Apr 07 2012
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WSJ(4/7) Saudi Youth Fear Crackdown After Friend's Arrest
Saturday, Apr 07, 2012
(From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- This time last spring, young Saudi men and women had transformed the vibrant Jasur bookstore-cafe into the center of a surge of self-expression in their highly restrictive society.
Saudis would meet here among graffiti-scrawled walls and jumbled bookshelves to shyly recite poetry, plot satirical social commentary for YouTube or hash out the issues of their times.
On a recent night, a small group convened again, but this time the young Saudis spoke grimly of fatwas, death threats, prison and fear.
The pressure came to a head in February, when the clerics and their followers demanded the execution of a 23-year-old Jasur regular, Hamza Kashgari, for tweets critical of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Incubators . . . of delusion and evil" such as "Internet sites, cafes, salons, books, and audio or video media" must be banned, and religious education for the young intensified, the clerics demanded.
"Now it's a fight for existence for us," said Abdullah Sulieman, 27, a Jasur regular and friend of Mr. Kashgari, who is now in prison in the capital, Riyadh, for his tweets, with no official word on if and when he will stand trial.
"It's not a political struggle. It's our right to exist in Saudi," Mr. Sulieman said at the recent gathering at Jasur with a dozen other men and women in their early 20s and 30s. "One day we're sitting with our friend Hamza, the next . . . ," he broke off, gesturing at a torn red leather chair that Mr. Kashgari used to favor.
A few feet away, a woman sat watching and listening intently, typing on her cellphone with it propped so its camera pointed toward the group.
Spotting her and two other men who also appeared to be listening in -- presumably followers of local fundamentalist clerics -- Mr. Sulieman shrugged. "We expect that they take notes," he said.
With 70% of Saudi Arabia's population under 30 years old, the numbers of young Saudis no longer satisfied by the old answers will only grow, said Sheikh Salman al Odah, a popular cleric who was one of the few religious leaders to appeal -- via Twitter -- for forgiveness for Mr. Kashgari.
Saudi Arabia has had none of the mass uprisings seen in many other parts of the Arab world this year and last, and public protests here are rare. What the kingdom has experienced, however, is a growth of popular questioning of its strict social, religious, and political mores, particularly by young people who have found their voices on Twitter and Facebook.
Saudi King Abdullah has pushed back against the clerics in some realms this year. The king, for example, removed cases of women driving out of the jurisdiction of religious courts. After one such court ordered the lashing of a female driver last year, the royal family stayed the sentence, activists said.
In Jeddah, a Red Sea city that has historically rejected the stricter ways of the Saudi interior, liberals haven't called for the ouster of the royal family -- and never will, because it is their only buffer against the clerics, said human-rights lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair.
"We know if they go, the first thing the religious people do . . . ," Mr. Abu Alkhair sliced his hand across his neck.
Saudi Arabia's dominant Islamist movement, Sahwa, or "Awakening," is a blend of the religious creed of the kingdom's Wahhabi Islamists and the political inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement with followers around the region, said Stephane Lacroix, a France-based expert on Saudi Arabia's Islamic movements.
Though the government has lessened Sahwa control over public-school curriculum, the fundamentalist movement is still allowed heavy influence over the kingdom's youth.
Generations of Saudi boys -- including Mr. Kashgari and his friends -- have attended weeklong camps that Sahwa followers run in the desert for Saudi youth. With few choices for recreation, all boys attend. On the desert trips, "They try to take us from our families, and put pressure on us," Mr. Suleiman said.
Later, when male Saudi teenagers enter university, the Sahwa are there again, helping freshmen find their way to their classrooms and meet their classmates, young Saudis say. Only after the students graduate do Sahwa leaders formally recruit them, the young Saudis say.
Mr. Kashgari and his friends belong to one of the first generations of Saudis who are saying no, Mr. Lacroix and some young Saudis say.
"There's a new generation of people who are ready to question things," Mr. Lacroix said.
Sheik al Odah, once a Sahwa hard-liner, is urging the Sahwa mainstream to change to accommodate coming generations whose way of thinking has been broadened by the Internet.
"Things will not continue as they are," he said in his office in Riyadh. "Political awareness in the country is different now."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
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