A most unwelcome change


Hesham A. Hassaballa’s Column

After the horrific Riyadh suicide bombings on May 12 that killed 25 people, something had to change in Saudi Arabia. The change that did occur, however, was most unwelcome. On May 27, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef fired Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily newspaper Al Watan. The decision came without announcement from the government, and the news made little waves around the world. That news, however, left me upset, dismayed, and angry.

Khashoggi and Al Watan were at the center of a fierce debate currently raging in Saudi Arabia over religious extremism. In the hours after the May 12 bombings, Khashoggi wrote in a column, “Those who committed yesterday’s crime, which will have a painful impact on the peaceful nature of our nation, are not only the suicide bombers, but also everyone who instigated or justified the attacks, everyone who called them mujahedeen, even everyone who ignored this irregular direction in our religion and nature, or tried to find excuses for it.” The paper has also been especially critical of the “religious police” in Saudi Arabia and has openly questioned the views of 14th Century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiya, who is frequently cited by Wahhabi Muslims. In fact, the paper published an article entitled, “Who is more important-the nation of Ibn Taimaya?” Saad al Fagih of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, a Saudi opposition group in London, told The Guardian, this was the paper’s main offense.

Al Watan’s articles and columns, however, were not the only things that infuriated its conservative critics. Many of its cartoons also earned the ire of conservative Muslims in Saudi Arabia. One cartoon showed a man dressed in a short, calf-length robe with a scraggly beard depicted as a suicide bomber. The sticks of dynamite, however, were labeled “fatwas” or religious edicts. The day before Jamal Khashoggi was fired, in fact, Sheikh Abdullah bin Adbdul Rahman al Jibrin issued an edict against the paper and urged Saudis not to buy the newspaper.

This is a very bad development indeed. Many in Saudi Arabia, as I did, hoped that the May 12 attacks would herald a new era of openness and tolerance and spearhead a grassroots effort to exterminate the cancer of radical Islam. Al Watan wanted to be at the vanguard of this fight, and I applauded the paper for it. Islam defines itself as a religion of moderation and tells its followers to be the same: “Thus, have We [God] made of you a justly balanced nation, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves…” (2:143). 

It has been said that Truth does not fear investigation. Nothing can be healthier for the Muslim world than to question where the cancer of Islamic extremism originated, and Muslims should not be afraid of where this investigation leads. To stifle the debate over religious extremism by firing Jamal Khashoggi does an extreme disservice to Muslims everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia. Al Watan should not give up its effort to expose the roots of extremist thought in that country. What it finds will help not only Saudis, but all Muslims who are fed up with the agenda of the violent fringe dominating the discourse of Islam and Muslims around the world.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and Media Monitors Network (MMN)He is author of “Why I Love the Ten Commandments,” published in the book “Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith” (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for Best Religion Book by the Religion Communicators Council.