Islamic Activism Sweeps Saudi Arabia

The group Heraa chants Muhammad's praises at a mall in Jiddah as part of a youth campaign to collect 1 million signatures in support of the prophet.
The group Heraa chants Muhammad's praises at a mall in Jiddah as part of a youth campaign to collect 1 million signatures in support of the prophet. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah For The Washington Post)
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 23, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- More than a dozen women in black cloaks, some with colorful head scarves, others with only their eyes visible through slits in black veils, filed into the dining room after sunset prayers. They sat around a long table set up with paper, pencils and thermoses of Arabic coffee, across from a small group of men, including that evening's guest, Sadeg al-Malki.

The women -- homemakers, physicians and college students -- had sought out Malki, a consultant at the Islamic Education Foundation, because they wanted help on a project they were embarking on: how to talk to non-Muslim co-workers and acquaintances about Islam and the prophet Muhammad.

The women, who have since taken several mini-courses with Malki on discussing their religion with non-Muslims, are part of a loosely knit grass-roots movement that has sprung up across the kingdom since January, when anger over cartoons of Muhammad sparked riots in Europe and several Muslim countries. The movement is made up of a diverse cross section of women, students, businessmen, lawyers and clerics, all campaigning under the banner of Nusrat al-Rasool, or Victory for the Prophet.

The activists' campaign includes a continuing economic boycott of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published, and a project to produce television ads about the prophet for broadcast in Europe. College students are attempting to collect 1 million signatures to present to the Danish Embassy, and lawyers are studying ways to make insulting Islam and its prophet illegal. A number of businessmen have launched competitions with prize money of more than $50,000 for the best essays on Muhammad. This month, several clerics and heads of local committees will travel to neighboring Kuwait and Bahrain to brainstorm with Islamic activists there.

Though in its early stages, the grass-roots movement is a demonstration of how, in this region, activism within a religious context is capable of motivating and energizing a wide swath of society in a way that politics cannot. It is also a study of the ways in which deeply felt religious disputes, when not handled by governments, cut their own path, pushing people to take matters into their hands.

Muhammad Kawther, a young activist who heads Youth Together for an Islamic Renaissance, believes the cartoon controversy was a godsend for his group. The activists were just starting out, putting together their first project -- CDs urging young people to perform their five daily prayers -- when anger over the cartoons erupted. Dropping everything else, they decided on a campaign to collect 1 million signatures in support of the prophet.

Inexperienced and a little apprehensive at first, they approached several malls for permission to set up booths there. Sensing the public mood, mall owners not only agreed but gave them free access and advertising. They also allowed them to bring in chanters to sing the praises of the prophet, the first open public performances in this conservative country.

Three weeks into the campaign, Together had gathered 70,000 signatures, dozens of new supporters and, most valuable of all, a ton of practical experience.

"I learned how to deal with the public, with people of different ages and from different social levels," said Rayan al-Khilewi, who emceed the group's children's competition on facts about the prophet. "I learned how to deal with the media, and I actually did a live television feed."

Khilewi, a 20-year-old marketing student and taekwondo aficionado, had been strolling the mall with his family when he heard something he'd never heard at a shopping center before: Islamic songs being broadcast through a loudspeaker. Drawn by the a cappella chants, Khilewi, a religious Muslim, hurriedly followed the tune, which led him to the group's booth. He joined on the spot.

"For years I had been looking for a way to be active, to do something meaningful, and this was the first time I had found it," he said. "I have Denmark to thank for that."

Many who have become involved in activism since the cartoon crisis have echoed Khilewi's sentiment, saying the cartoons have shown them how much they love the prophet and forced them to do something about it.

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