- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

One year after the tragic attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, it may come as a surprise to many Americans but in a strange way the attacks have brought good to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world.
You wouldn't come to this conclusion if you focused on only one segment of the Saudi press devoted to bewailing the vicious American attacks on the kingdom and Islam in the press and on television. Read more closely, and you will find voices of moderation rising up and saying: "Enough is enough."
The horrific attacks by Mohamed Atta and the 14 other hijackers who were Saudis, have brought the whole Saudi nation to a crucial crossroads: Either keep ignoring the harm done to Islam and all Muslims by a minority of violent extremists or grasp this rare opportunity to take our society into a new direction, and also to explain the peacefulness and beauty of Islam to the whole world.
Unfortunately, most Saudis have not been in the habit of thinking for themselves, being analytical or being insightful. From an early age, Saudis are taught to memorize facts in school and not question authority or ask "what if?"
This has become a major stumbling block for our nation at this time when our oil wealth has been steadily decreasing since the peak of the 1980s. With an astronomical birthrate, Saudi Arabia is producing more and more people clamoring for jobs that are scarce. The fabulous wealth that oil brought us, and that has enabled us to develop spectacularly in the last 30 years, has also been a curse lulling too many of us into complacency.
This same complacency leads many of us to vehemently denying the criticism we hear of our society coming from America. But I think we are reacting so violently because the criticism is hitting home very hard. What many don't realize is that we have given foreigners the chance to criticize us because of the September 11 attacks on America. Before September 11, 2001, there was occasional grumbling about the way women are treated in the kingdom, but this didn't jeopardize our relations with the United States because the U.S. needed our oil and we had never attacked them.
Today it's a totally different story. Everything done or said by Saudis is now examined under a very strong microscope in the U.S.: The way we treat foreigners, our educational system and our form of governance are all being dissected and analyzed by angry Americans who want to know why the U.S. was attacked last year and what sort of society produced 15 of the 19 hijackers.
To overcome this immense crisis, one that the kingdom has never faced before, we must begin to right the wrongs in our society and also show the world our many positive attributes and achievements.
It will be a long and rocky road, but it is a journey we must undertake if we want to be proud once again of ourselves, and if we want to remain independent.
First, we must stop denying any of the hijackers were Saudis or even Arab. We must also stop saying the September 11 attacks were a CIA/Zionist plot to make the Arabs and Islam look bad. This is utter nonsense.
We must be mature and responsible enough to admit these sick minds that hatched and perpetrated these dastardly attacks were, sadly, a product of our society and religion. We must ask what went wrong and how we can change our society and education system so this won't ever happen again. Blaming others for our shortcomings as a society won't get us anywhere, and will only alienate us further from the rest of the world.
Second, we must stop the teaching of hatred to our children in schools. Why are they being taught to hate non-Muslims? Is this a reasonable way to bring up future citizens of the world? Hardly. Although I didn't grow up in Saudi Arabia, being half-American, I too have personally experienced the intolerance preached by too many there.
Millions of non-Muslim foreigners have worked hard to develop the kingdom's infrastructure and economy. Let us not forget it was Americans who first discovered oil there in the 1930s, a discovery that has allowed us to develop as much as we already have.
To America and the rest of the world, we must show we are indeed striving to be a just society, a moderate one, where the rights of women, foreigners and non-Muslims are respected and honored. We must prove Saudis are not arrogant and lazy as portrayed in the Western press.
I personally am optimistic about the future of Saudis and of Saudi Arabia. Every day I see more and more Saudis willing to take on the low-paid jobs of supermarket cashiers and salesmen. Just 10 years ago, it was unheard for a Saudi to work in a fast-food restaurant or as a cashier at a furniture store. Today I see plenty, from the sleepy-eyed cashier at Ikea to the friendly guy at my local supermarket who always greets me with a smile and chats.
Of course, much of the change in attitude derives from sheer economic necessity: We no longer have the wealth that once enabled many of us to stay at home and be nonproductive.
Our government and private sector must find ways to keep young Saudis busy, productive and working. It is the idle minds of unemployed youth that are so vulnerable to the seemingly sweet song of hate and death sung by extremists. Parents must also be more involved in the lives of their children, guiding them by example and giving them sound advice to prevent them from following the path of intolerance and hatred.
Saudi Arabia is not monolithic in thought. We moderate Saudis must speak up now and make our voices heard. The government can't do it for us, and neither can anyone else. It is after all our own lives and religion that are at stake. The clock is ticking, and there is no time to waste.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh is a senior editor at Arab News in charge of European and American news. He has lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the past 14 years.

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