well to emulate them.

"The road to unity, prosperity, and reform is not an easy one to travel, but we must go down it. The alternative is to stay where we are, develop even more problems which are never addressed, and so find ourselves victims of stagnation, frustration, and despair." [3]

'What Have We Accomplished as a Nation in the Past 10 Years?'

On October 1, 2003 Qusti published a column in Arab News titled 'Solving Problems: The Saudi Style.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"The Saudi way of solving problems is simple. We plunge our heads in the sand and pretend that the problem has gone away, exactly like an ostrich.

"September 11, the Iraq war, and the terrorist attacks in Riyadh on May 12, and the appearance of so many sleeping terrorist cells in our country after that, should have been wake-up calls for Saudi society that we need reforms and immediate government plans for a revamp of the social, economic, political, and cultural levels. Sadly, that has not happened. Using the ostrich method, we continue our journey toward the unknown, not knowing that the cancer is eating away at our structure slowly but effectively.

"Though the government has been launching a fierce battle against terrorists, officials are not doing anything to look at the roots of the matter. What has led a group of young Saudis to blow themselves up and kill innocent people? Who are the people that brainwashed them? What are the reasons for their extremism? Did frustration also play a role in what happened?

"What we really wanted to see after May 12 was cooperation between the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Education. We wanted moderate sheikhs to address students on all levels once a week about tolerance [toward] other faiths and the explanation of the word 'Jihad' in Islam.

"This is the least that we could have done - since our curriculum does not stress these topics at all. Students would also have had the chance to ask these sheikhs questions about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, Islam as a moderate religion, and universal Islam. There are thousands of Saudi students who are eager to listen and ask questions about those topics. If they do not find answers that are convincing to them at school, they will look for them elsewhere. And that is where the danger lies. If we ignore the root causes, it is only a matter of time that bad weeds will start springing up again.

"One day while I was flipping through the channels, I learned that ART was celebrating its 10th anniversary. 'My God,' I said to myself. 'Has it been 10 years since ART was launched?' But then I asked myself: 'What have we accomplished as a nation in the past 10 years? Have we solved our social problems?' I sighed when I realized that not only have our problems stayed unresolved, but they actually increased. And now we have to add 'extremism' as a cherry on the top.

"The surprise came on September 23, our National Day. Few educators, thinkers, writers, or journalists actually talked about the challenges we face now as a nation and the need to resolve them. Jamal Khashoggi was the only writer I found on National Day who asked the daring question: 'What will Saudi Arabia be like in 20 years?' Judging from what I see now: joblessness, corruption, oppression of youth, a huge decline in the per capita income, poverty, phobia between men and women, a population explosion, bureaucracy, intolerance of diversity, and a rise in the number of unmarried women and divorcees - it does not look promising at all… [4]

'Saudi Arabia is a Male-Dominated Country'

On September 17, 2003 Raid Qusti wrote an article in Arab News titled 'When Do We Implement Change?' The following are excerpts from the article:

"'Women should be given the option to drive.' This was the feedback I got from many readers who read last week's column about women not driving in Saudi Arabia any time soon. Other readers pointed out that there is nothing contrary to Islam in women driving - and that cars have replaced camels which were common in the days of the Prophet… Though in principle I agree with both, I still believe that driving for women here is a more complicated issue than many think. My reason for saying that is not to oppose the idea but to address a problem that has been common for years: prejudice against women. Sometimes when I consider the idea of women driving here, I laugh and say to myself: 'Uttering a woman's name is still a social taboo here. How in the world can we expect women to get behind the wheel of a car?'

"It takes no genius to realize that Saudi Arabia is a male-dominated country. From the first second you set foot in King Abd Al-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah or King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh you see only men. The airport staff is all male; the people at the Saudi Arabian Airlines counters are all male; the passport officials are all male; and the car rental employees are all male. I would not blame a first-time visitor for thinking that creatures from outer space had zapped all the women. But sadly, the fact is that women have no public presence whatsoever in Saudi Arabia. They exist only behind closed doors. The idea that our society sees a public female presence as a threat to its customs is utterly misplaced and wrong in the 21st century. For too long we have been a handicapped society, a society which relied on only half the country's human resources - the male half… How do you get people to change their mentality? Where do we start?

