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October 01, 2002



A Lonely Campaign Against Intolerance In Saudi Arabia


A Middle Eastern-looking man riding on the Metro while reading a green-covered book about Islam is bound to get more than his share of stares these days. A Saudi man who reads in the paper that the INS has ordered immigration inspectors to start registering Saudi men ages 16 to 45 could be expected to bristle.

Ali al-Ahmed laughs at the stares and welcomes the attention from the feds. Al-Ahmed considers his life in a one-bedroom Fairfax apartment such a relief from what he suffered back home in Saudi Arabia that he has given up a career in finance to campaign for reform in his native land.

Al-Ahmed's Saudi Institute, a one-man operation subsisting on donations from Saudi emigres, seeks to spread the word that Saudi Arabia is so deeply intolerant and repressive a society that, as al-Ahmed says, "America must come and force reform on us, because we are incapable of it."

Al-Ahmed is a reviled figure at the Saudi Embassy. But for a 35-year-old who has spent most of his decade in this country studying political science and finance at small colleges in Minnesota, al-Ahmed has created quite a stir.

His most recent product is a research paper that details numerous incendiary statements in books and pamphlets distributed to Muslim students by two Saudi educational institutes in Northern Virginia. The books call Christianity and Judaism "deviant religions," urge Muslims to "create barriers" between themselves and non-Muslims, and argue that Muslims are forbidden to have Christians or Jews as friends, "with no consideration as to whether they are at war with Islam or not." Al-Ahmed asked officials of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in Fairfax County and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth in Alexandria why they used these books. "They said, 'Oh, you're just working for the Christians and the Jews,' " al-Ahmed says.

Al-Ahmed's next project is a Web site that will allow Saudis to get uncensored news out to their neighbors and the world. "People will be able to write to us, using pseudonyms, with what happens in their neighborhood," al-Ahmed says. "This can help create a new generation of activists."

He is under no illusion that change will come easily. When he was 14, al-Ahmed, who had been active in a group of Shiite Muslims protesting Saudi restrictions on followers of that branch of Islam, was imprisoned for a month with his father and two brothers. According to Amnesty International, Ali's youngest brother, Kamil, has twice been held in a Saudi prison without trial. Ali believes Kamil's latest arrest was retaliation against Ali's activities in Washington. But al-Ahmed says he will not be deterred: "What worse can happen to my family? They have already ruined my brother's life. My mother cries every night because I cannot go see her. I want to go home, but I cannot until we can breathe freedom there."

A Saudi official who insisted on anonymity says al-Ahmed is free to go home, that his family is not being punished, that al-Ahmed's claims about Saudi repression are "nonsense," that offensive works distributed by the Saudi schools "were revised after 9/11," and that "he is funded by people with political agendas in this country."

Who might that be, I asked. The official named two groups: the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which the Saudi said was "essentially the same group of Jews."

Al-Ahmed and JINSA have never heard of each other, let alone exchanged money or work, say al-Ahmed and institute spokesman Jim Colbert. FDD did pay al-Ahmed $2,500 for his "hate literature" research. Foundation President Clifford May says his group, created after 9/11 to "provide intellectual ammunition for the war against terrorism," is about as Jewish as its directors and advisers, who include former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Clinton CIA director James Woolsey and Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. "It's high time the Saudis got over their incessant and relentless anti-Semitism," May says.

Al-Ahmed plans to plow ahead. "We don't have a Washington or Jefferson in my country," he says. "We have these decadent rulers who think they own the country. They attack me and say I make things up. Well, I'm not very smart, but I am determined, and I know this is the right time in history. I will go back to my country, I know it."

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com
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