Adonis Diaries

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Where Do the Families of ISIS Fighters Go Now?

AL HOL CAMP, Syria — She left the Netherlands to join the Islamic State in Syria, and married a fighter here. He was killed, so she married another, who got her pregnant before he was killed, too.

Then this month, as the Islamic State collapsed, she surrendered with her son to United States-backed forces and landed in the sprawling Al Hol tent camp, which has swollen to the breaking point with the human remnants of the so-called caliphate.

“I just want to go back to a normal life,” said Jeanetta Yahani, 34, as her son Ahmed, 3, clung to her leg and shook with a violent cough.

The announcement a week ago that the Islamic State had lost its final patch of territory in Syria was a milestone in the battle against the world’s most fearsome terrorist network. But it also raised urgent questions about what to do with the tens of thousands of people who had flocked to join the jihadists from around the world and now have nowhere else to go.

Al Hol, a sprawling, isolated conglomeration of tents on rocky soil surrounded by a chain-link fence and armed guards, held about 9,000 people in December. As the Islamic State’s final territories fell, its population swelled to more than 72,000.

The population explosion has taxed the camp’s resources, leading to crowding and long lines for food, fuel and drinking water. (One of my teacher urged me to find another synonym to taxing: what would you suggest?)

On a rare visit to the foreigners’ section of the camp on Thursday, a team of New York Times journalists found a miserable international tableau of lost women and children.

Along muddy, trash-strewn lanes between rows of white tents, we heard groups of women chatting in English, Russian, French, Dutch and Chinese (and a single Irish woman?). We saw blond- and black-haired children playing together in the mud.

A German woman told me she had come to Syria with her husband, a doctor. Now she had no idea where he was, and she was stuck in the camp with a baby in her arms and a curly-haired toddler gripping her leg.

But she did not want to return to Germany, which she considered an infidel country.

“I don’t want to raise my kids in a society that’s totally corrupt, where every sin is promoted,” she said, declining to give her name.

It was better to tough it out in Syria, she said. “This is temporary. The afterlife is forever.”

Although the Islamic State no longer controls the vast territory that that once stretched across Iraq and Syria, the women in the camp still followed its rules, wearing black gowns and face veils with slits for their eyes.

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More than 9,000 camp residents are foreigners who are kept in a special section. CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
The camp’s Kurdish-led administration worries that the paucity of international support could help ISIS reconstitute itself.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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The camp’s Kurdish-led administration worries that the paucity of international support could help ISIS reconstitute itself.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
Camp officials say they are too busy scrambling to provide tents and food to offer schooling or other activities for children.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Camp officials say they are too busy scrambling to provide tents and food to offer schooling or other activities for children.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Their clothes were dirty, the hems and shoes caked with mud. Many toted toddlers with hacking coughs and runny noses. Other children sold cookies and soda their relatives had managed to bring in, or stood in long lines for food, drinking water and gas for generators.

Al Hol is the largest of three detention camps run by the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria. Other camps dot Iraq and Libya.

Along with tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, the Syria camps hold 12,000 foreign women and children, according to Redur Xelil, a senior official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States-backed militia that fought the jihadists. The force also holds more than 8,000 fighters, including 1,000 foreigners, in its prisons.

A handful of places, including France, Russia and Chechnya have taken back tiny numbers of their citizens, mostly women, children and orphans. But most of the home countries do not want the caliphate’s former residents back, so they are stuck here, in a stateless, unstable territory.

The local administration lacks the resources to deal with them and worries that the paucity of international support could help the Islamic State reconstitute itself.

“There is little support, little response,” said Mohammed Bashir, a camp administrator.

This week, local officials called for the creation of an international court to try foreign fighters, but the idea has garnered little international support and the Syrian government would probably block it.

While determining the exact backgrounds of the women and children in the camps is difficult since many lack identification and use fake names, they are generally considered less dangerous than the men. But some were also combatants. And some still endorse the extremists’ ideology, making local officials reluctant to let them leave.

Women and children who fled the last area of the Islamic State’s control arriving at a screening point in the desert last month.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Women and children who fled the last area of the Islamic State’s control arriving at a screening point in the desert last month.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
Women and children leaving the last area controlled by the Islamic State by bus to reach camps run by Syrian Kurdish militias.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Women and children leaving the last area controlled by the Islamic State by bus to reach camps run by Syrian Kurdish militias.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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An injured woman waiting last month to leave the last area controlled by the Islamic State.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

More than 9,000 of Al Hol’s residents are foreigners who are kept in a special section, which I visited with a photographer on Thursday.

As soon as we entered, women approached us to ask if we could help them return to their countries or find missing loved ones.

“Are you from the Swedish Red Crescent?” a woman asked, trotting away after I said no.

“I am from a country that no one knows about, so I will never get out of here,” said a woman from the Seychelles.

Spotting strangers in the camp, Lisa Smith, a former member of the Irish Defense Forces, said hello but declined to be interviewed.

Some women still clung to the jihadists’ ideology.

A 22-year-old Chechen woman who identified herself only as Um Aisha described life in the caliphate as “all very good.”

“There were brothers who believed in Shariah, an Islamic state, and it was not like this,” she said, pointing disapprovingly at two female aid workers wearing pants.

The woman’s husband was killed in an airstrike on the Islamic State’s final pocket this month, she said, but she did not think the jihadists’ project was over.

“Our brothers are everywhere, in Germany, in Russia, in America — we believe that al-Dawla al-Islamia will come back,” she said, using the group’s Arabic name.

Others expressed regrets.

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As the ISIS families flooded in, camp workers scrambled to put up enough tents to house them, crowding families together to protect them from an unseasonably cold and rainy winter.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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The women and children in the camps are considered less dangerous than the men, but there are still fears that Islamic State ideology will spread.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Children make up about two-thirds of the camp’s residents.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Galion Su, from Trinidad, stood near the camp’s gate with her face uncovered, hoping to get out and look for her teenage son, who had been arrested by Kurdish forces in January.

Her husband brought them to Syria in 2014 and the couple divorced soon after, leaving her struggling to care for her son.

“I was like a whore in the Dawla,” said Ms. Su, 45. She had married four men, she said, each on the condition that they let her keep her son.

When the jihadists tried to force him to fight, she dressed him as a woman and fled, but Kurdish forces arrested him when they discovered the ruse, she said. Now, she had no idea where he is.

“I just want to be normal and go back to a normal society, sleep in a nice bed, eat nice food, watch TV and laugh,” she said.

Children make up about two-thirds of Al Hol’s residents. Some are orphans. Many described in detail and with little emotion how their fathers had been killed. All had witnessed violence, and some had been taught to practice it.

Camp officials say they are too busy scrambling to provide tents and food to offer schooling or other activities, much less to deal with people’s psychological problems or to re-educate children trained by the jihadists. The challenge is intensified because some parents still endorse the jihadists’ ideology.

“The mentality is the same. Nothing has changed,” said Mr. Bashir, the camp administrator. “The children are innocent, but when they end up in the camp, they will learn what their parents teach.”

As the sun set after a rare sunny day on Thursday, we found ourselves surrounded by hordes of children playing. A group of Turkish boys played a rowdy game of soccer while children from Iraq, Egypt, Russia and elsewhere pelted one another with fistfuls of gravel.

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Most of the home countries of the camp’s residents do not want them back, so they are stuck in a stateless, unstable swath of northern Syria.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Determining the exact backgrounds of the women and children in the camps is difficult, since many lack identification.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
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Women and children who fled the last ISIS-held area in southeast Syria waiting to be screened last month by Kurdish and coalition forces in the desert near the village of Baghuz.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Standing atop a latrine, an Iraqi boy with a toy rifle shouted, “The Islamic State has invaded!” Training his sight on another child, he threatened, “I’m a sniper. I’ll shoot you in the head right away.”

Nearby, two toddlers got into a fight and fell to the ground punching each other while a 10-year-old boy who was missing his right leg looked on. He declined to give his name or say where he was from, and responded to questions with short answers.

How did you lose your leg?

“A plane. Shrapnel.”

What do you want to do now?

“Get a tent and stay in it. Or maybe a house.”

Where?

“I don’t know.”

Mustafa Ali contributed reporting.

Follow Ben Hubbard on Twitter: @NYTBen.

Note: Without the pictures, this is Not much of an article. With all the horrors and most States refusing to consider the repatriation of their citizens, I expected a few useful news Not covered by the media.

