Beyond matters of mobility and employment opportunity is the issue of spousal abuse, which, according to Saudi newspapers, remains prevalent. In one high-profile case, the husband of Rania al-Baz, the country’s first female broadcaster, beat her nearly to death in 2004. Saudi media covered the case with the zeal of British tabloids, creating widespread sympathy for the victim and sparking a national debate on abuse. The case even made it to “Oprah,” where al-Baz was hailed as a woman of courage. Once the spotlight dimmed, however, the broadcaster succumbed to pressure from an Islamic judge and from her own family to forgive her husband.
Tensions between the old and the new aren’t always so consequential, but they persist. Hani Khoja, the TV producer, told me that he “wanted to show that it is possible to be religious and modern at the same time” on the popular youth-oriented show “Yallah Shabab” (“Let’s Go Youth”). Another program that promotes a more modern view of Islam is “Kalam Nouam” (“Speaking Softly”). One of its hostesses, Muna AbuSulayman, embodies that blend. Born in 1973, AbuSulayman followed her father, a liberal Islamic scholar, around the globe, including nine years in the United States, where she studied English literature. (Saudi universities opened their doors to women in 1964.) Today, in addition to her television work, she advises billionaire businessman Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on philanthropic activities that seek to build links between the Islamic world and the West.
The prince’s company, Kingdom Holdings, has the only known Saudi workplace that allows Muslim women to choose whether to wear the hijab (the Islamic veil and other modest apparel) or Western dress. (The prince also employs the only female Saudi pilot.) Kingdom Holdings’ quarters look more Beirut than Riyadh, with fashionable women in corporate attire shuffling between offices. AbuSulayman, however, chooses to wear the hijab—on the day I met her, a striking green head scarf and shirt ensemble. “The hijab is such an overexamined issue in the West,” she told me. “I like wearing it. We as women face more serious issues.”
And even as she acknowledges that “the opportunities available to me today were unavailable a generation ago,” she says, “We are hopeful to achieve more. I expect my daughter to be living in an entirely different world.”
“I am from Burayda, that famous city you Western journalists are curious about,” Adel Toraifi said when we met at a Holiday Inn in Riyadh. He was smiling—Burayda is the heartland of Wahhabi Islam. Toraifi, now 27, came of age in one of the most conservative regions of the kingdom.
More than two centuries ago, Sheikh ibn Abd al Wahhab emerged from the desert there with a puritanical vision of Islam focused on the concept of tawhid, or the oneness of God. At the time, he made a key alliance with the local al-Saud ruler, who pledged to support the passionate preacher in return for support from the religious establishment. Eventually, Wahhabism spread across central Arabia, even when the al-Sauds lost power twice in the 19th century (to regain it again in the early 20th). When King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, began his march across the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century to reclaim his tribal lands, he revived the bargain with the descendants of Sheikh ibn Abd al Wahhab, known today as the al-Alsheikh family.
The essential outlines of that relationship remain intact. Wahhabi preachers hold the highest positions of religious authority, while the al-Sauds hold political authority. Today’s Saudi Wahhabist is quick to condemn those who belong to other schools of religious thought as impure or, worse, kufr, unbelievers. That explains part of the political radicalism of young Saudi jihadists—but only part.
Another explanation might lie in the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s education system. In the 1960s and ’70s, the kingdom fought a rear-guard battle with Egypt for regional hearts and minds. To counter Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular pan-Arab nationalism, the Saudis promoted a conservative pan-Islamism. While Egypt, Syria and Jordan were expelling Islamist radicals, many of whom were college graduates, Saudi Arabia welcomed them as teachers.
When Toraifi was 13, he decided to become a religious scholar in the Wahhabi tradition. For five years, he led an ascetic life, studying the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad several hours a day. “I was not a radical,” he said, “but my mind was not open, either. I dreamed of becoming a respected scholar, but I had never read a Western book or anything by an Islamic modernist or Arab liberal.”
As he walked home from evening prayer one day, he was hit by a car. After three months in a coma, he spent more than a year recuperating in a hospital, thinking and reading. “I thought to myself: I did everything right. I prayed. I fasted. I learned the Koran by heart, and yet I got hit by a car. It was troubling to me.”
Once recovered, Toraifi took to reading Western philosophy and Arab liberals with a seminarian’s zeal. He studied engineering, but political philosophy was his passion. After taking a job as a development executive with a German technology company, he began writing articles critical of Wahhabism—including one published shortly after the May 12, 2003, attacks warning that a “Saudi Manhattan” was coming unless religious extremism was checked. He was excoriated in some religious Internet forums, but the government largely let it pass.
Then Toraifi repeated his views on Aljazeera, whose coverage had often been critical of the royal family. That, apparently, crossed a line: afterward, Toraifi said, Saudi intelligence detained him for several days before letting him go with a warning. Then an establishment newspaper offered him a column—writing about foreign, but not domestic, affairs. The gesture was seen as an attempt to bring a critic into the mainstream. But he dismisses concerns that he might have been co-opted. “I will continue speaking about the importance of democracy,” he told me. (In December, he accepted a fellowship at a British think tank, where he is writing a paper on Saudi Arabia’s reform movement.)