Wednesday, March 09, 2005

'Say no to terrorism' is the new mantra in Saudi Arabia

Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News:
As we approach Makkah on the way from Jeddah, we begin feeling that something has changed in the scenery. But what? The alluvial desert, its ochre, bordeaux and tinsel blue colours is the same, as is the featureless motorway snaking its way on relentlessly.

And then, suddenly, we notice the change. It is the new billboards, placed every four to five kilometres on both sides of the road that have injected the difference into the scenery. For the past 30 years there had always been billboards on this road. But those were no bigger than a page from a broadsheet. The calligraphic message they conveyed was always the same: Remember God. The new billboards are several times larger, with images and texts, designed to offer a worldly message: beware of terrorism! read more

The images are deliberately opaque.

One shows the silhouette of a tall building gutted by a car bomb, as several people, their faces depicted as abstract motifs, look on. Another represents the scene of a carnage left by a terror attack in an urban area. The text messages are sharp, direct, and rhetorical. One asks: Is this what your sons should do?” Another declares: “Our faith rejects terror.” A third invites : “Together Against Terror!

Contrary to what we had been told before setting out for the city, there is no police or security presence on the road. We pass through a single checkpoint where two uniformed men wave the cars on with no more than a cursory glance at the driver. The billboards accompany the traveller into the heart of the city where one is delivered into the unchanged forest of commercial billboards. Societies struck by terrorism pass through several stages in their reaction to the threat.

The first phase could be labelled “shock and awe. In it most people feel as if they were at the edge of the abyss. They feel that their lives have changed for ever and that nothing would be the same again. This is especially so because modern terrorism, unlike its classical version that was carefully targeted, is about indiscriminate killing. A car bomb is designed to kill people on a large scale. A suicide attack is not about nuance.

The second phase of coping with terrorism could be labelled “absorption”. The initial shockwaves have spent their energy, while most people have factored the threat into their lives along with other dangers such as the possibility of a car crash being struck by lightning or falling victim to a banal act of criminality.

The third phase may be called “anger build-up. In it, society begins to psychologically prepare itself for counter-attack against its enemies. This begins by rejecting any legitimacy for claims advanced by the terrorists to justify their deeds.

The fourth and final phase is one of “dissipation. In it society mobilises its moral and physical resources to fight a war that threatens the foundations of civilised life.

A recent three-week tour of Saudi Arabia produced the impression that the kingdom is at the end of the third phase and heading for the beginning of the fourth.


Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Makkah. The militant discourse of the past that, at times, came perilously close to justifying violence in the name of faith is all but discarded.

Every sermon at the Grand Mosque now includes passages condemning terrorism without “ifs” and “buts”. The books and leaflets that blurred the border between legitimate self-defence by Muslims and acts of terrorism in the name of the faith have disappeared. Nor is there any sign of the grim-faced youths, most of them Pakistanis, Sudanese and Egyptians, who pestered the pilgrims by demanding cash for “brothers” fighting in this or that corner of the globe, supposedly for the glory of Islam. There is also no sign of the charity boxes.

Just outside the Grand Mosque we fall into conversation with a group of Sri Lankan pilgrims, coming to “pray for all our peoples, including Buddhists and Tamils”, in the wake of the tsunami that has ravaged parts of their country. The subject of terrorism creeps into our conversation.

We are the only community in Sri Lanka that has not only stayed out of terrorism but has opposed it,” says a toothless pilgrim with a defiant face. “ I think Muslims everywhere should lead the fight against terrorism, the scourge of mankind.”

Other Lankans nod in approval. They have suffered for decades what the Saudis are experiencing today.

Talking to other pilgrims, including some from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan among other countries, the issue of terrorism crops up if only because Riyadh, the Saudi capital, had just hosted an international conference on the subject.

The picture that emerges is stark: any global map of terrorism would show that a majority of Muslim countries are victims of terror. Modern terrorism has caused the death of more Muslims than members of any other faith.

It is unfair that images of this place are always included in any television report about terrorism,” says Habib, a 40-year old shoe merchant from Karachi, pointing his finger at the Grand Mosque.

This triggers a commotion in which many voices call for a distinction between “normal Muslims, people like us” and those who have adopted terrorism as an ideology in the name of Islam.

“It’s all about words,” says a bespectacled lady from Bangladesh.

What should we call those who preach or practice terror in the name of their political interpretation of Islam?


Some Arab writers have suggested words such as Mutuasslim and Islamawi. Persian writers have come up with Islamgara and Islamzadeh, the latter meaning struck by Islam. In Turkish, the word Islamchi ( i.e. he who turns Islam into a business) is making its way into the vocabulary. There are older terms such as mutusharra (showing off attachment to the Shariah or Islamic Law) in Arabic, and Islaminama (showing off one’s faith) in Persian. In most Western languages terms such as Islamist or Muslim fundamentalist are in use.

But are not these words misleading? Is it not better to call a terrorist by the most precise word available in any vocabulary, that is to say a terrorist? Should political correctness prevent us from calling a spade a spade for fear of offending the spade?

At the Riyadh Conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal almost lost his temper during a press conference. He demanded: “Why do we need to fight over a definition of terrorism. Don’t we all know what a terrorist does?

On that balmy day in Makkah many pilgrims seemed to agree. They believed that the world should name terrorists after what they do and not after what they claim to represent.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He is a member of Benador Associates.