I was there less than a month ago, having supper with a friend in an Italian restaurant in the Embassies Compound, right in the heart of Riyadh. It’s a beautiful and quiet area of the Saudi capital, lined with palm trees, modern buildings and upscale surroundings. Security was tight, however, and we were stopped twice at police roadblocks as we went to and from the restaurant.
The car bombing that killed 17 and wounded more than 100 people last week happened only a few kilometres from that restaurant where I had enjoyed the dinner and company of my Canadian friend, his wife and their two children. My friend and his family are among some 4,000 Canadian expatriate workers currently living in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the kingdom is home to a total of 6 million such workers from all over the globe.
In Saudi Arabia, almost everyone knows that any given area of Riyadh (or any of the larger cities) is inhabited mainly by Saudis, other Arabs, Westerners, or Asians. Whoever planned and executed this heinous crime must have known, therefore, that unlike the Embassies Compound, the Al-Mahia compound was a "soft target." They must also have known that this particular compound houses mostly Arab foreigners and that most of them are Muslim.
Thus the Arab victims — both fatalities and wounded — included not only Saudis, but also Egyptians, Lebanese, and Sudanese, as well as some Germans, French and Italians, whose families live there.
Condemnation is far too gentle a word to describe any sane response to this mindless atrocity.
And blame against Muslims is equally irrational: how could they target the innocent? Basic Islamic teaching stresses that killing one innocent person is as vile as killing all of humanity. Even if one appears to "get away with" murder in this life, it will be severely punished in the hereafter.
Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, said he could not rule out a connection to suspected al-Qaida terrorist cells that have been targeted in recent government sweeps; a number of suspects from those cells are still at large, despite recent security crackdowns in which some 600 were reportedly arrested.
Whoever they are, the car-bombing criminals left many questions unanswered. What, exactly, was their political motivation? Most of the American military has left the country for nearby Qatar, so a protest against them would seem pointless. And the Saudi government is making some progress toward reform, albeit slowly, which diminishes its importance as a target.
Muslims themselves are being misrepresented, victimized and oppressed in many countries, more often than not by their own governments. Then why would so-called Muslim terrorists randomly kill more of their own community? Doesn’t that render the very idea of "Muslim terrorist" an oxymoron?
One thing is clear in the tragic aftermath of the Riyadh bombing, however. Condolences to the victims’ families and a belated police crackdown on suspects won’t be enough. Perhaps Saudi Arabia should take a lesson from neighbouring Egypt.
Egypt has been more successful in curbing extremism than many Middle Eastern countries, by adopting a dual path in counterterrorism techniques. The first line has been through traditional law enforcement. But its second line, more importantly, depends on curbing potential violence through open debates, dialogues, seminars, and lectures, which have brought moderate religious scholars together before audiences in prisons, universities, high schools, on TV, or at professional gatherings, community organizations, sports clubs, etc.
Regardless of the issues, the battlefield is always clearly drawn, with words being the only weapons allowed. And moderation has generally won the day.
Extremism is always short-lived because it is fundamentally against human nature. But when moderation is supported with knowledge and persuasion, extremism then shrinks to nothing. It may take time, but the result is always assured. Extremism cannot sustain itself long enough to dominate the society it detests. Saudi Arabia should definitely try the Egyptian approach.