Inside Saudi Arabia
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—In the pre-Internet age, Raed al-Saeed would be punching above his weight. Last month, the 33-year-old Saudi posted a six-minute film on his blog that has thrust him into a millennial debate previously waged by only mullahs and popes: Can religion be evil? "My goal was not to make me or my blog famous," said al-Saeed. His intentions were more subtle: "Don't be brainwashed into judging a religion by one video made by someone who hates that religion." I met al-Saeed last week in the grassy courtyard of a luxury hotel in Riyadh, where we sat around a wooden picnic table in the late afternoon while songbirds crooned from nearby trees. Al-Saeed wore a black T-shirt and baggy blue jeans. A surfboard-shaped Bluetooth device poked out of his right ear.
Al-Saeed's film, called Schism, opens with a series of militant-sounding passages from the Bible (including 1 Samuel 15:3 and Deuteronomy 20:16), followed by footage of Christians saying and doing cruel, irrational, and inexcusable things in the name of God and country. For instance, there is an audio clip of President George W. Bush describing the war on terror as a "crusade"; excerpts of adolescent evangelicals pledging to die for God in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp; and video of coalition soldiers beating teenage boys in Iraq as their colleague, laughing, rolls the tape. When we met last week, al-Saeed's film had been viewed 3,000 times; a week later, the number had jumped to 250,000.
Al-Saeed insists that he didn't make the movie to malign Christians or to exacerbate differences between Muslims and Christians. But he felt it was his duty to defend his fellow Muslims against the blatantly anti-Islamic film produced by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. The Dutchman's film, Fitna (which means "schism" in Arabic), takes belligerent-sounding verses from the Quran and couples them with Hezbollah fighters marching and saluting like Nazis, al-Qaida henchmen sawing the heads off foreigners in Iraq, and imams swearing jihad against the West. Wilders implies that the Quran, which Muslims consider the literal word of God, sanctions the murder that some extremist Muslims commit in the name of Allah. "I got angry and pissed off at people who see all Muslims like that," said al-Saeed. And he wasn't the only one. At the United Nations earlier this week, several Muslim countries protested Wilders' film, and, in scenes reminiscent of the ones that followed the 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, demonstrations broke out in cities across the Islamic world.
The Internet is often praised for its ability to connect hundreds of millions of people around the world. But al-Saeed's blog exposed another dimension of the Web: how a single, husky Saudi who lives with his parents can speak for masses around the world—in this case, 1.2 billion Muslims.
There are an estimated 500 blogs in Saudi Arabia. They create a thriving source of information online, despite the best censoring efforts of the country's conservative religious establishment. Censorship here is intrusive, though inconsistent. Upon arriving, I conducted an informal study and found the that Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, YouTube clips of public beheadings in the kingdom, and Esquire magazine were all blocked, while the full line of Victoria's Secret "Angels" models was on display. Of course, hackers, bloggers, and other computer-savvy types can always elude the censors and break through firewalls without being tracked. According to Dr. Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, who heads the Counter-Radicalization Unit at the Ministry of Interior, young Saudi extremists are increasingly recruited into terrorist networks through the Internet. On one popular DVD, titled Secrets of the Mujahideen, jihadis share tips for penetrating pesky Internet filters and maintaining anonymity.
Saudi bloggers comment on a range of topics, from Islam to economics to the growing number of foreign workers in the kingdom, most of whom are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. (Officially, the government estimates that slightly more than 6 million of the country's 27 million residents are expat laborers, though the percentage could be much higher.) The Saudi government has never come out and said what bloggers can and cannot say, so most of them learn as they go. Fouad al-Farhan, a 32-year-old blogger, learned the hard way when he was arrested and detained last December. Neither the police nor the Interior Ministry have officially charged al-Farhan, though many assume that his criticisms of the kingdom's harsh detainee policy for alleged terrorists landed him in trouble. He has spent at least two months in solitary confinement. Authorities blocked his blog and other sites dedicated to his case (such as freefoaud.com). Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have repeatedly raised al-Farhan's case, though he remains behind bars.
But not all bloggers are fighting the establishment. "There are two kinds of bloggers here," al-Saeed explained. "Those who are pro-Foaud, and those like me. I blog, but I support my government. So people charge me with working for the secret police." In particular, al-Saeed supports the vision of King Abdullah. Abdullah took over in 2005 and initiated a program of economic and social liberalization. I asked al-Saeed whether Abdullah could succeed in imposing change on society from above, especially one as traditional as Saudi Arabia. "It is impossible to make everyone happy," he said. Some liberals accuse Abdullah of moving too slowly, while some conservatives accuse him of moving too quickly. Ultimately, al-Saeed suggested, the king reacts to the will of the people. "He will do whatever the majority wants."
As the afternoon wore on, waiters hustled between the wooden tables, setting out placemats and silverware, and an exterminator wielding an industrial-sized fumigator blew clouds of noxious gas meant to wipe out the insect population before dinner. I asked al-Saeed whether he felt free to speak his mind in cyberspace. "I talk about wanting more freedom of speech on my blog," he said, "but there are limits to freedom of speech everywhere." A cloud of bug-killing gas floated in our direction, and we jumped from our seats. Before we parted, al-Saeed added, "In America, you can't talk about the Jews. And in Saudi Arabia, there are limits to freedom of speech, too."
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and is currently writing a book about Pakistan. He traveled to Saudi Arabia this month as part of a New America Foundation delegation.