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The Upstart Saudi Prince Who’s Throwing Caution to the Winds

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — With the tacit backing of his father, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince (wali al 3ahd) has established himself as the most powerful figure in the Arab world, rushing into confrontations on all sides at once.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes in his royal family and nearly 200 members of the Saudi business elite, and has begun to take power from the kingdom’s conservative clerics.

He has blockaded neighboring Qatar, accused Iran of acts of war and encouraged the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister. And in Yemen, his armed forces are fighting an Iranian-aligned faction in an intractable war that created a humanitarian crisis.

The crown prince has moved so quickly that American officials and others worry that he is destabilizing the region. Signs of potential blowback are growing.

Investors, nervous about his plans, have been moving money out of the kingdom. Prince Mohammed has sought to counter the capital flight by squeezing detainees and others to surrender assets. He has presented the arrests as a campaign against corruption, but his targets call it a shakedown, and he has turned for advice to a former Egyptian security chief who has been pilloried at home for brutality and graft.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters say he is simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.

But analysts around the region debate whether the headlong rush might be driven more by a desire to consolidate power before a possible royal succession, desperation for cash to pay for his plans or simply unchecked ambition to put his stamp on the broader Middle East.

And despite President Trump’s enthusiasm for the prince, some in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies say they fear that his impulsiveness could both set back his own goals and destabilize the region.

“He’s decided he doesn’t do anything cautiously,” said Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama. But, Mr. Gordon said, “if the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”

The extrajudicial arrests have spooked investors enough, analysts say, to extinguish the prince’s plans for an public stock offering of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, in New York or London next year. It had been a centerpiece of his overhaul.

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President Trump and King Salman joined Arab leaders for a family photo in Riyadh in May.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

The crown prince’s threats against Iran and Lebanon have raised the specter of wars that the Saudi military, already bogged down in Yemen, is ill-equipped to fight. Riyadh would be forced to depend on the United States and ill-prepared Israel in any new conflict.

His corruption purge at home, meanwhile, risks alienating parts of the royal family and the financial elite at a moment that would appear to demand unity, either to smooth a succession or to face off against Iran.

As many as 17 people detained in the anti-corruption campaign have required medical treatment for abuse by their captors, according to a doctor from the nearest hospital and an American official tracking the situation.

The former Egyptian security chief, Habib el-Adli, said by one of his advisers and a former Egyptian interior minister to be advising Prince Mohammed, earned a reputation for brutality and torture under President Hosni Mubarak. His lawyers say he plans to appeal his recent sentence in absentia in Egypt to seven years in prison on charges of corruption.

Officials of the Saudi Royal Court referred press queries about these reports to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, where a spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, said the embassy could not confirm or dispute them.

With the decline in the price of oil in recent years, Saudi Arabia has frozen projects and spent more than a third of its financial reserves, draining them to about $475 billion this fall from a peak of $737 billion in August 2014.

At that burn rate, the kingdom has only a few years to lift its revenue or slash its spending to forestall a financial crisis.

Against that backdrop, the prince’s supporters argue that the anti-corruption campaign aims to recapture hundreds of billions of dollars that have leaked from the state budget through graft and self-dealing — money he needs to fund his development plans.

Prince Mohammed had appealed to the kingdom’s wealthy for months to invest in his modernization program. But some groused that his plans — like a new $500 billion business hub “for the dreamers of the world,” built from scratch and fueled entirely by clean energy — were ill-conceived and grandiose, and instead of investing at home they quietly moved their assets abroad.

Now, he is no longer merely asking.

The Saudi government is pressing some of those detained and others still at large to sign over large sums in exchange for better treatment, according to an American official briefed on the crackdown and associates of the royal family. Employees of some of those arrested had been summoned months before to answer questions about their bosses, a sign that the purge was planned well in advance.

A senior Saudi official defending the crackdown said this week that it was meant to show that the old rules of business in the kingdom had changed.

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Prince Mohammed kissing the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (sacked since then) at the royal palace in Mecca in June. CreditAl-Ekhbariya, via Associated Press

“Corruption is at every level, and there are hundreds of billions of riyals that are lost from the national economy every year,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government matters. “The point here was mainly to shock the system, to send a message that this will not be tolerated anymore and that nobody is immune.”

Corruption has been so endemic for so long — from inflated government contracts for large projects to simple bribes to obtain passports — that countless Saudis have participated. Yet, some princes with reputations for conspicuous corruption appear to have been left alone, raising questions about who is being targeted, and why.

Other signs suggest that Prince Mohammed may also be seeking to thwart perceived rivals.

In June, he and his father stripped the titles of crown prince and interior minister from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 58, temporarily confining him to his palace. Admirers of the ousted crown prince were relieved last week when a video surfaced showing him moving freely through a family funeral, receiving kisses on his shoulder in a show of deference and loyalty from a procession of well-wishers.

That display of his continued popularity, however, may have been too much for the younger Prince Mohammed, who the next day ordered the seizure of the former crown prince’s assets, along with those of his wife and daughters, according to two family associates.

Ms. Baeshen, the Saudi embassy spokeswoman, said she could not comment on any potential investigations.

Some American officials suspect that Prince Mohammed may be rushing to lock down the levers of power in anticipation of a formal abdication by his father, King Salman, who scholars and Western officials say could be suffering from dementia.

When President Trump visited Riyadh for a summit meeting last summer, the king remained seated as he struggled to read a prepared statement. His speech was at times weak, halting or slurred. He seldom speaks publicly. Saudi officials, however, insist his mental capacities are sound.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters argue that Saudi Arabia’s recent threats against Iran and Lebanon came in response to provocations beyond his control.

As he was preparing his anti-corruption roundup, they say, Tehran’s allies in Yemen launched an Iranian-made missile in the direction of Riyadh, where it was intercepted over the outskirts of the city (the damage shown by videos prove otherwise).

The Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned his position the same day with a televised speech from Riyadh that accused Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah of sowing “discord, devastation and destruction” in the region.

But many, including current and former American diplomats, say Prince Mohammed’s boldness also reflects his conviction that he has the support of Mr. Trump.

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Mr. Trump meeting with Prince Mohammed, center, in the Oval Office in March.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

Even in the last days of the Obama administration, another Persian Gulf royal who had already forged deep ties around Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi began to promote his Saudi counterpart to the incoming Trump team as a useful ally. Both princes appear to have formed a particular bond with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who at 36 is a contemporary of the young Saudi prince.

Mr. Trump chose Saudi Arabia for the first foreign trip of his presidency, and Prince Mohammed and Mr. Kushner have built such a strong rapport that other American officials say they are not briefed on what the two discuss.

“Jared is a bit of a black hole,” said one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss frustration with the White House. “There is no sense of the positions he has advocated. We can only guess, based on what he has done and where he has been.”

The official added: “The Emiratis and the Saudis have been very careful to cultivate him and bring him along” toward their “confrontational posture in the region.”

A White House official who also insisted on anonymity disputed the characterization of Mr. Kushner, saying he regularly briefed the State Department and National Security Council on his trips and conversations.

Mr. Kushner made his third visit to the kingdom this year ( and many to Israel)— this time unannounced until his return to Washington — in late October, when American officials say he stayed up late talking with Prince Mohammed at his ranch.

The sweep of arrests unfolded days later, and Mr. Trump was quick to applaud, although several White House officials said the Saudis gave Mr. Kushner no heads up on what was about to take place.

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” President Trump said on Twitter after the arrests had begun. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years.”

Ms. Baeshen, the embassy spokeswoman, said that Saudi Arabia and the United States “enjoy a wide range of cooperative discussions” but that “domestic affairs are just that: domestic affairs.”

The State Department official, though, said that its diplomats, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency all felt “growing alarm” that Prince Mohammed “is behaving recklessly without sufficient consideration to the likely consequences of his behavior, and that has the potential to damage U.S. interests.”

Once Shunned as ‘Drivers,’ Saudi Women Who Fought Ban now Celebrate

They were arrested, suspended from jobs, shunned by relatives and denounced by clerics as loose women out to destroy society. Their offense? They did what many in Saudi Arabia considered unthinkable: getting in cars and driving.

Their protest in 1990 against the kingdom’s ban on women driving failed, and the women paid dearly for it, with the stigma of being “drivers” clinging to them for years.

So last month, when King Salman announced that the ban on women driving would be lifted next June, few were happier than the first women to demonstrate for that right — almost three decades ago.

“I’d thought maybe I’d die before I saw it,” said Nourah Alghanem, who had helped plan the protest. Now she’s 61 and retired with five grandchildren. “What’s important is that our kingdom entered the 21st century — finally!”

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The backlash against the 47 women who protested illustrates how deeply the driving ban was embedded in Saudi Arabia’s conservative society, reinforced by the state and its religious apparatus.

