WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Surely the most chilling aspect of terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia against foreigners at the Khobar oil center, according to reports from the scene, was how the Saudi militants tried to kill or capture only the non-Muslims and let Muslims and Arabs go.
The Associated Press quoted a Lebanese woman, Orora Naoufal, who was taken hostage in her apartment, as saying that the gunmen released her when they learned of her nationality. They told her they were interested in harming only "infidels" and Westerners.
Now where would the terrorists have learned such intolerance and discrimination? Answer: in the Saudi public school system and religious curriculum.
That is the only conclusion one can draw, not only from listening to what the terrorists said but also from listening to what some courageous Saudi liberals - and yes, there are many who want their country to become more open and tolerant - are saying in their own press.
The Saudi English-language daily Arab News recently published a series by the liberal Saudi writer Raid Qusti about the need to re-evaluate Saudi education. Mr. Qusti quotes the editor of Al Riyadh newspaper as saying the people carrying out this latest rash of attacks inside Saudi Arabia have the same ideology as the Saudi extremists who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. They had an ideology of accusing all others as being "infidels," thereby giving themselves a license to kill them.
"If we as a nation decline to look at the root causes, as we have for the past two decades, it will only be a matter of time before another group of people with the same ideology springs up," noted Mr. Qusti, as translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. "Have we helped create these monsters? Our education system, which does not stress tolerance of other faiths ... is one thing that needs to be re-evaluated from top to bottom.
"Saudi culture itself and the fact the majority of us do not accept other lifestyles and impose our own on other people is another. And the fact that from the fourth to the 12th grade we do not teach our children that there are other civilizations in the world and that we are part of the global community and only stress the Islamic empires over and over is also worth re-evaluating. And last but certainly not least, the religious climate in the country must change."
Over the last year or so, Hamza Qablan al-Mozainy, an Arabic professor at King Saud University, published two articles in the Saudi daily Al Watan about "the culture of death in our schools" and the role that Saudi teachers are playing in promoting discussions on how bodies are prepared for burial and how the kind of life a person has led - righteous or decadent - can be read from the condition of the person's dead body.
This effort to use death to get young people to abstain from the attractions of life, he said, only ends up making some Saudi youths easy targets for extremists trying to recruit young people for jihad operations. "Does the Education Ministry really know about the activities taking place in its schools?" Mr. al-Mozainy asked.
Saudi leaders have been in denial for too long. They need to wake up - and we need an energy policy that reduces our dependence on Saudi oil. I don't want the difference between a good day and bad day to be whether Saudi Arabia reforms its education system.
A few years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed those of us who advocate energy conservation as dreamy do-gooders. Had he spent the last three years pushing for conservation and alternative energies, rather than dismissing them, we'd be a lot less dependent today on foreign oil.
Oh, that is so naive, says the oil crowd.
Well, what would you call a Bush energy policy that keeps America dependent on a medieval monarchy with a king who has lost most of his faculties, where there is virtually no transparency about what's happening, where corruption is rampant, where we have asked all Americans to leave and where the education system is so narrow that its own people are now decrying it as a factory for extremism? Now that's what I'd call naive. I'd also call it reckless and dangerous.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.