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Kingdom'’s Religious Wrongs

Nina Shea

Before boarding his flight to Crawford to meet with President Bush Monday, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah presided over the arrest of 40 Pakistani Christians on Friday. Their crime? The Pakistanis were caught praying in a private home in the capital Riyadh in violation of the state’s strictly enforced religious law that bans all non-Muslim worship.

As the State Department has determined, there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia and everyone there, Muslim or not, must obey the rules of the extreme sharia of the kingdom’s established religion, the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The Saudi state indoctrinates its nationals from an early age in the Wahhabi ideology of zero tolerance for the “other.” Government textbooks and publications teach that it is a religious obligation for Muslims to hate Christians and Jews and warn against imitating, befriending, or helping them in any way, or taking part in their festivities and celebrations. The state teaches a Nazi-like hatred for Jews, treats the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact, and avows that the Muslim’s duty is to eliminate the state of Israel.

Though the persecution of the Pakistani Christians is a dramatic example, they and the other non-Muslims among the quarter of the kingdom’s population who are foreign workers are not the only ones to suffer from the denial of religious freedom. Saudi Arabia’s nationals, by law Muslim, find that a broad range of their freedoms are limited because of the state’s monopoly on religious expresssion.

For example, Muslims who follow the Sufi and Shiite traditions are viewed as heretical dissidents and viciously condemned and discriminated against by the state. Regarding those who convert out of Islam, the Saudi ministry of Islamic affairs explicitly asserts in publications Freedom House has acquired, they “should be killed.” Muslims who object to even particular tenets of Wahhabism, such as advocates of greater religious tolerance, also are viewed as the “other” and condemned as “infidels.” Under Saudi law, such “blasphemers” and “apostates” from Islam can be sentenced to death.

Political reformers, too, are crushed on religious grounds. Three Saudi professors have now languished for over a year in prison after proposing that the country adopt a written constitution. Among other charges, their terminology was denounced as un-Islamic or “Western.” State publications condemn democracy itself as un-Islamic. They instill contempt for America because the United States is ruled by “infidel” legislated law, rather than Wahhabi-style Islamic law.

A direct consequence of there being no religious freedom is that every Saudi woman is forced by the state to conform to Wahhabi religious edicts restricting dress, transportation, movement, due-process rights, and the ability to participate in civic life.

The expansion of civil and political freedoms in the kingdom, therefore, hinges on religious freedom.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and the discovery that two thirds of the hijackers were Saudis — Saudi state ideology has become a matter of U.S. national security. As bad as it is that Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia’s state religion, even worse is that it is the Saudi government’s aim to propagate it and have it replace traditional and moderate interpretations of Islam worldwide, including within the United States. Earlier this year, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom released a report based on a year-long study of the radically intolerant Wahhabi ideology contained in documents spread, published, or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and found in the United States.

In one example, a publication for the “Immigrant Muslim” bearing the words “Greetings from the Cultural Department” of the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., gave detailed instructions on how to “hate” the Christian and Jew: Never greet them first. Never congratulate the infidel on his holiday. Never imitate the infidel. Do not become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Do not wear a graduation gown because this imitates the infidel. The opening fatwa of another a book distributed by the embassy that was published by the Saudi air force responds to a question about a Muslim preacher in a European mosque who taught that it is not right to condemn Jews and Christians as infidels. The Saudi state cleric’s reply emphatically rebukes the Muslim cleric: “He who casts doubts about their infidelity leaves no doubt about his.”

Within worldwide Sunni Islam, followers of Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi ideology remain a distinct minority. This is evident from the millions of Muslims who have chosen to make America their home and are upstanding, law-abiding citizens and neighbors. It was just such concerned Muslims who first brought these publications to the attention of Freedom House. They did so in the hope of “freeing their communities from ideological strangulation.”

The Saudi state’s propagation of Wahhabi extremism is more than hate speech; it is a totalitarian ideology of hatred that can incite to violence. The fact that this ideology is being mainstreamed within our borders through the efforts of a foreign government demands President Bush’s urgent attention in today’s conversations with Prince Abdullah. With his remarkable State of the Union address that challenged Saudi Arabia to democratize, the president turned a new page in U.S. policy. Some in American policy circles argue that religious freedom, however, is too sensitive to raise. It’s too important not to; the first topic on the president’s agenda should be the expansion of religious freedom in the kingdom — for Muslims, as well as the captive Christians.

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