But since then, globalization, social media, economic pressures and leadership changes finally created the conditions for the ban to end.

These are dizzying days in Saudi Arabia.

Car makers are now targeting advertisements toward Saudi women, and a women’s university is planning a driving school.

And the changes are not only related to the prospect of so many new drivers on the kingdom’s highways. At a public celebration last month, crowds of men and women danced together as a D.J. played music. An end to the ban on cinemas is expected soon.

But in 1990, when the four dozen women took an extraordinary risk by fighting the driving ban, conditions in the kingdom were notably different.

“I’d thought maybe I’d die before I saw it,” said Nourah Alghanem, who helped plan the 1990 protest against the driving ban, which is being lifted next year.CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Controlling Women

At the time of the protest, Ms. Alghanem was 34, with a high school degree, a husband, four children and a job at an elementary school.

“I didn’t have anything interesting in my life,” she recalled.

At the time, Saudi women were severely restricted. The culture was highly patriarchal, and clerics, thanks to their alliance with the royal family, had tremendous power to defend the kingdom against what they considered to be corrupting influences.

Much of that meant controlling women, and they saw the driving ban as necessary to prevent adultery and other social ills.

“Allowing women to drive contributes to the downfall of the society,” the kingdom’s top cleric at the time wrote in a fatwa that was removed recently from a government website. “This is well known.”

Women who chafed under the ban saw an opportunity when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman, invaded Kuwait in 1990. American forces flooded the kingdom, including American servicewomen who drove military vehicles. Kuwaiti women who had fled the invasion also drove.

Ms. Alghanem took note.

“I saw that we as Saudi women were powerless,” she said.

She invited other women to her home to discuss the issue, and they later decided to take action. They sent a letter to Salman — at the time the governor of Riyadh Province — telling him that they planned to drive.

They never heard back, they said, so on Nov. 6, 1990, they met near a supermarket in Riyadh, piled into 14 cars piloted by women with valid foreign licenses and drove around town.

They were social outliers, backed by no political party, and other Saudi women did not rush to join them. Many came from affluent families and had studied abroad. They included teachers, professors, a social worker, a photographer and a dentist.

Most were married with children; at least two were pregnant. One woman joined late, with her two daughters, one of whom was breast-feeding. Some had defied their male relatives to show up. Supportive husbands and brothers dropped off others at the meeting place.

Word spread, and the women were stopped by both the traffic police and the religious police, some of whom furiously banged on the cars.

“‘I want to dig a hole to bury you all!’” Fawziah al-Bakr, an education professor, recalled one man shouting at her. “They were thinking that we were going to destroy this country.”

They were taken to the police station and released around dawn, after they and their male relatives signed pledges that the women would not drive again.

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“It is not just driving a car, it is driving a life,” said Asma Alaboudi, a school social worker who participated in the 1990 protest. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Furious Backlash

The next morning, Asma Alaboudi, a school social worker who had participated, overheard her colleagues saying that the women at the protest had burned their clothes, worn bikinis and danced in the streets — all grave acts that had not happened.

Soon, the women’s names were distributed, inflaming public anger.

King Fahd issued a decree suspending those who had government jobs, and preachers excoriated them during Friday prayers.

“At that point, the society revolted,” Ms. Bakr recalled.

Monera Alnahedh, who later became an international development worker, said her father quit praying at his local mosque after the preacher said the women had been inseminated by 10 men.

Officials from the Interior Ministry came to the home of Madeha Alajroush, a photographer, to confiscate and destroy all her negatives — 15 years of work.

“That was a way of punishing me,” she said.

Some friends and relatives shunned the women.

“It was a very, very scary environment,” Ms. Alajroush said.

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Monera Alnahedh, who became an international development worker, said her father quit praying at his local mosque after the preacher said the protesting women had been inseminated by 10 men. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

‘A Decade of Silence’

The harsh response from the state and society buried the issue of women driving.

“It was a very heavy blow on the women who drove, and it was perceived by the society as a very heavy blow,” said Ms. Alnahedh, the development worker. “There was a decade of silence.”

The suspended women struggled to find work, with some choosing to pursue advanced degrees.

About two years later, a princess intervened with the king, who returned them to their jobs and paid some of their lost wages.

Many of the 47 faded into private life, while others looked for ways to help women at girls’ schools, women’s universities and in programs for abused women and children.

After she participated in the protest, officials from the Interior Ministry came to the home of Madeha Alajroush, a photographer, to confiscate and destroy all her negatives, 15 years of work, as punishment. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Slowly, society changed.

University enrollment for both women and men rose, and in 2005, King Abdullah created a scholarship program that sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis, including many women, abroad, broadening their perspectives.

He added women to the Shura Council, an advisory body, and social media spread among the kingdom’s youth, giving them freedom online that they lacked in real life.

The internet eroded the monopoly Saudi clerics had on religious interpretation, and many Saudis realized how differently Islam was practiced in other countries.

The government allowed women to work in new jobs, making their daily commute an issue.

Younger activists started to revive the struggle to let women drive.

In 2011, Manal al-Sherif posted a video of herself driving online and was detained. In 2013, dozens of Saudi women drove to protest the ban.

In 2014, Loujain Hathloul tried to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia in her car and was jailed for 73 days.

Few of the women who had driven in 1990 joined the new protests, but they cheered the younger women.

“We were very angry,” Ms. Alajroush, the photographer, said of Ms. Hathloul’s detention. “But inside of me, I thought that was a big step forward because finally we were taken seriously.”

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Fawziah al-Bakr, a professor, with her son, Motaz Alyahya, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She was one of the 47 women who took to the road in 1990 to demand the right to drive.CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

‘Driving a Life’

In 2015, Salman became king, and he empowered his young son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is now crown prince.

As the price of oil sank, sapping the economy, the crown prince laid out a sweeping plan to reform the economy, including increasing women’s participation in the work force.

Other steps followed. Women voted and ran for seats on local councils in 2015 for the first time, and some won. Public schools were told to offer physical education for girls, which clerics had argued threatened their femininity.

Then late last month, Ms. Alghanem, who had held the first meeting on the driving ban in 1990, was playing cards when her phone suddenly began overflowing with messages, she said.

Her husband called, shouting, “Congratulations!” and told her the ban was being lifted.

Ms. Alghanem — who had merely ridden along in 1990 and still cannot drive — now plans to learn.

“I must get a license and drive,” she said.

The government has played down any role the women activists played in prompting the decision, and some of the women say security officials have told them in phone calls to keep quiet.

The Information Ministry denied such calls were being made.

Many Saudis argue that the women exacerbated the issue by provoking the conservatives. In the kingdom, they argue, rights are given by the ruler, not publicly demanded by the people.

A woman parking her car in a town in Saudi Arabia owned by the oil company Aramco. In this so-called “mini-America,” woman are allowed to drive. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

“It is natural that they are happy that they have been given their legal right that they had demanded before,” Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaid, a businessman, wrote on Twitter. But he called the idea that the women’s “struggle” had influenced the decision “a great fantasy.”

The women believe the government will not acknowledge them so as not to encourage other activists.

Many restrictions on women remain, including so-called guardianship laws that give Saudi men power over their female relatives on certain matters. But the original protesters are overjoyed that their daughters and granddaughters will have freer lives than they did, thanks to the automobile.

“That I am driving means that I know where I am going, when I’m coming back and what I’m doing,” said Ms. Alaboudi, the social worker.

“It is not just driving a car,” she said, “it is driving a life.”

Correction: October 7, 2017 
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified a Saudi woman who took to the road in 1990 to demand the right to drive. She is Meshael al-Bakr, not Fawziah, who is her sister.

Joining the Global Elite in Davos: A Clown and her Correspondent husband

Ben‘s everlasting sentence : “it’s unethical Sabine, I can’t write about you in the paper, you’re my wife ”
until this day came when he actually had to talk about his wife in this witty first person’s essay..

I feel special now

By BEN HUBBARD

DAVOS, Switzerland — “Did Matt Damon write back yet?” I asked my wife, Sabine Choucair, as we packed our bags to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“No!” she said.

“What about Shakira?”

Sabine shook her head, scowled and threw a kazoo, a red nose and a slide whistle into her suitcase.

We were still getting used to the idea that we were even going to the forum, and we wondered how we would fit in with the C.E.O.s, heads-of-state, movie stars and millionaires and billionaires who gather annually in the Swiss Alps to discuss the state of the world and its problems.

My wife is a clown (not a joke) who does storytelling workshops with drug addicts, refugees and other vulnerable people.

And yes, she regularly dons a red nose and does funny things to make people laugh.

She was invited to Davos as one of about 40 “Cultural Leaders” whose presence serves as a zesty garnish to the main conference fare of global economics and public policy.

I am a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East, where I write more about coups and car bombs than about corporate mergers. But in Davos, I was a spouse, along for the ride.

The forum’s motto, “Committed to improving the state of the world,” is written everywhere like a mantra; I counted it 11 times on the walls of one small conference room. (Start with Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya)

High-minded goals and intellectual firepower course through the event, from the headline addresses by the president of China and the foreign minister of Iran to the snippets of conversations overheard in the sleek black buses that ferry thousands of participants through the town’s snow-packed streets.

“My editor just told me to change the name of my book from ‘Rentier Capitalism’ to ‘The Corruption of Capitalism,’” one man intoned while waiting to enter the conference center. (The first term is a corollary to the second among Elite classes who hold the power)

Davos’s lofty goals took a beating in 2016: “Brexit” and the election of Donald J. Trump have shaken the international system, and sessions I attended on climate change, refugees, rising oceans and the fragility of cities left a distinct aftertaste of things getting worse.

“The world is a tough place these days,” I overheard a man tell a friend while waiting at the coat check. “The utility of fiscal and monetary policy is declining.”

But the attendees are fascinating — and often eager to tell you why.

At one reception, I met the chief strategy officer at the Nature Conservancy, Giulio Boccaletti, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton in geophysical fluid dynamics. His husband, Andrea Mattiello, was working on his second doctorate, in Byzantine art, to complement his first, in American performance art in the mid-20th century. (gay marriage?)

The two men, who live in London but are from small villages in Italy, said their families had a hard time relating to their Davos lives.

“It is all very remote,” Dr. Mattiello said. “Veeeeery remote.”

A number of people I met volunteered how many billions of dollars their companies were worth within a few sentences of my asking, “What do you do?” One man said that he had invented a simple medical technology, then added, with feigned modesty, that it had saved millions of lives.

Being a spouse may be the best gig at Davos — we had access to most sessions but no responsibilities. There were hundreds to choose from, giving the place the feel of an elite, futuristic liberal arts college for adults where all the lectures were actually TED talks.

I gravitated to those that sounded sci-fi: “Ask About: Robotic Exoskeletons”; “What If: Pregnancy Becomes Obsolete?”; and “What If: Animals Become Human Organ Factories?”

Hanging from the ceiling over a stairwell were what looked like massive beach balls, part of the project Aerocene led by the artist Tomás Saraceno, which explores the idea of using solar-heated balloons and natural wind currents for sustainable air travel.

Sabine and I told a man at the exhibit’s booth that we lived in Beirut, and he punched it into a computer, which told us we could theoretically float home in 4.8 days.

But for many of the high-powered attendees, the sessions are merely side activities to the business meetings that happen privately

Janeen Haythornthwaite, who runs an art gallery in London and lectures at the Tate Modern but was at Davos as a spouse, like me, said she rarely saw her husband, Richard Haythornthwaite, the chairman of MasterCard, during the day here. The meetings he can have in a week in Davos would usually take months to organize, she said.

“He does a lot of one-to-ones,” said Ms. Haythornthwaite, who has been to Davos more than a dozen times since 2000. “But he tells me, ‘When you get a moment, go check out the holograms.’ ”

Well-known figures are relatively accessible here: I spotted Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League; Al Gore passed me in the hallway — twice.

My wife, as a full participant, could message other attendees on an internal website — that’s how she invited Mr. Damon and Shakira to her workshop. Neither came. But near the end of a panel she was on, a soft-spoken man in the back row raised his hand to ask a question. He turned out to be Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist.

One of the most talked-about sessions was “A Day in the Life of a Refugee.” Since both our work involves refugees, Sabine and I signed up.

Instead of the normal talking-head format, this was “a simulation” — the facilitator warned us that it was intense and that we could quit if we couldn’t take it.

We began by kneeling on the floor (in the basement of a Hilton hotel), where the facilitator, dressed as a tribal sheikh, told us that our people were being killed, blood was flowing in the streets and we had to flee. But before we could, the lights went out and gunmen stormed the room.

I was ordered to run down a hallway, where a woman told me to duck so as not to get shot by a sniper.

We ended up in a mock refugee camp, where the same facilitator, now dressed as the camp boss, lined us up and shouted at us. He told us not to cause problems and said he had medicine and food for those who were hungry, but only if we had our own dishes. If not, we could buy them. If we did not have money, too bad.

Over the next 20 minutes, we were herded into tents where gunmen shined flashlights on us and ordered us to sleep.

Fights and gunfire broke out. When the lights came on, we had to register on applications that were hard to read, attend a school in a language we did not speak, and occasionally be harassed by gunmen who stole our money, watches and cellphones.

As we sat on benches afterward to process the experience, a number of people were in tears. The organizers distributed tissues.

Sabine, who is from Lebanon and grew up during its civil war, said the simulation was an overdramatized picture of what it is like to be a refugee.

The camps of displaced people I have reported on in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza lack that action-movie excitement, but are sunk in deep feelings of despair and boredom that are hard to capture in a 30-minute simulation.

But many others said it had been their most memorable experience at Davos.

“I didn’t realize until yesterday that I have a moral obligation to do something,” said Greg Nance, 28, the founder and chief executive of Dyad, a company that helps students apply to college. “But that simulation really punched me in the face.”

He said he planned to explore the possibility of helping 100 young Syrians pursue education abroad, a modest goal in a conflict that has produced 4.8 million refugees.

Francis Ngai Wah Sing, a self-described “social entrepreneur” who is the founder and chief executive of Social Ventures Hong Kong, said, “Actually, I cried.”

“We can’t do anything, but we can’t turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “We have to get to know it.”

 Sabine Choucair shared this link· 5 hrs ·

Ben‘s everlasting sentence : “it’s unethical Sabine, I can’t write about you in the paper, you’re my wife ”
until this day came when he actually had to talk about his wife in this witty first person’s essay..

I feel special now
specially that I am in the #Europe section of The New York Times

Maybe next I’ll get a European passport? Oh wait this is taking it too far 😂
#davos_is_not_that_bad_after_all
#clown_me_in_davos
World Economic Forum
WEF World Economic Forum Davos

And please please please, my so many friends here who work and go to refugee camps pls tell me that I am not hallucinating …. is the first thing you think about when you wanna describe a day in a life of a refugee is how this performance is doing it? Or is it boredom and people not going to schools and not finding jobs …? Basically no future no hope?
I felt I was one of the few who got offended by the way they’re showing the situation! Am I hallucinating? Pls tell me…
oh and women can’t look up or speak to men…. euuuuuuuu

See More

Ben Hubbard, a Mideast correspondent for The Times, tags along with his wife, a storyteller who was invited to Davos as a “Cultural Leader.”
nytimes.com|By Ben Hubbard

WHY NBC had to Alters Account of Correspondent’s Kidnapping in Syria?

NBC News on Wednesday revised its account of the 2012 kidnapping of its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, saying it was likely that Mr. Engel and his reporting team had been abducted by a Sunni militant group, not forces affiliated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

In a statement posted on the NBC News website Wednesday evening, Mr. Engel said that a review of the episode — prompted by reporting from The New York Times — had led him to conclude that “the group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.” He also wrote that the abductors had “put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite shabiha militiamen.”

Mr. Engel and his team were kidnapped in December 2012 while reporting in Syria. They were held for five days. Just hours after emerging, they appeared on the “Today” show.

“This was a group known as the shabiha, this was the government militia, these are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Engel said on “Today,” citing information he had gathered from the group.

In that and other appearances on NBC, and in a Vanity Fair magazine article, he said that he had been rescued by Sunni rebels. At least two people died during the course of the captivity, he said in some versions of the account.

Interviews by The Times with several dozen people — including many of those involved in the search for NBC’s team, rebel fighters and activists in Syria and current and former NBC News employees — suggested that Mr. Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of rebels opposed to Mr. Assad.

The group, known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, was led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj, who had a history of smuggling and other crimes.

The kidnapping ended, the people involved in the search said, when the team was freed by another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, which had a relationship with Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj.

Mr. Engel and his team underwent a harrowing ordeal, and it is a common tactic for kidnappers in war zones to intentionally mislead hostages as to their identity.

NBC executives were informed of Mr. Ajouj and Mr. Qassab’s possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals. Still, the network moved quickly to put Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events.

An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site. Vanity Fair said it had no immediate comment.

