Are the Saudis Fanatics?

Terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have led many to question not only the ruling House of Saud's prospects for survival, but also whether the kingdom is fundamentally dysfunctional and destructive. Somehow, it seems, Saudi society has produced a stream of violent fanaticism that draws its inspiration from extreme religious orthodoxy.

The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were Saudis crystallized a long-held view of the kingdom as a bastion of authoritarianism and intolerance. In some respects, this perception is accurate, but it cannot be applied to the broad Saudi public. On the contrary, it would be a grave mistake to assume that fanatical Islamism fully defines Saudi attitudes toward religion.

Between 2001 and 2003, I was part of a team that undertook an extensive survey of values in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan. Our results provide a surprisingly nuanced picture of Saudi attitudes. Compared to respondents in the other Middle Eastern countries, Saudis were less religious overall, and their attitudes toward democracy and arranged marriage also indicate a moderate undercurrent.

To be sure, in all four countries, religiosity is widespread, with more than 90% of respondents collectively reporting that they believe in God, in life after death, and in heaven and hell. But the Saudis appear to be less religious than their fellow Muslims. Sixty-two percent of Saudis described themselves as religious, compared with 82% of Iranians, 85% of Jordanians, and 98% of Egyptians. Americans also appear to be far more religious than Saudis, with 81% describing themselves that way.