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This commentary from The Weekly Standard was written by Stephen Schwartz.
When Aqila al-Hashimi was murdered on her way to work at the end of September, some people cheered. A modern Iraqi Shia woman who wore no headscarf, al-Hashimi was also a former mid-level diplomat for the Baathist regime and as such earned the fury of Iraqi extremists when she joined the post-Saddam transitional body, the Iraqi National Council. "Praise God, The Death of the Traitor Aqila al-Hashimi is Confirmed," screamed the website www.alerhap.com. The posting continued:
The media have confirmed the death of the criminal Aqila al-Hashimi, who accepted a cheap sellout of her country and nation to the American enemies. The rest of the traitors are in line for the same treatment, especially the head criminal, Ahmed Chalabi. It is well known that the Governing Council has no other aim than to legitimize the American and Zionist invasion of Iraq. That is why the American aggressors had their medical teams work hard to save the life of the criminal Aqila al-Hashimi.
The web, of course, is full of nasty sites and inflammatory postings. Such things are bound to crop up in a widely accessible medium that is uncensored. What makes alerhap -- an al Qaeda website -- interesting is that it offers an example of hate-mongering tolerated in a virtual environment that is actively censored: that of Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, the same Riyadh regime that continually promises to curb incitement by its state-supported Wahhabi clerics and media -- the same regime that successfully blocks websites airing enlightened attitudes toward women, Islam, pluralism, freedom, and democracy -- leaves unimpeded inflammatory websites that recruit for violent jihad.
One Saudi writer who has complained about the government's policy on websites is Nahed Bashath. Her essay "Banning Sites or Banning Minds" was allowed to appear in the major daily al-Riyadh on August 17, in keeping with the regime's present unpredictable pattern of feints toward openness and promises of reform. Bashath reported that the authorities had just blocked access to a website on violence against women run by the Arab Regional Resource Center at www.amanjordan.org.
Not only that, but Bashath cited a study carried out by Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, both at Harvard Law School, which funded the project, in cooperation with the Saudi government's Internet Services Unit. Titled "Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia," the survey found that the Saudis were blocking such sources of subversion as websites run by the Anne Frank House and Amnesty International, as well as sites relating to Shia Islam, Christianity, the Baha'i faith, and tolerance and interfaith dialogue generally. The Harvard study is available online, at least to Westerners, at cyber.law.har vard.edu/filtering/saudiarabia. Its executive summary is worth quoting at length:
Abstract: The authors connected to the Internet through proxy servers in Saudi Arabia and attempted to access approximately 60,000 Web pages as a means of empirically determining the scope and pervasiveness of Internet filtering there. Saudi-installed filtering systems prevented access to certain requested Web pages; the authors tracked 2,038 blocked pages. Such pages contained information about religion, health, education, reference, humor, and entertainment. The authors conclude (1) that the Saudi government maintains an active interest in filtering non-sexually explicit Web content for users within the Kingdom; (2) that substantial amounts of non-sexually explicit Web content is in fact effectively inaccessible to most Saudi Arabians; and (3) that much of this content consists of sites that are popular elsewhere in the world.
The Saudis' explanation for blocking sites is predictable: "preserv[ing] our Islamic values, filtering Internet content to prevent materials that contradict our beliefs or may influence our culture." According to the Harvard researchers, the Saudis further explained that they block sites "related to drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling, and pages insulting the Islamic religion or the Saudi laws and regulations."
Naturally, the censored sites include the democratic opposition forum directed by the Washington-based dissident Ali al-Ahmed at www.saudiinstitute.org and his news service at www.arabianews.org. Similarly, as soon as the Saudi opposition forum www.tuwaa.com became popular in the kingdom, it too was jammed, though its contents run not to flashy propaganda but to civil, well-reasoned arguments for liberal reform. (In recent days, the site has been intermittently available. As the jammers attempt to suppress sites, site operators change their locations to get around blocking. Thus, what is available may shift from day to day.) Noting all this, Bashath asked a crucial question: Why are such sites blocked when others, which spew recruitment propaganda for the global Wahhabi terror campaign, are not?
The illustrations on these pages are taken from websites accessible to Saudis in mid-October, when we downloaded them. On the page opposite, the headline at the top, in red letters dripping with blood, reads "Islamic Terrorism Clubs."
The two pictures in the middle of the page, of a suicide bomber and of Osama bin Laden superimposed on a gathering of jihad fighters, are stills from a flash video found at www.dawah.ws/flash/jehad.swf. The flash is entitled "Come to Jihad" and has a soundtrack of extremist songs.
The first sequence shows videogame-style images of tormented Muslims seen through windows. First, two presumably Israeli soldiers drag a woman along, with the word "Palestine" scrawled in blood on the wall beside the window. Next, a soldier with an automatic weapon targets a woman in a headscarf accompanied by two children; this time the bloody word on the wall is "Chechnya." The following two scenes show a man confronting an American soldier, titled "Afghanistan," and a tank, labeled "Iraq." Soon the heading "Lions for Monotheism" appears, "monotheism" being a euphemism for Wahhabi Islam. The cityscape appears, then the image of bin Laden, then the crowd he is exhorting to jihad. A Saudi flag is shown, followed by a burning American flag. The flash ends with the masked suicide bomber, whose black headband bears the legend from the Saudi flag, "There is no God but God."
At the top of the second page is a flaming heading from a site promoting Ansar al Islam (Volunteers for Islam), the Wahhabi group operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. The heading at the bottom of the page is from another leading Wahhabi site and shows guns, a Koran, the world, the fiery word "mujahedeen" (holy warriors), a mountain scene from Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden with his confederate Ayman Zawahiri. In the middle of the page, the still with the cross comes from a flash containing many images of dead and wounded people at www.muslm.net/muslm3/mojahd/flash/al9leeb.swf. The words under the blood red cross are "The Cross Came." The song in the background says the crusaders came with their armies, and Muslim blood is flowing like a river. Why should jihad be a sin if singing and dancing are acceptable? If Jews and Christians can fight, why not Muslims? Our enemies kill children and the innocent, says the song, but Islam will prevail. Jihad against the West is the only virtuous path for Muslims.
The image below it, a photocomposite of a man on top of the World Trade Center as a plane is about to hit, comes from an al Qaeda website, www.alsonna.jeeran.com/index.htm, that glorifies the heroic hijackers of 9/11.
Less visually interesting but no less pernicious are the many text sites available to Saudi citizens solemnly promoting the views of Wahhabi clerics -- that Shia Muslims are infidels, that Western culture is dangerous, and that what the rest of the world calls terrorism is legitimate resistance crowned with martyrdom.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam."
By Stephen Schwartz