Just two months ago, NBC News suspended Brian Williams, its nightly news anchor, after he exaggerated an account of a helicopter episode in Iraq in 2003. The furor that surrounded Mr. Williams’s suspension led to a management shake-up in the news division, and the installation of Andrew Lack, a former NBC News president, as head of the operation.

NBC’s own assessment during the kidnapping had focused on Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj, according to a half-dozen people involved in the recovery effort. NBC had received GPS data from the team’s emergency beacon that showed it had been held early in the abduction at a chicken farm widely known by local residents and other rebels to be controlled by the Sunni criminal group.

NBC had sent an Arab envoy into Syria to drive past the farm, according to three people involved in the efforts to locate Mr. Engel, and engaged in outreach to local commanders for help in obtaining the team’s release. These three people declined to be identified, citing safety considerations.

Ali Bakran, a rebel commander who assisted in the search, said in an interview that when he confronted Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj with the GPS map, “Azzo and Shukri both acknowledged having the NBC reporters.”

Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.

Abu Hassan, a local medic who is close to the rebel movement, and who was involved in seeking the team’s release, said that when the kidnappers realized that all the other rebels in the area were working to get the captives out, they decided to create a ruse to free them and blame the kidnapping on the Assad regime. “It was there that the play was completed,” he said, speaking of the section of road Mr. Engel and the team were freed on.

Thaer al-Sheib, another local man connected with the rebel movement who sought the NBC team, said that on the day of the release “we heard some random shots for less than a minute coming from the direction of the farm.” He said that Abu Ayman, the rebel commander credited with freeing the team, is related by marriage to Mr. Ajouj, and that he staged the rescue.

Mr. Engel, in his statement, said he did not have a “definitive account of what happened that night.” He acknowledged the group that freed him had ties to his captors, but said he had received conflicting information.

“We managed to reach a man, who, according to both Syrian and U.S. intelligence sources, was one of Abu Ayman’s main fund-raisers,” he wrote. “He insists that Abu Ayman’s men shot and killed two of our kidnappers.”

Mr. Engel said the kidnapping “became a sensitive issue” for Mr. Ayman. “Abu Ayman and his superiors were hoping to persuade the U.S. to provide arms to them,” he wrote. “Having American journalists taken on what was known to be his turf could block that possibility.”

In his Vanity Fair article, Mr. Engel described one of his captors lying dead. In his statement Wednesday, he acknowledged that he did not see bodies during the rescue.

He said that one of his producers, Aziz Akyavas, climbed out of the van through the driver-side door, stepping over a body. “I climbed out of the passenger-side door,” he wrote.

“A bearded gunman approached and said that we were safe now. That was our introduction to Abu Ayman. He said that he and his men had killed the two kidnappers. Under the circumstances, and especially since Aziz said that he had seen and stepped over a body, I didn’t doubt it and later reported it as fact.”

Blamed as Coup Mastermind? Fethullah Gulen

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says that a mild-mannered Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania was pulling the strings of a coup attempt last week that almost succeeded in taking over the state, and killing Mr. Erdogan himself.

Now, Mr. Erdogan says that many thousands of Turkish citizens — soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, teachers, judges, lawyers and many more professions — are all part of the cleric’s movement and must be punished.

Tens of thousands of people have already been arrested or suspended from their jobs in the four days since the coup failed, after a night of violence that plunged the country into chaos.

Mr. Erdogan and the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, have been adversaries in recent years, and Turkey has said that Mr. Gulen must be extradited by the United States. Now, though, Mr. Erdogan appears determined to get him back, a matter that threatens to aggravate relations between the two NATO allies.

But who is Mr. Gulen? And is it possible he is behind such a vast conspiracy?

James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the organization a “cultlike” movement, and said no one really had solid information about its size and aims.

But many experts on Turkey, Mr. Jeffrey included, say the followers of Mr. Gulen have sought to gain power within Turkey by infiltrating state institutions, most successfully the judiciary and the police.

“They are a state within a state,” he said. “They have infiltrated many places.”

In the past, Mr. Gulen has been embraced by American officials as a moderate Islamic leader: someone who promotes interfaith dialogue, leads a worldwide network of charities and secular schools, favors good relations with Israel and opposes harder-line Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. (He is the Turkish Moslem Brotherhood leader)

In Turkey, his supporters have long filled the ranks of the police, judiciary and, to a lesser extent, the military, something Mr. Gulen has encouraged in speeches.

Having fled the country in 1999 as Turkey’s old secular elite charged him with trying to overthrow the state, he landed in the United States, where a former C.I.A. official helped him get a green card.

The darker suspicions of his movement have emerged as a central plotline in the aftermath of the failed military coup in Turkey, with Mr. Erdogan accusing him of being the mastermind of the conspiracy.

Turkish officials on Tuesday, including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, raised the pressure on the United States to hand over Mr. Gulen, promising to send dossiers of evidence of his role in the plot.

The White House said on Tuesday that it received an electronic file from Turkey on the matter, though it was unclear that it was a formal extradition request.

“The Department of Justice and the Department of State will review those materials consistent with the requirements of the extradition treaty between the United States and Turkey that’s been on the books for more than 30 years now,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Obama spoke by telephone, with Mr. Obama offering help to investigate the coup, but giving no indication in a statement by the White House of a willingness to promptly send Mr. Gulen back.

Mr. Yildirim said Turkey was intent on destroying the Gulen movement “by its roots.” And the government has moved quickly, raising concerns it is more interested in silencing all opposition than rooting out those behind the coup.

Nearly 35,000 members of the military, police and judiciary have either been arrested or dismissed.

On Tuesday, the government suspended more than 15,000 members of the Education Ministry, forced more than 1,500 university deans to resign and revoked the licenses of 21,000 private schoolteachers.

All of them, officials said, are suspected of having some link to Mr. Gulen.

The Turkish military, in a statement, blamed the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” for the coup plot, and said the plotters had held at gunpoint the military’s chief of staff, demanding that he sign a document supporting the coup, which he refused to do.

nytimes.com|By Tim Arango and Ben Hubbard

Mr. Gulen, a mystic preacher of the Sufi branch of Islam who lives in a secluded compound in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, has become a central point of tension between the United States and Turkey.

One Turkish official said he believed the United States played a role in the coup, an accusation Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed on Sunday as “irresponsible.” Still, in a front-page column on Tuesday, the editor in chief of a pro-government newspaper wrote, “The U.S. Tried to Assassinate Erdogan!”

At the very least, the prospect of a contentious extradition process is likely to complicate relations between the allies at a time when the United States is relying on Turkey as a crucial partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Referring to the United States, Mr. Yildirim said, “we would be disappointed if our friends told us to present proof even though members of the assassin organization are trying to destroy an elected government under the directions of that person.” He added, “At this stage there could even be a questioning of our friendship.”

Mr. Kerry has said Turkey, as part of the extradition process, must provide evidence that withstands scrutiny in an American court — something analysts say Turkey does not have.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gulen again denied any involvement. “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today once again demonstrated he will go to any length necessary to solidify his power and persecute his critics,” Mr. Gulen said in a statement. “It is ridiculous, irresponsible and false to suggest I had anything to do with the horrific failed coup. I urge the U.S. government to reject any effort to abuse the extradition process to carry out political vendettas.”

Turkish officials may be certain about Mr. Gulen’s actions and motives, but the nature of his movement has long confounded analysts and diplomats in Turkey, partly because the organization is opaque and individuals do not openly declare allegiance to it.

Mr. Jeffrey said it would have been hard for Gulen followers, as Islamists, to infiltrate the armed forces, which have been a stronghold of secularism in Turkey.

In diplomatic cable written in 2009, and made public by WikiLeaks, Mr. Jeffrey detailed how Mr. Gulen came to exile in the United States.

He left Turkey in 1999 after being charged with plotting to overthrow the state. The charges, Mr. Jeffrey wrote, were based on a sermon Mr. Gulen had given in which he said, “our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to create a nationwide restoration.”

Mr. Gulen was later acquitted, in absentia, on all charges.

Jenny White, a professor at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies who has studied the Gulen movement, said it is centered on a worldwide network of secular schools. The goal, she said, is to create a “golden generation of young people who are educated in science, but have Muslim ethics.”

The group is socially conservative, but religious texts do not play a large role for the movement. While women are active in the movement, they are not included in decision making.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen were once Islamist allies, at war with Turkey’s old secular elite.

After Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party came to power more than a decade ago, they teamed up to tame the military, which overthrew four elected governments last century.

