Banned in Riyadh

Posted: Nov 01, 2002 12:00 AM
Everyone knows that in the long run, the war of ideas is what matters. How do we engage with Islam in a way that promotes the ultimate good of both societies? Leaving aside for a moment, the necessities of war, how do we win the peace we hope will come?

Some Americans want to assimilate militant Islam by denying that it exists, or that it has any relationship at all to the authentic Islam. As Daniel Pipes notes in the current issue of Commentary, many in the professoriate simply deny that jihad ever means violence in Islam. Even after Sept. 11. Even after the Bali blowup. Even as a group of Muslim Chechens held 700 people hostage in Allah's name. Many people seem to assume that dialogue with Islam is not really possible without these denials.

By contrast, last February 60-some American intellectuals set out to do something quietly extraordinary: to lay out for the world the moral basis for America's war on terror. "What We're Fighting For," an open letter released by the Institute for American Values (where I am an affiliate scholar), is an effort to revive just war doctrine that has ignited a firestorm of controversy within the Muslim world. A distinguished group of hard-core, powerful Wahhabi scholars fired back a joint letter in response, "How We Can Coexist."

These Saudi scholars blamed American injustice for causing the Sept. 11 attacks, but they emphasized the importance of "dialogue" based on "a tone of respect, clarity and frankness": "(We realize) that there are a number of concepts, moral values, rights and ideas that we share with the West and that can be nurtured to bring about what is best for all of us."

Last week the Institute for American Values released a response to the Saudi scholars, "Can We Coexist?" (interested readers can find all three documents at

The refreshing thing about this intellectual encounter is the premise on which it is based: This is not a mock debate, a mere diplomatic exchange of make-nice noises. The tone of the American reply to the Saudis is frank, collegial, respectful and inviting, but never evasive: "(N)owhere in your letter do you discuss or even acknowledge the role of your society in creating, protecting and spreading the jihadist violence that today threatens the world, including the Muslim world."

What can come of such genuine exchanges of ideas? Who knows? But when oceans no longer protect us from foreign terrorists, neither is it so easy to block utterly at least the trickle of new ideas.

"The whole exchange has had a tremendous impact," says Hassan Mneimneh, co-director of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard. "It is actually a catalyst for intra-Islamic debate. It is hard to find an intellectual in the Middle East who is not aware of the exchange of letters."

How influential has the exchange been? Influential enough that Saudi Arabia recently paid it the ultimate consequence: banning a London newspaper that carried the Americans' latest response.

"The Saudi government doesn't like this debate, particularly because the people who wrote the Saudi response are mostly Wahhabi conservatives and fundamentalists," Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and civil society in Saudi Arabia, told The Washington Post. "They don't want the dialogue, and I think the reason is they don't want nongovernment elements to have a voice internationally."

But if the war of ideas is what matters, then more such civil, respectful, frank exchanges between nongovernments (aka citizens) are going to be key.