"Currently the prevailing custom in Saudi Arabia is that women and men should never mix, in any way, in public or at work. The other part of this custom is that women are limited to roles in education and teaching… Bearing in mind that Saudi Arabia has experienced an outward development over the past 70 years - electricity, roads, schools, hospitals - we must also admit that many other things have not changed at all. We have leaped from camels, mud houses, tents, and rigid traditions to paved streets, satellite TVs, mobile phones, and modern cities. But during that leap from 'A' to 'D,' society did not pass through stages 'B' and 'C' as other nations have done. We are now at 'D,' though many people's mentality remains at 'A.' So how indeed are we to implement changes in society? And from where and by whom are the changes to come?" [5]

Saudi Women are Seen as 'Lesser Creatures'

On September 10, 2003 Qusti wrote an article in Arab News titled 'Women Driving: Not Any Time Soon.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"The 18-year-old Saudi girl got into the driver's seat and took the wheel from her dad on the Dammam-Alkhobar Expressway. Her father had suddenly started feeling severe pains in his chest while he was driving and lost control of the car. He needed immediate medical attention. The girl, who was wearing her Abaya, drove all the way to the city to get him to the nearest hospital. Her courageous act saved her father's life.

"This is a true story that was published in Al-Watan newspaper last month. The report went on to say that the father had previously taught his daughter how to drive because he believed it to be a necessary skill, even though the Kingdom does not allow women to drive…

"This report gave me some optimism that people here could accept women driving and even realize that it is important. But that optimism did not last long. I learned a week later that Al-Riyadh newspaper published last month a survey about women driving in Saudi Arabia. The paper closed the survey after 90 percent of the total 33,000 votes turned out to be against.

"Some people who support driving for women said that the conservatives were simply better organized, spending time lobbying and rallying their supporters and asking them to go online and vote against the idea. Others who opposed the idea on some Arabic websites accused Al-Riyadh newspaper of cowardice for stopping the survey when it realized it was going contrary to what it had expected, namely that the supporters of driving for women would carry the day.

"Those same people said some Saudis were naïve when they called for the liberation of women and did not see the great corruption that would spread if such a thing was allowed. They said that if women were allowed to drive, soon some of them would take the opportunity discard the Hijab and Abaya as well. They said [that] in 1991 a group of Saudi women protested against the law banning them from driving and took to the streets in their cars and threw away their Abayas and Hijabs. They concluded that if women were allowed to drive it would merely encourage them to leave the house unsupervised for no good reason.

"In the 1960s, education for girls was proposed by the government in the face of massive objections from the public and from scholars who said it was contrary to Islam. But this matter is entirely different.

"There are in my opinion two main obstacles that hinder women from driving here. The first is the mentality of men, many of whom continue to see women as lesser creatures in terms of intelligence and capability. The other is the fact that the uncovering of a woman's face in public is not only a social taboo but is believed by the many to be a sin.

"Even if a law permitted women to drive, cultural barriers would kill it instantly. Take the issue of driving licenses. For security reasons there has to be a photo to identify the driver. But how would an officer of the law be able to perform his duty? Would he ask the veiled Saudi woman to uncover her face to identify her at a checkpoint, for example? The small percentage of Saudi women who uncover their faces would not have a problem with that, but what about the majority of Saudis - both male and female - who believe that a woman must never uncover her face to a man, even for security reasons?

"To overcome the problem, and to gain public acceptance from the conservative majority here, the government would have to seek a solution of opening women's sections in the police department or recruit female police officers that would be stationed all over the Kingdom. None of that is likely any time soon.

"Another option is for us to change deeply entrenched beliefs and draw clear distinctions between customs and traditions on the one hand and religion on the other. And that will take generations to do, provided there are enough Saudis who believe that it should be done at all." [6]

Criticism of the Saudi Custom Forbidding Women to Show Their Face in Public

On September 4, 2003 Qusti published an article in Arab News titled 'Tribal Custom Means a Husband Never Sees His Wife's Face.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"One of the most remarkable among the many and varied tribal customs that survive in Saudi Arabia is one that forbids anyone at all seeing a woman's face. In parts of the Al-Kharj region, not even a woman's husband and children are permitted to see her face uncovered.

"In interviews with Al-Kharj residents, Sayidaty, a sister publication of Arab News, heard that often the first time even a daughter sees her mother's face is after the mother's death. 'I always dreamt of seeing my mother's face because I am a woman like her,' resident Hissa Al-Massareir told the magazine. 'But because of customs and traditions in the family, this was impossible. It was only when my mother died that my dream came true,' she added.

"Al-Kharj native Muhammad Abdullah has never seen his wife's face. 'We've been married for ten years and I've never seen it, not once,' he said. The Burqa - the garment that covers all of [her] head except the eyes - 'is stuck to her face 24 hours a day', he said. 'This is not for want of trying. One day I tried to remove the Burqa while she was asleep. She was furious. She left and went to her parents' house and returned only after I had signed an undertaking that I would never attempt to do such a thing again.'

"Saud Al-Otaibi also found his wife fiercely loyal to the custom. 'I tried to blackmail my wife by saying I'd marry another woman if she didn't show me her face,' he said. But he was in for a surprise. 'Instead of giving in she said, all right, marry someone else. And she set me up with a friend of hers who wasn't so strict in her adherence to the custom, and I married her.'

