RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The Saudi government, which normally restricts public protest, is giving Saudis freer rein to express their anger at the United States and Israel for the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians.
As public protest flourishes in street demonstrations, newspapers and Web sites, some analysts say the easing up is a pre-emptive attempt by the government to steer militants away from more radical, underground groups.
Since the Israeli military offensive began in the West Bank two weeks ago, two large pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been allowed despite a ban on such gatherings. A third is planned for Friday in Buraida, one of the kingdom's fundamentalist strongholds.
A government-appointed clergyman recently eulogized Palestinian suicide bombers on government-run Saudi TV, while Ahmad al-Tuwaijri, a member of the unelected Consultative Council, has called for the expulsion of U.S. ambassadors from all Muslim cities.
Some mosques have been making invocations at the end of the dawn and evening prayers for the destruction of the United States, something very few mosques could do during the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
"We're amazed at what's going on," said Mohsen al-Awajy, a conservative Islamist jailed four years in the 1990s for pushing for reforms. "We never dreamed anything like this could happen."
Observers say the government's eased policies are a direct result of the Sept. 11 attacks, which Washington says were carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of them Saudi, and masterminded by Saudi dissident Usama bin Laden.
The participation of so many Saudis came as a shock to the government, as did the possible role of "underground" clergymen in spreading the kind of fundamentalist ideas espoused by bin Laden.
The government maintains control over the religious establishment, especially the clergymen, whom it appoints and guides in terms of what lines they cannot cross in their sermons.
Weeding out the unlicensed clergymen is a more urgent task at a time when Saudis are boiling with rage over Palestinian deaths and what they see as the indifference of President Bush to the plight of Arabs.
Analysts say the Saudi government realized a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks that the only way to undermine radical clerics was to allow people like al-Awajy to resurface. He, and many other former Islamist prisoners, enjoy more credibility among the youth than the government-appointed clerics.
Suddenly, al-Awajy and other Islamist figures began appearing on satellite television, writing in local papers and maintaining Web sites, answering questions about jihad, or holy war, and the Israeli incursion into Palestinian areas.
Despite their conservative views, the advice they dispense is short of bin Laden's militant, extremist ideology.
For instance, during the height of the U.S. assault on Al Qaeda, a Saudi viewer called the Saudi-owned MBC satellite television to ask one of those clerics, Sheik Ayed al-Qarni, if it was proper to avenge the death of Afghans by targeting Americans in Saudi Arabia.
"No," Al-Qarni told him, since those Americans had nothing to do with what their government is doing.
Al-Awajy said many young men ask his view on suicide bombings against U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia and the region to avenge Palestinian deaths. "I tell them, 'Don't do it. Targeting Western and American interests in the area would have negative consequences on us."'
Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily Arab News, said the government needs such clerics "to spread some kind of moderation."
"The youths were listening to only two kinds of sheiks: the government sheiks and the underground ones who are out of control," he said. Awaji and the others, Khashoggi said, are critical of the United States and the government, "but they are not radical."
Al-Awajy said he and other Islamic figures are taking advantage of the more tolerant atmosphere to slowly move toward their goal for more reforms, such as the election instead of appointment of Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council and oversight over public funds.
"This is our season, and it's all Bush's doing," he said.