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Saudi Arabia Undergoing Slow, Internal Changes - 2004-01-08

Saudi Arabia's government is cautiously revamping political, economic and educational institutions. Some Saudis ,including former Muslim extremists, are also calling for a religious reformation to steer impressionable youngsters away from a path toward extremism.

Thirty seven-year-old Khalid Ghannami's eyes light up when he talks about his movie idol Robert de Niro. He can list every film the American actor made and recite some of his dialogue, too.

It's hard to imagine that, until about five years ago, Khalid Ghannami was isolated from the outside world, had destroyed the televisions in his family's home and considered anything beyond the scope of his faith as untouchable. "For 10 years there was no music, no TV, just from work to the room in my house my library - with 1,200 books, all religious," he says.

Mr. Ghannami says he even dreamed of going to fight with fellow Saudi, Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network, and other religious warriors in Afghanistan to oust the Russians he considered "infidels."

Like many of his fellow extremists, he considered Western music, television, movies and culture all taboo.

So did Mansour Nogaidan, who was jailed seven times in his radical days for burning down video shops. He acknowledges, even his conservative religious leaders rejected him after he resorted to violence. "We thought at the time that video stores and tapes were spreading western values, and we saw it as a valid target," he says.

For years, Mansour Nogaidan lived in an isolated community with other radicals who believed in Takfir, a religious ruling that brands less conservative Muslims and non-Muslims as infidels. He started on his personal reformation more than five years ago, but admits the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington solidified his determination to change.

"Sometimes, you need an event to put it as a mirror, to see what kind of face you have. It will reflect the reality of your face. How do you look to the people, and how (do) the people look to you? Sometimes, you sit with yourself and say, you have a good face. But sometimes, it's different, when some person will take you to the mirror, and you see the true face," says Mr. Nogaidan. "You can say it was an earthquake for me."

Both Mr. Nogaidan and Khalid Ghannami see their strict adherence to the puritanical Wahabi branch of Islam and an education that limited access to other ideologies as responsible for their xenophobia. They feared Western culture would pollute the purity of Islam.

"All this needs to be reformed. If we are talking about reforming political systems, there is something, which is more important. That is religious reform," says Mr. Ghannami. "We must find a new reading to the religion, a new reading that is more tolerant, something that will fit better with globalization and communicating with fellow man. It's not an isolated desert island any more."

Both men started questioning their world views in the late 1990s. During one of his many jailings, Mansour Nogaidan was handed a book on Western philosophy. He could not put it down and hungered for more.

A friend of Khalid Ghannami made him read the writings of popular Egyptian cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi who preached tolerance. He started sneaking to a friend's house to watch his sermons on satellite television. In 2000, he says he announced his decision to change by shaving off the long, untrimmed beard that marked him as a strict fundamentalist.

Both men acknowledge their personal transformations were not easy. Fellow extremists rejected them. Mr. Mansour still receives death threats. Mr. Ghannami, now an English teacher, had to change schools to avoid harassment.

In Saudi Arabia's new environment of more open dialogue, both men use local newspapers as a platform to speak out against extremism, and encourage religious reforms.

Abdulrahman al Matrodi is deputy minister of Islamic affairs. He cautions against blaming a whole culture for the mistakes of a few, and describes terrorism as against Islamic teaching. He says the government has started retraining hundreds of Muslim religious leaders, and has removed more than 1,000 radical clerics. The ministry keeps a close watch now on the country's estimated 50,000 mosques under its control, to weed out clerics who espouse radical views. "They have a code of conduct for their jobs," says Mr. al Matrodi. "And if they have not fulfilled the code of conduct, they will be either removed or trained on how to pursue their jobs."

Mr. Matrodi says satellite TV and the Internet have opened up Saudi Arabia's traditionally closed society in ways never before imagined. "There is more dialogue and more information coming out. There are more people who have been out of the country and found some new things, which is not contradicting Islam," he says. "And some still here think anything people bring is contradicting Islam, and they want to stay conservative."

Objectionable phrases that label non-Muslims "infidels" now are being removed from school textbooks.

But, calls for a religious renaissance are muted by a conservative religious establishment that exerts influence and authority over Saudi society and is resistant to change.