"Others report that they have become so used to not seeing the faces of even close relatives that they would be shocked if they did. 'I have never seen my mother's face', Ahmad Bkhait told the magazine. 'I tried many times but was always rebuffed. By now I'd think it weird if she suddenly unveiled her face…' [7]

Answering Accusations that He is 'Un-Saudi'

On December 24, 2003 Raid Qusti published an article in Arab News titled 'Let's Be Candid, Open-Minded.' In response to his critics, some of who have called him "un-Saudi," Qusti defends his Saudi heritage:

"… Let me point out to the readers that my grandparents were Saudis. They were Makkans born in Makkah. My ancestors - great-grandfather and beyond - immigrated to the Hejaz in the early 1800s. At that time, the Saudi state did not exist and the country consisted of several parts…"

Qusti went on to argue that tolerance and equality are essential tenets of Islam:

"… Another matter I would like to discuss is Islam. How could the writer accuse me of being un-Islamic when she seems to have forgotten one of the most important aspects of our religion? As a Muslim, she should know that we are equal in the eyes of Allah, and no person is better than another except in righteousness. 'O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah are the most righteous of you. Verily, Allah is all-knowing, all-aware.' Surah Al-Hujurat, verse 12.

"… Let us call customs and traditions what they are, and not link them to Islam. Is banning women from driving, banning girls from sports in schools, or banning women from taking the role they deserve in social development by not allowing them to work in fields other than healthcare and teaching, Islamic?"

Qusti implored Saudis to be honest when discussing the country's situation: "Let's be honest with ourselves… A person who truly loves his country does not pretend that it is a society of angels and free of all problems. We are no different than other societies in the world. We have problems and flaws like everyone else. But denial, pretending they do not exist, or turning a blind eye and a deaf ear toward them will not do us any good. Discussing them candidly and with an open heart and mind definitely will." [8]

'Giving Free Ammunition to Our Enemy'

On May 21, 2003 Qusti wrote an article in Arab News titled 'We Need to Learn to Be Self-Critical.' The following are excerpts from the article:

"Journalists are a pain in the butt - that is something all of us know. They are the ones chasing people coming out of courts for interviews, chasing officials into buildings to take a quote or two, and they are always asking questions and trying to find answers.

"But ask any decent journalist in the world what he does for a living and the answer will come: 'Seeking the truth.' However, seeking the truth and reporting the facts, as we journalists know, comes at a cost. Mostly that can mean being hated by officials. At other times it can mean being criticized for writing something that would be considered too bold for others to handle. But being a journalist or writer in Saudi Arabia, especially for a major Saudi English newspaper read worldwide, comes at double, if not triple the cost.

"Though I knew that all along, it was only when I started writing about Saudi society and speaking about it candidly that I realized that self-criticism in Saudi Arabia is sometimes considered unpatriotic. Why? Because as a Saudi writing in English, my writings, which criticize what I believe is wrong in our society, are considered by many here - especially the conservatives - as giving free ammunition to our enemies. In other words, instead of thinking of my critical columns as a force calling for change as others have, because I write it in English, many think that I am just airing our dirty linen before Westerners or foreigners.

"'Free ammunition to our enemies' - those were the exact words that were thrown at me by another Saudi. After congratulating me on my last piece, he said that he saw me on a program called 'Meet the Press,' broadcast in the U.S. A Saudi government official was a guest on the show and was asked to respond to what I and other critical Saudis had to say about the need for reforms and the need to examine ourselves after the terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

"It was unfortunate to know that this person immediately answered by denying that radicalism does exist in our midst and that we have failed to deal with it… He became defensive and accused me of giving free ammunition to our enemies by saying things that are critical of my country. That is the extra cost I have to pay for being a Saudi writer who speaks truthfully about my society in an English newspaper…

"So according to the logic of this person, I guess we Saudis - journalists or non-journalists - should stop writing anything critical about our society in our newspapers. We should limit our roles to publishing sweet talk about officials. We should also forget that what we Saudis say in our newspapers is our voice, the voice of the public, the people of Saudi Arabia. Instead, we should lie to ourselves and to our leaders and pretend that we are comfortable with what we witnessed in Riyadh last week.

"I am sorry to disappoint you. I am a journalist like my father and my grandfather before me. Journalism runs in my blood. I am also a Saudi citizen who is patriotic and loves his country. You or others might criticize what I and others say in the local press, but I remain defiant. No country in the world can progress or develop without being self-critical. It is unfortunate that we Saudis have to learn that the hard way." [9]

[1] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), November 19, 2003.

[2] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), December 10, 2003.

[3] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), January 14, 2004.

[4] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2003.

[5] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), September 17, 2003.

[6] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2003.

[7] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), September 4, 2003.

[8] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), December 24, 2003.

[9] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), May 21, 2003.

Share this Report: