Saudis crack down on religious right


PARIS -- After years of tolerating the unrestrained growth of militant fundamentalist practices, the Saudi Arabian government has adopted a series of measures signaling its readiness to crack down on Muslim dissidents accused of using religion to further their political aims.

Citing the "dictates of the public interest," the Saudi government announced the dismissal yesterday of four militant Muslim scholars from universities and ordered the closure of two fundamentalist lawyers' offices.

The six fundamentalist figures had announced 10 days ago the creation of what they described as Saudi Arabia's first human rights committee. They were expected to use that platform to press demands to further institutionalize the power of the Islamic clergy over Saudi society and restrain the pace of modernization.

The swift measures against them, which received prominent coverage by virtually all the semi-official Saudi news organizations on Wednesday and yesterday, were the latest in a series of steps leaving little doubt that the Saudi government, which applies one of the most rigid Muslim fundamentalist codes in the world, is sensing a clear danger from religious right.

Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia moved to restrain the flow of money to militant Muslim groups, instituted an active intelligence exchange with Arab countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, that are battling Islamic guerrillas, and demanded that its eminent religious scholars denounce and purge militant elements within their vast and powerful establishment.

A little more than a week ago, in a significant reversal of policy, the government banned the collection of money for charitable Muslim causes inside Saudi Arabia without the specific permission of the Interior Ministry.

Pious Muslims have been encouraged for decades to contribute to worthy Muslim causes. The measure was taken to stem the flow of money to militant Muslims.

The measures against Muslim dissidents yesterday came a day after Saudi Arabia's highest government-appointed religious body, known as the Senior Muslim Scholars Authority, denounced the human rights committee as a "superfluous" and "illegitimate" body, asserting that the country has ample legal and religious Muslim groups to deal with any injustice.

The emergence of open dissent from the religious right in Saudi Arabia and the ruling establishment's response to it take on additional meaning as they come at a time when militant Muslim movements are challenging several Arab governments in the region, including those of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen.

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