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The Saudis' PR 'Roads' Show

Nina Shea

Even before the “Arab spring” revolts—indeed, ever since the 9/11 attacks on American soil by mostly Saudi terrorists—the Saudi royal family has assiduously waged a public-relations campaign to improve its image by sponsoring major cultural initiatives in the West. In 2012 alone, these included the opening of the King Abdullah interfaith-dialogue center in Vienna, an Islamic-art wing at the Louvre in Paris, and “Roads of Arabia,” an archaeological exhibition now on display in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution.

All these are sophisticated and lavish attempts to throw sand in our eyes. At home, meanwhile, the Wahhabi-partnered monarchy has yet to shed its grossly intolerant ideology and policies toward other religions, which it so dangerously has spread to Muslim communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and other countries.

No church or other non-Muslim house of worship is allowed in Saudi Arabia. This, despite the fact that, as Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna observed last June to an influential Washington audience, Saudi Arabia may now be home to one of the Middle East’s largest Christian populations. Over a million of Saudi Arabia’s foreign workers may be Christians, and some, like the Filipino chauffeur who drove me around Riyadh in 2011, have lived there for several decades.

Foreign workers who attempt to gather quietly in house churches are hunted down by the religious police. Such was the fate of 35 Ethiopian Christians in Jeddah who were arrested, strip-searched, and jailed without due process for nearly eight months last year for secretly holding a Christmas-season worship service.

Bibles cannot be distributed in the kingdom. Christian signs and symbols cannot be displayed; religious garb, rosaries, and crosses are prohibited from view. When an Italian soccer team came to play a match in Saudi Arabia, it had to blot out part of the cross on the team’s jerseys, turning their logo into a stroke instead. Even secular symbols associated with Christmas are banned; one year, in the American school, a Santa Claus barely dodged the religious police by escaping through a window.

And Saudi policy is to spread this intolerance to other Muslim communities. Corner readers will recall that Cliff May reported on a stark reminder of this: the March 2012 directive of the Saudi grand mufti, who serves at the pleasure of the king and whose salary is paid by the state, declaring that it was “necessary to destroy all the churches in” the region.

Part of the solution is the reform of public education, which continues to indoctrinate students in violent and hate-filled teachings toward the religious “other.” Repeatedly over several years, and despite documentation to the contrary, American foreign-policy experts have taken Saudi disinformation about textbook reform at face value. As Stephen Schwartz reports, Karen Elliott House’s otherwise informative new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future, appears to fall for it as well.

Some of the revised textbooks are now posted on the Saudi government’s official website. So far, however, these do not include the problematic tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade textbooks. These upper-grade texts include lessons on the need to fight “infidels” and “polytheists” unless they convert to Islam or take out protection contracts with the Muslims. One text calls for punishing apostates with death unless they repent. Another promotes “jihad” for “wrestling with the unbelievers by calling them [to the faith] and fighting them.” And Saudi textbooks are disseminated globally.

As for the “revised” materials on the Saudi website, they too continue to teach shocking lessons in intolerance. In a section headlined “Beneficial lessons from the conquest of Khaybar,” for example, one seventh-grade book issued by the Education Ministry now instructs:

A. The Jews are a cunning and malicious people, and it is in their nature to break treaties. B. People of the covenant (ahl al dhimma/Jews & Christians) are permitted to remain in the Abode of Islam when [the Muslims] have triumphed over them, and if it is to the benefit of the Muslims. C. Joining into a period of agreement with the people of the covenant (ahl al-dhimma/Jews & Christians) is permitted when [the Muslims] have triumphed over them, and according to the will of the Muslims’ leader.

In the face of this reality, the Saudi PR efforts take on a decidedly sinister cast. The “Roads” exhibition, at an institution run by the American government, is primarily about the trade routes for frankincense, a once-precious substance found in southern Arabia and familiar in the West as one of the gifts brought by the Magi in the Christmas story. The Smithsonian distributes a brochure for the exhibition produced by Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which quotes the show’s curator, a Saudi national named Ali al-Ghabban, as saying that the exhibition demonstrates about his country that “We are not closed. We were always open. We are open today.”

In other words, the showcasing of sacred and mythological objects from the Mesopotamian, Hellenistic, Roman, and other long-lost religions of antiquity is meant to convey to the West that Saudi Arabia is, in the present day, accepting of religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In that sense the PR effort backfires: It documents how much more culturally open and tolerant Arabia was hundreds of years ago.

Even within its own terms, the exhibition betrays its purpose. The Aramco brochure defines the show as “the first-ever comprehensive international exhibition of Saudi Arabia’s historical artifacts” (emphasis added). But sacred artifacts of Arabian Judaism and Christianity—whose histories stretched for thousands and hundreds of years, respectively—are in scant supply. In fact, I saw none on a recent visit.

According to Islamic tradition, after receiving his divine message, Prophet Mohammad quickly consulted Waraqa bin Nawfal, his first wife’s cousin, who is identified as a Christian. Waraqa’s seventh-century Hijaz church, along with other indigenous churches, was destroyed long ago. Nevertheless, some traces of early Christianity remain. In 2008, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that, in the mid-1980s, a group of people attempting to dig their car out of the sand outside Jubail, near the Saudi oil fields, stumbled upon the ruins of a fourth-century church, replete with four stone crosses. The AINA report added that the Saudi government said the site was off limits because it was being excavated.

The West must not allow itself to be deceived about the Saudis’ campaign of religious cleansing, which is relentlessly advanced through their laws, practices, clerical appointments, and educational materials. The U.S. government should press for these practices to cease and should end its own complicity in Saudi PR efforts to create a mirage.

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