Islamic Activism Sweeps Saudi Arabia
Cartoons of Muhammad Spur Homemakers, Students, Professionals to Organize

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.

Malki, the Islamic Education Authority consultant and also co-founder of the Faith in Diversity Institute, based in Owings Mills, Md., says the cartoons have created a new kind of activism. "People don't just want to talk, they want to do something," Malki said. "No state can stop, or think to stop, this activism. It's widespread, it's strong, and because of the love people feel for the prophet, it's also very emotional."

The two-hour lecture Malki gave in a noisy dining room packed mainly with women was winding down when he told the group he wanted to read them something from the Bible. He picked up his leather-bound King James version, well-thumbed with yellow bits of paper sticking out, leafed through it and started to read from the Book of Isaiah: "And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, read this, I pray thee; and he saith, I am not learned."

There was stunned silence in the room, a palpable astonishment as the listeners understood the passage to foreshadow Muhammad, who was illiterate before he became a prophet. A few whispered, "God is great," and several young men and women wiped tears from their eyes.

Sulaiman al-Buthi, a Riyadh-based spokesman for the International Committee for the Defense of the Final Prophet, says this religious but peaceful activism could put an end to violence and drive groups like al-Qaeda out of business. Analysts have long said that a lack of democracy and civic institutions in the Middle East is part of the appeal of extremist groups, which offer one of the only options for disaffected youth.

But Buthi said he was "very optimistic about this movement, this cartoon intifada. It has given people opportunities to take matters into their own hands and do something positive for their religion. It's generating a very potent feeling, and it's capable of destroying the pull and influence of groups like al-Qaeda."

On the other hand, lawyer and writer Bassem Alem says he believes that the cartoons were only a trigger within the context of an already burgeoning region-wide Islamic resurgence. People "look around and they see Islamists winning in Egypt and Palestine and Morocco," he said, referring to elections in those places. "They feel empowered, and this is just one more manifestation of that."

Alem says that people took matters into their own hands because their governments were not doing enough to assuage their anger. He also contends these ad hoc committees will supplant Western-style civic institutions. "The methodologies for setting up civic institutions here failed because they were a Western model," he said. "These indigenous movements will take root because they are based on our beliefs and real needs."

Kawther, back at his father's office, which serves as Together's headquarters, was more reflective. "Islam has gone through many phases, up and down," said the stocky young man with a dark patch on his forehead that comes from regular prayers. "For it to be strong again, for a new Islamic renaissance, the youth have to be involved, and that's why we're doing this."

At the Seirafi mega-mall, where Together had set up signing booths and several computers and helped passersby send more than 5,000 e-mails to Denmark, two 12-year-old boys were handing out brochures that explained the campaign and urged people to follow the example of the prophet by becoming more devout. One of the group's members, law student Abdul-Ilah Bawazir, picked up the microphone to address the hundreds of shoppers, men to one side, veiled women to the other, who had stopped to watch that evening's performance of the Heraa group of Islamic chanters.

"We are all here for one reason," he said to the crowd. "To show solidarity with the prophet. Now that you've enjoyed the show, please take a minute and sign your name in support of the finest of messengers, prophet Muhammad. We want the world to know how much we love our prophet and how much we're willing to sacrifice for him."

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