08/28/2004, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Reformists' trial postponed because of courtroom protest

Sociological research indicates that Saudis want democracy and freedom.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/AFP) – A judge postponed the second hearing in the trial of Ali al-Demaini, Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid, three Saudis arrested on March 16 for attempting to undermine "national unity and social cohesion based on Islamic principles". In December 2003 the three defendants had signed a petition calling for the kingdom to become a constitutional monarchy.

The trio are well known academics. They have repeatedly criticised the National Human Rights Commission, a body they accuse of being "at the service of the Saudi Interior Ministry". They had signed a letter to the heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Abdallah Ben Abdel Aziz, demanding the right to create a "Human Rights Commission" independent of the official one. The prince never replied.

The trial was suspended even before it began, its proceedings disrupted by the more than 100 relatives and supporters of the three men inside the courtroom, not too mention those outside trying to get in.

The defendants, who requested two weeks to study the accusations before entering their pleas, were among a dozen activists arrested on March 16. Six were released within a couple of days later after pledging to no longer publicly lobby for reform; three others were freed at the end of March.

Exiled Saudi intellectuals are closely monitoring event at home. For them the growing demands for individual freedoms are the dawn of a new era in which basic human rights, especially freedom of expression, can be safeguarded.

Mansoor Moaddel, a sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University, and author of the forthcoming book Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse, released surprising results based on an extensive survey on values and religious fanaticism in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan. One result among the many stands out among the many, namely 6 Saudis in 10 consider democracy the best form of government.

 "Overall Saudis are less influenced by religion," professor Moaddel writes. "Muslims constitute over 90% of the population, but only 62% of Saudis described themselves as religious, compared with 82% of Iranians, 85% of Jordanians, and 98% of Egyptians. [. . .] Only 28% of Saudis said that they participate in weekly religious services, compared to 27% of Iranians, 44% of Jordanians, 42% of Egyptians."

According to Moaddel, even when it comes to marriage," many Saudis express surprisingly liberal views since 48% prefer love as the basis of matrimony against 50% who support the idea of arranged marriages."

Saudi Arabia is governed by an absolute monarchy whose foundation is Wahhabism, one of the most fundamentalist versions of Islam. Islamic or Shari'ah law is the basis of its system of government.

The lack of democracy is however undermining the country's social cohesion and for many observers an important reason for young people drifting towards Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. (DS)

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