A series of sensational trials, which were overseen by Gulen-affiliated judges and prosecutors and were later determined to have relied, in part, on fabricated evidence, sent hundreds of officers to prison and seemed to have secured civilian control over the military.

But three years ago, the two men had a bitter falling out as Mr. Gulen opposed the leader’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Gulen of orchestrating a corruption inquiry of top officials close to Mr. Erdogan, using the same prosecutors who had targeted the military.

Ever since, they have been enemies, and this week the government accelerated its efforts to purge the state of anyone it believes is affiliated with Mr. Gulen, or directly involved in the coup.

Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, said on Tuesday that the United States should turn him over to Turkey.

“Why hold him?” he said. “Send him to Turkey to let him go through the judicial process here and if he can prove that he is not guilty, then he can go back.”

Turks have long suspected that Mr. Gulen was an American agent, and inflaming the conspiracy theories is the fact that Graham E. Fuller, a former C.I.A. official who was once stationed in Istanbul, wrote a letter to support Mr. Gulen’s application for a green card.

Mr. Fuller, in an interview with The New York Times in 2014, said he did so on his own, not on behalf of the American government. (Funny)

In the letter, he said he wrote, to the effect, “of all the movements I’ve studied, this one is probably least likely to be a security threat.”

A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began

By BEN HUBBARD. July 10, 2016

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.

Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country that bans alcohol.

But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.

A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.

For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct.

What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does.

At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.

He even said that while women should conceal their bodies, they needed to cover their faces only if they chose to do so. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.

Challenge of Understanding

I had come to Saudi Arabia to explore Wahhabism, the hyper-conservative Saudi strain of Sunni Islam that is often blamed for fueling intolerance around the world — and nurturing terrorism.

I spent weeks in Riyadh, Jidda and other cities speaking with sheikhs, imams, religious professors and many others as I tried to peel back the layers of a closed and private society.

For the Western visitor, Saudi Arabia is a baffling mix of modern urbanism, desert culture and the never-ending effort to adhere to a rigid interpretation of scriptures that are more than 1,000 years old.

It is a kingdom flooded with oil wealth, skyscrapers, S.U.V.s and shopping malls, where questions about how to invest money, interact with non-Muslims or even treat cats are answered with quotes from the Quran or stories about the Prophet Muhammad.

Andrew Bossone shared this link
“Fast forward to 2016, and the main players have transformed because of time and oil wealth.
The royal family has grown from a group of scrappy desert dwellers into a sprawling clan awash in palaces and private jets. The Wahhabi establishment has evolved from a puritan reform movement into a bloated state bureaucracy.

It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.”

A New York Times correspondent went to Saudi Arabia to explore Wahhabism, the hyper-conservative strain of Islam often blamed for fueling terrorism. Here’s what he found.
nytimes.com|By Ben Hubbard

Religion is woven into daily life. Banks employ clerics to ensure they follow Shariah law. Mannequins lack heads because of religious sensitivities to showing the human form. And schoolbooks detail how boys should cut their hair, how girls should cover their bodies and how often a person should trim his or her pubic hair.

While Islam is meant to be a complete program for human life, interpretation is key when it comes to practices. The Saudi interpretation is steeped in the conservatism of central Arabia, especially regarding relations between women and men.

In public, most women wear baggy black gowns called abayas, designed to hide their forms, as well as veils that cover their hair and faces, with only thin slits for their eyes.

Restaurants have separate sections for “families,” meaning groups that include women, and for “singles,” which means men.

Many Saudis mix in private, and men and women can usually meet in hotel lobbies with little problem. Others do not want to mix and see gender segregation as part of their cultural identity.

In some conservative circles, men go their whole lives without seeing the faces of women other than their immediate family — even their brothers’ wives.

Inside the kingdom, all other religions are suppressed.

Not only are there no public churches, there is no Church’s Chicken. (It is called Texas Chicken in the kingdom.) When asked about this, Saudis deny that this reflects intolerance. They compare their country to the Vatican, saying it is a unique place for Muslims, with its own rules.

Officials I spoke with were upset by the kingdom’s increasingly troubled reputation abroad and said over and over that they supported “moderate Islam.”

But what exactly did they mean by “moderate Islam”?

Unpacking that term made it clear how wide the values gap is between Saudi Arabia and its American ally. The kingdom’s “moderate Islam” publicly beheads criminals, punishes apostates and prevents women from traveling abroad without the permission of a male “guardian.”

Don’t even ask about gay rights.

Instead of calls for jihad, what I heard were religious leaders insisting that the faithful obey the state. The Saudi royal family is terrified that the jihadist fervor inflaming the region will catch fire at home and threaten its control. So it has marshaled the state’s religious apparatus to condemn the jihadists and proclaim the religious duty of obedience to the rulers.

And while it was once common, I heard little disparaging talk about Christians and Jews, although it was open season on Shiites, whose faith is frequently bashed as part of the rivalry with Iran.

The only Saudis who suggested I was an infidel were children. (And that’s the future of the Kingdom)

Once, a Saudi journalist proudly introduced me to his 9-year-old daughter, whom he had put in private school so she could study English.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“My name is Dana,” she said.

“How old are you?”

“I am 9.”

“When is your birthday?”

Confused, she switched to Arabic.

“We don’t have that in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “That’s an infidel holiday.”

Shocked, her father asked where she had learned that, and she fetched one of her government-issued textbooks, flipping to a lesson that listed “forbidden holidays”: Christmas and Thanksgiving. Birthdays had been part of the same lesson.

Another time, I met a religious friend for coffee, and he brought his two young sons. When the call to prayer sounded, my friend went to pray. His sons, confused that I did not follow, looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Are you an infidel?”

What Is a Wahhabi?

The first thing many Saudis will tell you about Wahhabism is that it does Not exist.

“There is no such thing as Wahhabism,” Hisham al-Sheikh told me the first time we met. “There is only true Islam.”

The irony is that fewer people have a purer Wahhabi pedigree than Mr. Sheikh, a direct descendant of the cleric who started it all.

In the early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.

He formed an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and managed religious affairs.

That mix proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.

The first Saudi state was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and attempts to build another failed until the early 20th century, when King Abdulaziz al-Saud undertook a campaign that put him in control of most of the Arabian Peninsula.

But the king faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to build a modern state. He chose the latter, even crushing a group of his own warriors who refused to stop fighting.

Since then, the alliance between the royal family and the clerics has endured, although the tensions between the quest for ideological purity and the exigencies of modern statehood remain throughout Saudi society.

Fast forward to 2016, and the main players have transformed because of time and oil wealth.

The royal family has grown from a group of scrappy desert dwellers into a sprawling clan awash in palaces and private jets. The Wahhabi establishment has evolved from a puritan reform movement into a bloated state bureaucracy.

It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.

The call to prayer sounds 5 times a day from mosques and inside of malls so clearly that many Saudis use it to organize their days.

“Let’s meet after the sunset prayer,” they would tell me, sometimes unsure what time that was. So I installed an app on my phone that let me look up prayer times and buzzed when the call sounded.

And so it was, after the sunset prayer, that I met Mr. Sheikh, a proud sixth-generation descendant of Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab.

He was a portly man of 42 who wore a long white robe and covered his head with a schmag, or checkered cloth. His beard was long and he had no mustache, in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and he squinted through reading glasses perched on his nose while peering at his iPhone.

We sat on purple couches in the music-free lobby of a Riyadh hotel and shared dates and coffee while he answered my questions about Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“I am an open-minded person,” he told me early on.

It was clear that he hoped I would become a Muslim.

His life had been defined by the religious establishment, but he proved to be a case study in the complexity of terms like “modern” and “traditional” in Saudi Arabia.

He had memorized the Quran at a young age and studied with prominent clerics before completing his doctorate in Shariah, with his thesis on how technology changed the application of Shariah.

Now he had a successful career and a host of religious jobs.

He trained judges for the Shariah courts, advised the minister of Islamic affairs, wrote studies for the clerics who advise the king and served on the Shariah board of the Medgulf insurance company. On Fridays, he preached at a mosque near his mother’s house and welcomed visitors who came to see his uncle, the grand mufti.

He had traveled extensively abroad, and when he found out I was American he told me that he loved the United States. He had visited Oregon, New York, Massachusetts and Los Angeles. On one trip, he visited a synagogue. On another, a black church. He had also visited an Amish community, which he found fascinating.

A relative of his lived in Montgomery, Ala., and he had spent happy months there, often visiting the local Islamic center. The hardest part, he said, was Ramadan, because there were few eateries open late that did not have bars.

“All I had was IHOP,” he said.

