Saudi Arabia and Religious Toleration?

Tawhid "The conference provides an opportunity for Saudi Arabia, which prohibits the public practice of non-Islamic faiths, to present a more tolerant image on the world stage. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis.

The meeting this week also provided Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni an opportunity to highlight her commitment to peace talks on the eve of elections in Israel, in which her ruling Kadima party will run on its ability to secure peace with the country’s Arab neighbors. It also signaled that Israel’s leaders are making some progress toward better relations with Saudi Arabia, which does not recognize Israel. In a rare gesture, Abdullah agreed to attend a dinner with the Israeli president on Tuesday night hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The two leaders, however, ate at separate tables and did not speak to each other."  Washpost



The Salafism that is the official position in Saudi Arabia has not previously allowed such an attitude.  There are no churches, temples or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.  The traditional Islamic recognition of the kinship of the three "Heavenly Religions" is stretched mighty fine in "The Kingdom."  No public practise of Judaism or Christianity is allowed.  Society there has followed an unrelenting path of hostility to other faiths, indeed to other interpretations of Islam within the Sunni "community."  On that basis and in the belief that God’s Will must be done in the establishment of Wahhabi Salafism, many bad things have been done, and extremist splinter groups like Al-Qa’ida were allowed to develop.

There is a new spirit abroad in the lands of the Middle East.  Something new is being discussed in the mosque universites and among the ulema’.  Is there an opening  for a general diplomatic campaign that might to some extent reconcile the peoples?

In the Middle East, religion, government, economics and war are all intimately and inextricably linked.  Peace can not be made without religious reconciliation.  There was no Renaissance in the Middle East, no Protestant Reformation.  The European historical phenomena that separated lfe into the different spheres of "sacred" and "profane" never really occurred in the Islamic World.  That set of ideas is an import from the West.  The paradigm that dictates separation of things like "church" and "state" never prevailed in the area.  The neocon folly was rooted in the idea that it had.  There have been many attempts to transplant the idea of the division of life on the Western pattern.  Nationalism, Communism, Baathism, socialism; the list is lengthy.  All failed.  They foundered on the shoal of the solidity of the local forms that continue to persist so strongly. 

If the door to religious and therefore political reconciliation begins to open, let us hope that diplomacy will walk thought it.  "Tawhiid" can have many meanings.  pl

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20 Responses to Saudi Arabia and Religious Toleration?

  1. Arun says:

    Not just public practice. At least for Indians entering Saudi Arabia, their books are examined and any religious non-Islamic books are confiscated.

  2. Yours Truly says:

    Remarkable how some places WANT to become just like ’em. Talk ’bout closed loops. Obviously they’ve never learned ’bout the 2nd. Law of Thermodynamics…

  3. John Burgess says:

    Much of the commentary about the UN conference focused on Saudi Arabia’s lack of religious freedom. That’s a good topic, but not the point of the conference.
    Abdullah’s calling the conference–along with his calling the earlier Madrid conference, his meeting with the Pope, his series of National Dialogues–is intended for a Saudi audience, to demonstrate through example that talking with non-Muslims (or even talking with non-Sunni Muslims) doesn’t make your winkie fall off and lightning to fall from the sky.
    If you’re actually interested in what he’s doing to reform Saudi Arabia, you might want to look in at Crossroads Arabia.

  4. Cujo359 says:

    I think that as long as the major powers in the region remain theocracies, the idea of reconciliation, whether based on religion or some other non-secular impulse, will remain as much a pipe dream as the neocons’.
    In the end, they’re going to have to find practical reasons to get along, like as in war is more expensive than peace. Theocracies are created to make sure that religions don’t have to justify their reasoning. Trying to make them see reason is like trying to teach chimps to understand philosophy. Only when the major states start to adopt a more secular philosophy of government is much real progress likely to be made.
    BTW, when I’m referring to “theocracies”, I’m not just thinking of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

  5. Albertde says:

    You know what intrigues me. Why do we set the bar so low for countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Belarus, North Korea or Russia that whenever they do something vaguely reasonable we cheer?

  6. Cujo359 says:

    Right after I wrote that the Middle East needs to have a more secular form of government, my attention was drawn to this quote from King Abdullah in the London Times:

    According to the official Saudi Press Agency King Abdullah said “I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

    [emphasis mine, of course]
    Doesn’t that just make me all giddy! They don’t want to create greater tolerance, they want to stamp out all that awful secularism so that the world can be a better place. Just like, apparently, it’s been in the Middle East for the last half century.
    OK, I have no more reservations about this. I’m now completely cynical. Abdullah’s motives have a lot more with preserving his religion, and its grip on his country, than it does with making the world a more tolerant place. If he wants to pimp his religion, I wish he’d pick a less public forum than the United Nations.

