February 12, 2002

Speaker addresses Islamic fundamentalism

Although the events of September 11 have focused attention on fundamentalist Islamic groups in Saudi Arabia, Joshua Teitelbaum sent the message last Thursday that Islamic extremism is controllable. Teitelbaum, research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv, focused on the political and historical underpinnings in explaining both Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile and leader of the Saudi opposition, and his phenomenal popularity throughout the Arab world.

"My goal is to give a historical perspective," Teitelbaum said. His lecture, entitled "The Making of Osama bin Laden: An In-Depth Look at the Saudi Opposition," was co-sponsored by the International House Global Voices Program, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Newberger Hillel Center.

He explained that Saudi Arabia, named after its ruling Saudi family, was founded on the beliefs of Wahhabism, a puritan movement in Islam that advocates a return to the "original" teachings of Islam and a literal interpretation of the Koran. The Saudi opposition, Teitelbaum claims, has emerged out of the belief that the ruling family no longer upholds these principles of Wahhabism.

"Saudi Arabia is the only Arab state whose legitimacy is entirely based on Islam," Teitelbaum said.

According to Teitelbaum, Osama bin Laden's organization strives to resist the temptations of modernization and uphold the principles of Wahhabism. In the face of a diminished quality of life in Arab nations and the spread of western ideology, bin Laden's mission of religious purification has become widely supported throughout the Saudi Kingdom. "Osama bin Laden is popular because he gave up everything to pursue the cause," Teitelbaum said, referring to the wealthy life bin Laden gave up to lead Al Qaeda.

Teitelbaum cited a pro-bin Laden demonstration in Mecca last October as evidence of the unusually strong support for bin Laden. "Demonstrations are extremely rare in Saudi Arabia," he said. "The vast majority of Saudis felt sympathy for Osama bin Laden and his cause."

Although opposition is nothing new to the Saudi government, "the attacks of September 11 brought to light many issues which the Saudis preferred to keep quiet," Teitelbaum said. He described the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks were Saudis as "profoundly humiliating for the Saudi people and their government." The attacks clearly call into question the Saudi government's ability to control radical opposition groups.

The government has not taken aggressive steps to control opposition in the past. "The government has preferred to deal with opposition quietly, imprisoning radicals only when necessary while avoiding drastic action," Teitelbaum said. He pointed out that during the 1970s, "the oil boom gave the regime huge resources to buy off opposition." The subsequent fall of oil prices reduced the fighting power of the government while increasing dissent.

Even after the attacks of September 11, the Saudi government was not able to control opposition leaders. While two prominent Saudi religious leaders close to the government, known as Ulema, immediately condemned the attacks, several others took a more radical position, declaring that whoever aids non-Muslims against Muslims is himself an unbeliever.

Teitelbaum attributes the government's lack of aggressive action against opposition to the generally lower reserve of political capital found in Arab governments. "Income taxes do not exist anywhere in the Arab world because Arab governments do not have sufficient control over their people to impose such taxes," Teitelbaum said.

However, he cites the monarchy's firm control over the army and broad, loyal support as reassurance against the development of effective, organized opposition. "The Saudi royal family faces a real challenge, but the government is equipped to handle the challenge," Teitelbaum said.