He said Islam did not forbid doing business or having friendships with Christians or Jews. He opposed Shiite beliefs and practices, but said it was wrong to do as the extremists of the Islamic State and declare takfir, or infidelity, on entire groups.

When it came to birthdays, which many Saudi clerics condemn, he said he did not oppose them, although his wife did, so their children did not go to birthday parties. But they had celebrations of their own, he said, showing me a video on his phone of his family gathered around a cake bearing the face of his son Abdullah, 15, who had just memorized the Quran. They lit sparklers and cheered, but did not sing.

He was on the fence about music, which many Wahhabis also forbid. He said he had no problem with background music in restaurants, but opposed music that put listeners in a state similar to drunkenness, causing them to jump around and bang their heads.

“We have something better,” he said. “You can listen to the Quran.”

Since much of what differentiates Saudi Arabia is the place of women, I wanted to talk to a conservative Saudi woman, which was tricky because most would refuse to meet with any unrelated male — let alone a non-Muslim correspondent from the United States.

So I had a female Saudi colleague, Sheikha al-Dosary, contact Mr. Sheikh’s wife, Meshael, who said she would meet me.

But I asked Mr. Sheikh’s permission.

“She is very busy,” he said, and changed the subject.

So Ms. Sheikh met Ms. Dosary at a women’s coffee shop in Riyadh, where women can uncover their faces and hair.

Her marriage to Mr. Sheikh had been arranged, she said. They met once for less than an hour before they were married, and he had seen her face.

“It was hard for me to look at him or to check him out as I was so shy,” she said.

They were cousins. He was 21; she was 16. He agreed to her condition for marriage that she continue her studies, and she was now working on a doctorate in education while raising their 4 children.

She disputed the Western idea that Saudi women lack rights.

“They believe we are oppressed because we don’t drive, but that is incorrect,” Ms. Sheikh said, adding that driving would be a hassle in Riyadh’s snarled traffic.

“Here women are respected and honored in many ways you don’t find in the West,” she continued.

She, too, is a descendant of Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and said proudly that her grandfather had founded the kingdom’s religious police. “Praise God that we have the Commission to protect our country,” she said.

A Flurry of Fatwas

The primacy of Islam in Saudi life has led to a huge religious sphere that extends beyond the state’s official clerics.

Public life is filled with celebrity sheikhs whose moves, comments and conflicts Saudis track just as Americans follow Hollywood actors.

There are old sheikhs and young sheikhs, sheikhs who used to be extremists and now preach tolerance, sheikhs whom women find sexy, and a black sheikh who has compared himself to Barack Obama.

In the kingdom’s hyper-wired society, they compete for followers on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. The grand mufti, the state’s highest religious official, has a regular television show, too.

Their embrace of technology runs counter to the history of Wahhabi clerics rejecting nearly everything new as a threat to the religion. Formerly banned items include the telegraph, the radio, the camera, soccer, girls’ education and televisions, whose introduction in the 1960s caused outrage.

Interactive Feature | Secrets of the Kingdom

For Saudis, trying to navigate what is permitted, halal, and what is not, haram, can be challenging.

So they turn to clerics for fatwas, or nonbinding religious rulings. While some may get a lot of attention — as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for killing the author Salman Rushdie — most concern the details of religious practice. Others can reveal the sometimes comical contortions that clerics go through to reconcile modernity with their understanding of religion.

There was, for example, the cleric who appeared to call for the death of Mickey Mouse, then tried to backtrack. Another prominent cleric issued a clarification that he had not in fact forbidden all-you-can-eat buffets. That same sheikh was recently asked about people taking photos with cats. He responded that the feline presence was irrelevant; the photos were the problem.

Photography is not permitted unless necessary,” he said. “Not with cats, not with dogs, not with wolves, not with anything.”

The government has sought to control the flow of religious opinions with official fatwa institutions. But state-sanctioned fatwas have provoked laughter, too, like the fatwa calling spending money on Pokemon products “cooperation in sin and transgression.”

While the government seeks to get more women into the work force, the state fatwa organization preaches on the “danger of women joining men in the workplace,” which it calls “the reason behind the destruction of societies.”

And there are fatwas that arm extremists with religious justification. There is one fatwa, still available in English on a government website and signed by the previous grand mufti, that states, “Whoever refuses to follow the straight path deserves to be killed or enslaved in order to establish justice, maintain security and peace and safeguard lives, honor and property.”

It goes on: “Slavery in Islam is like a purifying machine or sauna in which those who are captured enter to wash off their dirt and then they come out clean, pure and safe, from another door.”

Once while we were having coffee, Mr. Sheikh answered his cellphone, listened seriously and issued a fatwa on the spot. He got such calls frequently.

The query had been about where a pilgrim headed to Mecca had to don the white cloths of ritual purity — an easy one. The answer, in this case, was Jidda. Others were harder, and he demurred if he was not sure. Once, a woman asked about fake eyelashes. He told her that he did not know, but thought about it later and decided they were fine, on one condition: “that there is no cheating involved.”

A woman, for example, could put them on before a man came to propose.

“And then after they get married, they’re gone!” he said. “That is not permitted.”

One Friday, Mr. Sheikh took me to see his uncle, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh.

We entered a vast reception hall near the mufti’s house in Riyadh, with padded benches along the walls where a dozen bearded students sat. In the center, on a raised armchair, sat the mufti, his feet in brown socks and perched on a pillow.

The students read religious texts, and the mufti interjected with commentary. He was 75, Mr. Sheikh said, and had been blind since age 14, when a German doctor carried out a failed operation on his eyes.

Mr. Sheikh said I could ask him a question, so I asked how he responded to those who compared Wahhabism to the Islamic State.

“That is all lies and slander. Daesh is an aggressive, tyrannous group that has no relation,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State.

After a pause, he asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

I responded that I was from a Christian family.

“The religion you follow has no source,” he said, adding that I should accept the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.

“Your religion is not a religion,” he said. “In the end, you will have to face God.”

The Unexpected Reformer

The first time I met Mr. Ghamdi, 51, formerly of the religious police, was this year in a sitting room in his apartment in Jidda, the port city on the Red Sea.

The room had been outfitted to look like a Bedouin tent. Burgundy fabric adorned the walls, gold tassels hung from the ceiling, and carpets covered the floor, to which Mr. Ghamdi pressed his forehead in prayer during breaks in our conversation.

He spoke of how the world of sheikhs, fatwas and the meticulous application of religion to everything had defined his life.

But that world — his world — had frozen him out.

Little in his background suggested that he would become a religious reformer. While at a university, he quit a job at the customs office in the Jidda port because a sheikh told him that collecting duties was haram.

After graduation, he studied religion in his spare time and handled international accounts for a government office — a job requiring travel to non-Muslim countries.

“The clerics at that time were releasing fatwas that it was not right to travel to the countries of the infidels unless it was necessary,” Mr. Ghamdi said.

So he quit.

Then he taught economics at a technical school in Saudi Arabia, but didn’t like that it taught only capitalism and socialism. So he said he had added material on Islamic finance, but the students complained about the extra work, and he left.

He finally landed a job that he felt was consistent with his religious convictions, as a member of the Commission in Jidda.

Over the next few years, he transferred to Mecca and cycled through different positions. There were occasional prostitution cases, and the force sometimes caught sorcerers — who can be beheaded if convicted in court.

But he developed reservations about how the force worked. His colleagues’ religious zeal sometimes led them to overreact, breaking into people’s homes or humiliating detainees.

“Let’s say someone drank alcohol,” he said. “That does not represent an attack on the religion, but they exaggerated in how they treated people.”

At one point, Mr. Ghamdi was assigned to review cases and tried to use his position to report abuses and force agents to return items they had wrongfully confiscated, he said.

He recalled the case of an older, single man who was reported to receive two young women in his home on the weekends. Since the man did not pray at the mosque, his neighbors suspected he was up to no good, so the Commission raided the house and caught the man red-handed — visiting with his daughters.

“Often, people were humiliated in inhuman ways, and that humiliation could cause hatred of religion,” Mr. Ghamdi said.

In 2005, the head of the Commission for the Mecca region died, and Mr. Ghamdi was promoted. It was a big job, with some 90 stations throughout a large, diverse area containing Islam’s holiest sites. He did his best to keep up, while worrying that the Commission’s focus was misguided.

In private, he looked to the scriptures and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance on what was halal and what was haram, and he documented his findings.

“I was surprised because we used to hear from the scholars, ‘Haram, haram, haram,’ but they never talked about the evidence,” he said.

Realizing the gravity of such a conclusion for someone in his position, he stayed silent and filed the document away.

