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New Clicks in the Arab World

Finding Inspiration in Islam

Fouad al-Farhan, center, with Ahmed al-Omran, left, and Bandar Raffa during last month's meeting of Saudi bloggers.
Fouad al-Farhan, center, with Ahmed al-Omran, left, and Bandar Raffa during last month's meeting of Saudi bloggers. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah -- The Washington Post)

Farhan, whose blog is the most widely read in Saudi Arabia, said he derives his democratic ideals from his religion. Political reform, he said, must come from within Islam.

His ever-present PowerBook laptop by his side as he sipped coffee in a large restaurant with a cathedral ceiling, Farhan explained that Muslim thinkers hundreds of years earlier had pushed for more freedom of expression, and checks and balances, than exist in the Arab world today.

In his blog, Farhan pounces on the government for failing to keep its promises and criticizes senior officials, many of whom he has labeled dinosaurs out of touch with the country's young population.

In a country where reformists, journalists and human rights lawyers are sometimes jailed for criticizing the government, activists run the risk of government harassment.

But Farhan and Omran, the pharmacy student, among the minority of Saudis who blog under their real names, say the risk is offset by the credibility it adds to their voices.

And Farhan often uses humor to lessen the sting of his unusually daring rebukes.

On prominent display on his blog is a link to statements by government officials, one in 2002 and one in 2006, both promising an end to unemployment within five years. A ticker on his site counts down, "1,629 days left till unemployment is eradicated in Saudi Arabia."

A little farther down is a poll.

"Do you trust the government?"

About 60 percent of the 280 respondents said they did not.

But Farhan's push for free expression stops at the doorstep of blogs like Mystique's with their explicit sexual content. "I respect her right to blog," he said. "But I don't think I will stand up for or defend what she writes. My definition of freedom does not cover the type of content she writes."

Eroticism and Freedom

When the woman who blogs anonymously under the name Mystique finally shows up for an appointment at Starbucks on trendy Tahlia Street, she seems used to causing a stir. Heads turn when the 23-year-old walks into the coffee shop minus the mandatory head scarf worn by most Saudi women, her caramel-colored hair cascading past her shoulders. She is wearing a black cloak with a shiny copper-colored print on the sleeve, a black Prada purse slung over her shoulder.

She orders a Frappuccino, then sits down to talk. "I've been in touch with my sexuality ever since I was 13," she said. "Why shouldn't I write erotic fiction? It's one way of expressing myself."

In one episode of a long-running romantic serial, the police come upon her and her boyfriend in the car as they are about to make love in a secluded spot by the beach. In another, she recounts her real-life experience at a local store that sells sex paraphernalia under the counter.

But Mystique has received the most scathing criticism for her feminist poetry and religious comments. A question posted on her blog -- "How imperfect can a perfect Creator be?" -- garnered dozens of angry missives calling her an apostate who is besmirching her country's reputation.

"Sometimes I push. I want to show that women are oppressed," she said. The situation "is not normal. I would like people to see that."

Omran, 23, like many young bloggers, said he hoped that blogging would speed up the country's glacial pace of reform. Sometimes he is afraid, not knowing whether he had crossed a line, but he continues to blog, eager for change, democracy and more personal freedoms, he said.

"I want our society to move forward, and I want to be part of that change," Omran said. "I don't want to be 40 and still struggling with the issues we're dealing with now."

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