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Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia

The Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative Sunni organization founded in l928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. The Brotherhood has as its goal the overthrow of all non-lslamic governents and the establishment of a unified lslamic state according to the tenets of the early (Sunni) caliphatc, a more equitable sharing of wealth, and use of Islamic law as the sole basis of legislation. It opposes the spread of Western in?uence in the Arab world. The Brotherhood had chaptcrs in Qatar, Kuwait. and the UAE. There were no known chapter in Saudi Arabia. but the Saudis were major financial backers and provided safe haven for Brotherhood leaders exiled from other countries.

The Muslim brotherhood movement was born in the Egyptian coastal city of Ismaeliya in 1928. After they were thrown out of Egypt during the Arab cold war between Nasser and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, (1960-1970), the Muslim Brothers went to Saudi Arabia. There they worked in the field of education. They were responsible for radicalizing Saudi students who were raised in the strict but quietist Wahabi tradition.

The Takfiri ideology behind extremist groups dated back to the earliest days of Islam, and had figured in the killings of two early Caliphs. Its tenets were reflected in the beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and had spread from there to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then to the Arabian Peninsula where it had been taken up by modern day terrorists including Al-Qaeda (AQ). Recent years had been punctuated by a series of "objections to modernity," such as the attack on the Grand Mosque in 1979, and the Olaya and Khobar bombings, both of which had killed Americans. Saudi Arabia had 2200 kilometers of land borders with Yemen and Iraq which posed challenges. The Iraqi border was flat and porous, while the frontier with Yemen presented difficult terrain where it was easy for terrorists to hide.

While some Saudis influenced by the teachings of the Muslim brothers remained faithful to that organization, others developed even more radical versions of its doctrines, creating the new organizations that produced Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Jamal Kashoggi, editor of the influential daily Al-Watan, self-described as coming from a very fundamentalist family once but no longer associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was a friend of Osama bin Laden in his younger days, as he was beginning his ideological journey into violent jihadism. Kashoggi is frequently quoted in "The Looming Tower" as a source on Osama bin Laden, his character, and personality. Khashoggi, now known as a reformer, was a Muslim Brother in his youth. Today he is a leading voice for reform.

The arrival of members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and the subsequent emergence of the Sahwa (awakening) movement caused many in Saudi Arabia to begin to see God as a "punisher" rather than "God the merciful and compassionate," despite the fact that Muslim prayer begins with these words. Over time, this changed concept of God resulted in a shift in both behavior and attitudes. Books about the hereafter flooded Saudi Arabia and many girls who had not veiled before began to do so because they were afraid of God's wrath.

The decade of the 1980s was characterized by the rise of ultraconservative, politically activist Islamic movements in much of the Arab world. These Islamist movements, labeled fundamentalist in the West, sought the government institutionalization of Islamic laws and social principles. Although Saudi Arabia already claimed to be an Islamic government whose constitution is the Quran, the kingdom has not been immune to this conservative trend.

In Saudi Arabia, the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, had been years of explosive development, liberal experimentation, and openness to the West. A reversal of this trend came about abruptly in 1979, the year in which the Grand Mosque in Mecca came under attack by religiously motivated critics of the monarchy, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established. Each of these events signaled that religious conservatism would have to be politically addressed with greater vigor. Although the mosque siege was carried out by a small band of zealots and their actions of shooting in the mosque appalled most Muslims, their call for less ostentation on the part of the Saudi rulers and for a halt to the cultural inundation of the kingdom by the West struck a deep chord of sympathy across the kingdom. At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini's call to overthrow the Al Saud was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the monarchy as custodian of the holy places, and a challenge to the stability of the kingdom with its large Shia minority.

The Muslim brotherhood members were educated and organized. Their placement in public schools throughout Saudi Arabia gave them a strategic platform to take advantage of the fears of instability and the general lack of education in the Kingdom. The result was the creation of the current generation of radical fundamentalists.

If Islamic education could have retained a truer Saudi character, it might have been more benign, at least in the treatment of female separation. This line of thinking is consistent with the generally increased willingness of conservative thinkers to assess the negative impact of the Brotherhood on Saudi history. This in turn suggests that Saudization, at least at the higher levels of the university system, and greater exposure to western universities, may have begun allowing religious conservatives to incorporate long-accepted theories about the negative role of the Brotherhood into their own assessments.

An additional factor lay in the monarchy's continuing need to maintain legitimacy as an "Islamic government." As long as the ruling family believes it must continue to prove itself a worthy inheritor of the legacy on which the kingdom was founded, it will be obliged to foster religious education and the Islamic political culture in which the kingdom's media are steeped. A lesser factor in the rise of conservatism may be widespread sympathy with the sense of being victimized by the West, as evidenced, for example, in the continuing displacement of Palestinians in the occupied territories and southern Lebanon.



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