But his conclusions would, soon, emerge.

Around the time he was rethinking his worldview, King Abdullah, then the monarch, announced plans to open a world-class university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust. What shocked the kingdom’s religious establishment was his decision to Not segregate students by gender, Nor impose a dress code on women.

Kaust followed the precedent of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which had also been shielded from clerical interference, highlighting one of the great contradictions of Saudi Arabia: Regardless of how much the royal family lauds its Islamic values, when it wants to earn money or innovate, it does not turn to the clerics for advice. It puts up a wall and locks them out.

Most clerics kept quiet out of deference to the king. But one member of the top clerical body addressed the issue on a call-in show, warning of the dangers of mixed universities: sexual harassment; men and women flirting and getting distracted from their studies; husbands growing jealous of their wives; rape.

“Mixing has many corrupting factors, and its evil is great,” said the cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shathri, adding that if the king had known this was the plan, he would have stopped it.

But mixing was in fact the king’s idea, and he was not amused. He dismissed the sheikh with a royal decree.

From his office in Mecca, Mr. Ghamdi watched, frustrated that the clerics were not backing a project he felt was good for the kingdom.

So after praying about it, he retrieved his report and boiled it down to two long articles that were published in the newspaper Okaz in 2009.

They were the first strikes in a yearslong battle between Mr. Ghamdi and the religious establishment. He followed with other articles, went on TV and faced off against other clerics who insulted him and marshaled their own evidence from the scriptures. His colleagues at the Commission shunned him, so he requested — and was swiftly granted — early retirement.

Once off the force, he questioned other practices: forcing shops to close during prayer times and urging people to go to the mosque, requiring face veils, barring women from driving.

Each comment lit a new inferno. A woman once asked him on Twitter if she could not only show her face, but also wear makeup. Sure, Mr. Ghamdi said, setting off new attacks.

Then in 2014, he was to appear on a popular talk show, and the producers filmed a segment about him and his wife, who appeared with her face showing and said she supported him.

Harsh responses came from the top of the religious establishment.

Many attacked his religious credentials, saying he was not really a sheikh — a dubious accusation since there is no standard qualification to be one.

They targeted his résumé, too, saying he had no degree in religion and pointing out, correctly, that his doctorate was from Ambassador University Corporation, a diploma mill that gives degrees based on work experience “in the Middle East.”

“There is no doubt that this man is bad,” said Sheikh Saleh al-Luheidan, a member of the top clerical body. “It is necessary for the state to assign someone to summon and torture him.”

The grand mufti addressed the issue on his call-in show, saying that the veil was “a necessary order and an Islamic creation” (wrong. Rich women wore veil in the Peninsula before Islam and in most cultures) calling on the kingdom’s television channels to ban content that “corrupts the religion and the morals and values of society.”

If the clerical attacks on Mr. Ghamdi were loud, the blowback from society was more painful. His tribe issued a statement, disowning him and calling him “troubled and confused.”

His cellphone rang day and night with callers shouting at him. He came home to find graffiti on the wall of his house. And a group of men showed up at his door, demanding to “mix” with the family’s women. His sons — he has nine children — called the police.

Before the dust-up, Mr. Ghamdi had also delivered Friday sermons at a mosque in Mecca, earning a government stipend. But the congregation complained after he spoke out, and he was asked to stay home, later losing his pay.

Mr. Ghamdi had not broken any laws and never faced legal action. But in Saudi Arabia’s close-knit society, the attacks echoed through his family. The relatives of his eldest son’s fiancée called off their wedding, not wanting to associate their family with his.

“Are you with your brother or with me?” Mr. Ghamdi said his sister’s husband had asked her. “She said, ‘I am with my brother.’” They soon divorced.

Mr. Ghamdi’s son Ammar, 15, was taunted at school. Ammar said another boy had once asked him: “How did your mom go on TV? That’s not right. You have no manners.”

So Ammar punched him.

Not a Place to Speak Up

One evening in Jidda, a university professor invited me to his home for dinner. His wife, a doctor, joined us at the table, her hair covered with a stylish veil.

They had recently been married and he joked that they were meant for each other because she was good at cooking and he was good at eating. His wife chuckled and gave him more soup.

I asked about Mr. Ghamdi.

“From what I read and what I saw, I think he’s right and he stood up for what he believes in,” the professor said. “I admire that.”

The problem, he said, is that tolerance for opposing views is not taught in Saudi society.

“Either follow what I say or I will classify you, I will hurt you, I will push you out of the discussion,” he said. “This is anti-Islam. We have many people thinking in different ways. You can fight, but you have to live under the same roof.”

His wife had no problem with mixing or with women working, but did not like that Mr. Ghamdi had caused a scandal by making his views public. The royal family sets the rules, and it was inappropriate for subjects to publicly campaign for changes, she said.

“He has to follow the ruler,” she said. “If everyone just comes out with his own opinion, we’ll be in chaos.”

After dinner, a young cleric who works for the security services dropped by. He, too, agreed with Mr. Ghamdi, but would not talk about it openly. The response, he said, is part of the deep conservatism in the clerical establishment that is impeding development.

He often gave lectures to security officers, followed by discussions, he said, and a common question he heard was, “Isn’t the military uniform haram?” Many Wahhabi clerics preach against resembling the infidels, leading to confusion.

He believed that wearing uniforms was fine, and worried that such narrow thinking made people susceptible to extremism.

“It’s like in those American movies when they invent a robot and then they lose control and it attacks them and the remote control stops working,” he said.

The next day, the professor thanked me for my visit in a text message.

“I’d like to remind u that any story that would uncover the source may hurt us. I trust your discretion,” he wrote, followed by three flowers.

All that was left, really, was to speak with the Commission. What did its leaders and rank and file think about all of this? But for a force portrayed as ever-present and all powerful, it proved surprisingly shy.

I could not visit Mr. Ghamdi’s former office because non-Muslims are barred from entering Mecca.

So I had multiple contacts ask for interviews with relatives who worked for the Commission, but they all declined to speak. I called the Commission’s spokesman, who told me that he was traveling and then stopped answering my calls.

I even dropped by the Commission’s headquarters, a boxy, steel-and-glass building on a Riyadh highway between a gas station and a car dealership. Its website advertised open hours with the director, so I went to his office, through halls filled with bearded men milling about and slick banners proclaiming “A Policy of Excellence” and “Together Against Corruption.”

“He didn’t come today,” the director’s secretary told me. “Maybe next week.”

On my way out, two men invited me into an office and served me coffee.

“How do you like working for the Commission?” I asked.

“Everyone who chooses this job loves it,” one said. It was the work of “the entire Islamic nation,” and it felt good “to bring people from the darkness into the light.”

The other man had been on the force for 15 years and said he preferred working in the office.

“You rest more in the administration,” he said. “Out there we have problems with people. They call us the religious police. Criminals! Thieves! You never get to rest out in the field.”

A scowling man appeared in the doorway and told me that I was not allowed to talk to anyone. The first man soon left. The second offered me more coffee, then tea, then forced me to take a bottle of water when I left.

Reform, the Hard Way

The first irony of Mr. Ghamdi’s situation is that many Saudis, including members of the royal family and even important clerics, agree with him, although mostly in private.

And public mixing of the sexes in some places — hospitals, conferences and in Mecca during the pilgrimage — is common. In some Saudi cities it is not uncommon to see women’s faces, or even their hair.

But there is a split in society between the conservatives who want to maintain what they consider the kingdom’s pure Islamic identity and the liberals (in the Saudi context) who want more personal freedoms. Liberals make cases like Mr. Ghamdi’s all the time. But sheikhs don’t, which is why he was branded a traitor.

The second irony is that this year, Saudi Arabia instituted some of the reform Mr. Ghamdi had called for.

It had been a rough year for the Commission.

A video went viral of a girl yelping as she was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.

Then the Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were outraged.

In April, the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police. It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their interactions with citizens.

Mr. Ghamdi applauded the decision, although he remains an outcast, a sheikh whose positions rendered him unemployable in the Islamic kingdom.

These days, he keeps a low profile because he still gets insults when he appears in public. He has no job, but publishes regular newspaper columns, mostly abroad.

Near the end of our last conversation, his wife, Jawahir, entered the room, dressed in a black abaya, with her face showing. She shook my hand, exuding a cloud of fragrance, and sat next to her husband.

The experience had changed her life in unexpected ways, she said. And like her husband, she had no regrets.

“We sent our message, and the goal was not for us to keep appearing and to get famous,” she said. “It was to send a message to society that religion is not customs and traditions. Religion is something else.”


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

September 2019
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