Exiled Saudi Is Dissident to Some, Terrorist to Others
Faqih is a slight man with a neatly trimmed beard, wire-rimmed glasses and a soft handshake. While he doesn't lack self-confidence, he sounds a little amazed as he recounts his rise from little-known exile to a sounding board for a nation's grievances.
He was already a successful surgeon when at age 30 he began dabbling in dissent. At first he wrote letters about unemployment and other social issues to friends who were close to the powerful interior minister, Prince Nayef. That was the accepted way, he says -- confidential, friendly, constructive. The letters, he says, were ignored.
After the Persian Gulf War, he and other reformers went public. There was a 12-point petition in 1991, followed by a 44-page program of reform the following year. Then the government cracked down. Faqih was among 18 academics and professionals imprisoned in 1993. He was released after four weeks, and six months later left the country with his wife and four children.
North London, the place where Karl Marx settled after fleeing continental Europe 150 years ago, is now nicknamed "Londonistan" for the many political exiles from the Muslim world who have taken up residence here. "First, it is the capital of the world in terms of media," says Faqih. "Second, the British are very subtle and stable. They deal with facts, and they are not influenced by politics, not influenced by emotions."
The first years were difficult. He and a fellow exile, Mohammed Massari, founded a small organization. But Massari was a high-profile activist who made common cause with extremists. Faqih says he himself wanted a lower profile and more control. While Massari has appeared at public events honoring the purportedly glorious achievements of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Faqih has avoided such platforms.
In 1996 he formed his own group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, on a shoestring budget. He insists his vision of a Saudi Islamic republic is benign: power-sharing, accountability, judicial independence, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are his watchwords. "We honor the common belief of the nation, which is Islam, but we are against the monopoly of interpretation of Islam," he says.
But he has not totally avoided contact with al Qaeda. He became friends with Khalid Fawwaz, a Saudi dissident who in effect functioned as bin Laden's London-based spokesman in the 1990s. Following the 1998 car bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Fawwaz was arrested under an extradition request from the United States. Faqih says he visited him in prison and helped look after Fawwaz's wife and children.
At the trial of four suspects in the bombings, it emerged that Faqih's credit card had been used to purchase a satellite phone that Fawwaz passed on to bin Laden, who allegedly used it to help plan the attacks.
Faqih says a merchant who did business with both him and Fawwaz mistakenly credited the purchase to his account. "The authorities know all the facts," he says. A British government spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity could not confirm his account.
While Faqih says he advocates nonviolence, he blames "extreme American arrogance" for bringing about the Sept. 11 attacks. And besides, he concedes, "support for al Qaeda is so immense in my country right now that it would be politically incorrect to denounce them."
The Internet gave Faqih a new means of communication, the cell phone another. People in Saudi Arabia can buy cell phone cards that allow them to make anonymous calls. Faqih established a Web site and began posting Saudis' comments and complaints, creating an interactive platform for discussion and debate.
But the real breakthrough came last year when he started the nightly radio broadcast. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi families own satellite dishes, he says, and they have become a prime-time audience for the broadcasts, which can be heard on satellite television.
"This regime survives on secrecy and hypocrisy," he says. "With the radio we broke the barrier of secrecy and we created a means for people to speak not just to us, but to each other."
The extent of his newfound influence was apparent last fall when his call for public demonstrations in Saudi Arabia for reforms brought out protesters and led to hundreds of arrests. This further raised his profile and made him a champion to fellow dissidents of many political stripes.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company