  7. Patrick Lang says:

    cujo and albertde
    You’ve missed the point which is that they are not going to become what you would think of as progressive, “reasonable,” modern, etc. except at their own pace in a direction that they collectively choose. Since that is true we have no option but to deal with them as they ACTUALLY ARE or get ready to fight them in some other interesting place.
    What you have both voiced is the neocon fallacy. pl

  8. Cujo359 says:

    Mr. Lang, I think you’ve missed my point, which is that the behaviors that are making the Middle East so unstable are not changing. They’re not trying to create tolerance – they’re trying to make it more possible to continue their theocracies.
    I’d say think of how you’d feel if they’d said the rise of Christianity was unacceptable to all (other) religions, but even that really doesn’t get the point across. Abdullah’s statement is deeply offensive, at least to those of us who are non-believers. What’s really wrong with it is that it represents a complete rejection of anything that can introduce reason or dialogue into public debate. Things unacceptable to the ruling religion aren’t discussed publicly in a theocracy.

  9. Will says:

    my impression of the motives of CUSTO (custodian of the shrine) as he is affectionally called over at the friday-lunch-club blog, and colored by reading that blog, is as follows:
    the conference was about suppressing blasphemy about all religions- such as the recent prophet cartoons.
    The Custodian is interested in legislation outlawing critiscm of organized religion.
    Haaretz had an article that it was the first time that a representative of the the KSA remained seated while a President of Israel spoke.
    From a Lebanese Aounist perspective, the KSA is mud for financing the Salafists who they see as quasi al-Qa’eda.
    The recently renoviated Saudi-Beirut Arab league initiative is a very constructive idea.

  10. Will says:

    Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts
    ” This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but… it’s changing the theological foundations of [the] religion
    Fadi Hakura,
    Turkey expert, Chatham House ”

  11. TomB says:

    Albertde wrote:
    “Why do we set the bar so low for countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Belarus, North Korea or Russia that whenever they do something vaguely reasonable we cheer?”
    Because we ought to have “a decent respect for the [varying] opinions of mankind”? Because (aside from North Korea), reasonable modesty compels us to doubt that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the sum total of human happiness in those other societies is less than in our own, or that the sum total of misery there is greater?
    One wonders, for instance, if the suicide rates in those other societies is anywhere near ours. Or if their need to consume the tons of Prozac is anywhere near what is apparently needed here to keep us from doing so. Or their murder rates. Or their divorce rates. Or their child or domestic abuse rates. Or their rate of utter despoilation of their natural environments.
    A touching thing I haven’t seen commented upon anywhere: In Afghanistan and Pakistan and amongst the Pushtun/Pathan peoples there especially we have advertised the hell out of the humoungous rewards we are offering for bin Laden and Zawahiri. Something like $20 mil. for the former and $10 mil. for the latter. And this in countries and amongst people where $1000 US probably means a life of relative wealth for a person and their family. Where people die daily for want of a few dollars to travel to a city and get a lousy shot of antibiotics.
    And yet … not a bite so far it seems. Those poor people, living, by our lights, hand-to-mouth. And yet with such loyalties to their tribes and ancient code of not betraying strangers amongst them and to their fellow co-religionists that they don’t even buckle for millions….
    No matter how much you want to see bin Laden and Zawahiri get what’s coming to them tell me there isn’t something gob-smackingly magnificent about that? Tell me what anymore we in the West today wouldn’t sell for a song?

  12. Patrick Lang says:

    What you don’t seem to understand or care about is that your opinion of “them” is unimportant because they are not going to change to please you or anyone else. pl

  13. TR Stone says:

    Religion–it is all about shinking the club! The fewer the members, the more pure the thought.
    Expanding the group means creating internal conflicts to see who is the most pure. Purges, schism, ex-communications, fatwas, etc., what is the point?

  14. mo says:

    While it is good that the Saudis are opening up, no matter how slightly, and assuming they are not doing this under a hidden agenda, for the rest of us, I’m not sure whether you can call the spirit of reconciliation as new. The pre-48 Arab world was one where people of all faiths lived in relative harmony, especially in contrast to Europe (Starting with the delicious irony that prior to 68, the last battle Jews and Muslims had fought in Jerusalem was as allies against the Crusaders).
    The creation of the state of Israel and the fast and sudden wealth accumulated by the Saudi family and their reliance on the Wahabi tribes to stay in power (in conjunction with ancient patriarchal customs) sowed the seeds of disharmony.
    If there is anything new its that what grew of these seeds is now being seen for what it is in the form of Al Qaida or Fath Al-Islam, as bigoted, intolerant attitudes not of the past but of the past century. It is ironic that the Saudis, intolerant of all faiths but Sunni Islam, should be seen as friends of the west, but that those parties seen in the West as “radical Islamists” such as Hamas and Hizballah, consider Christian parties in their respective political arenas as closer allies than other Muslim or secular ones.
    Is there an opening for a general diplomatic campaign that might to some extent reconcile the peoples? I would say there always has been. The close links between the Vatican and Tehran testify to that. I would also argue that the lack of reconciliation cannot also be blamed on one side alone. The West, it seems to me, has also long regarded the Islamic world with a deep mistrust and antagonism.
    But if there is a door opening then yes, let us hope that it is an opportunity taken, and not seen as simply another one to be exploited.

  15. The first paragraph in the article stuck out to me the most:
    World leaders, senior diplomats and religious figures condemned extremism and terrorism Wednesday at a U.N. conference on interfaith dialogue that brought Israel and Arab countries together to promote tolerance. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the event’s chief sponsor, opened the meeting with a call for greater understanding in the Middle East, saying that religious and cultural differences in the region have “engendered intolerance, causing devastating wars and considerable bloodshed.”
    I was TDY last week out West. Everyone I worked with were vets with all the services represented. In fine tradition, once we were done Friday we rushed over to the bar to drink, bitch and moan about things, and basically solve all the world’s problems. Of course, the Middle East came up in the conversation and one point of anger was that Muslim leaders are not condemning the extremists enough. This idea that 95% of supposedly peaceful Muslims secretly support killing us infidels has seeped into American thinking, making all Muslims our enemy.
    Well, this looks like a pretty serious development. Have the major cable news channels picked this up?

  16. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    <"the establishment of Wahhabi Salafism, many bad things have been done, and extremist splinter groups like Al-Qa'ida were allowed to develop."? Indeed. 1. What have been the long term implications/consequences of the alignment of the Muslim Brotherhood with the House of Saud back in the 1930s? 2. What has been the result of the House of Saud giving protection in "The Kingdom" to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s etc. when MB intellectuals were allowed to teach in Saudi universities? Their students such as Usama seemed to have taken notes. 3. What have been the consequences of the US and "Western" policy of using Salafist Wahhabis and related to combat atheistic Communism, not to mention assorted secular nationalists, leftists, etc. in the Cold War? 4. Did not the Salafist Wahhabis help finance and train the Taliban back in the 1990s as yet another Cold War style project? "Stabilize Afghanistan" through Pushtun-Wahhabi theocracy... 5. While HRH Abdullah himself may be on the "progressive" side, what direction will his successor take? 6. Does the Wahhabintern resemble in an eery way the old Comintern?...

  17. Will says:

    The new Turkish Hadith and the Ankara School may have great influence on Central Asia Stans and perhaps Africa and South East Asia. But the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) as the Custodian of the Holy Shrine and Supervisor of the Hajj will predominate in influence.
    The Hashemites of Jordan rue the day they lost the Hejaz and Mecca.
    The Oil wealth of the Nejd (Eastern part of KSA) also helps.

  18. I would be interested in this blog readers list of top ten countries likly to experience political revolutions between now and 2020!
    My list would be 1. Saudi Arabia; 2. India; 3. China; 4. Mexico; 5. Mynamar; 6. Iran; 7. Russia; 8. Argentina; 9. Egypt; and 10. U.S.
    My list is not completely facetious but of course does reflect the complexities of current events and the definition of revolution and political utilized.

  19. Appears Somalia about to return to fundamentalist Islam control.

  20. Albertde says:

    I disagree. The neocon folly was thinking you could invade countries and impose a democratic and capitalistic / “small-government” structure that would work, regardless of their history and culture.
    What I implied instead was that you should have standards whose appearance and enforcement in a country we should applaud and whose absence we should deplore. These standards should at least include:
    – rule of law including fair application and enforcement,
    – a government accountable to all its people.

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