The Importance of Religious Freedom in Saudi Arabia

The daily atrocities that are committed in the name of Islam in Iraq and elsewhere and the increase in violence in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban attempts to re-impose its draconian rule on the country, are a constant reminder to Muslims worldwide that the Muslim community might face an existential threat from within.
The potential of a spillover of sectarian violence from Iraq to its neighbors, along with the ability of Al Qaeda and its affiliates to survive despite the international community’s best effort to eradicate it, has led some to assert that the Muslim community is in dire need of effective leadership. Saudi Arabia is best positioned to assume this mantle. However, to do so, it must begin by changing its own policies on religious freedom.
As the birthplace of Islam and the location of two of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia holds special standing in the Muslim world. Religious edicts from its scholars hold sway with many of the 1.3 billion Muslims around the globe, especially the majority Sunnis. Its eminence puts it in a unique position to influence how many Muslims think and act. The terrorist acts committed by militant Islamist groups as well as the violence and hysteria that followed the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in European newspapers in 2006, highlight the pervasiveness of militancy, radicalism and intolerance among many Muslims.
The critics should give the Saudis credit for cracking down on radical religious clerics and imams who propagate a venomous ideology of hatred and violence. Officials do a better job of hunting down and confronting Islamist militants, imprisoning or killing most of their leaders. The rhetoric from Saudi leadership has also been encouraging, with King Abdullah using the occasion of a meeting of leaders of Muslim countries in late 2005 in Mecca to stress that Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance and that terrorism is an ugly distortion of Islam.
However, the kingdom’s policies on religious freedom need some serious reevaluation. A lifting of the restrictions on Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ right to worship freely has the potential to play a much more positive role than any mere declaration. If the Saudis truly want to fulfill their role as the “custodians of the Holy Mosques,” they must take immediate steps not only to save Saudi youths from falling prey to the lure of Islamist militants, but also to provide much needed leadership to a worldwide Muslim community that is moving perilously close to allowing hate-filled proclamations and bloodthirsty acts of violence in the name of Islam seem like the norm and not the exception.
First, the Saudis need to come to terms with the fact that millions of non-Muslims live and work in the kingdom and that they should have the freedom to worship, even in a communal setting, without fear of harassment or arrest. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly known as the Mutawa, still sends henchmen in search of people violating the codes of behavior and dress that conform to its own austere interpretation of Islam. Non-Muslims should also be allowed to bring in religious scriptures and symbols used in performing religious rituals.
Officials must also reevaluate their ban on clergy entering the kingdom. The notion that lifting such restrictions would somehow lead Muslims to leave their faith in droves is preposterous and patently offensive to Muslims everywhere. After all, Saudis and other Muslims are allowed to worship freely and publicly in Western countries, and many fill local mosques on a daily basis. The argument that the kingdom is the equivalent of the Muslim Vatican is not convincing. The Vatican isn’t home to millions of Muslims, while millions of non-Muslims do live in Saudi Arabia.

 

Secondly, although the kingdom has made progress in recognizing some religious minorities – such as the Shia of the eastern province, the Ismailis of the south and the Sufis of western Hijaz – it must take more concrete steps toward including them in the political system by increasing their representation in governmental bodies and opening professions largely closed to them, such as education, the diplomatic corps and the military. King Abdullah should be commended for using the National Dialogue conferences to mend strained relations between the majority Sunni and religious minorities, but more must be done.
Thirdly, Saudi officials must continue their efforts to perpetuate the idea that no single school of interpretation or sect has a monopoly on “true” Islam. By embracing this sectarian pluralism, Saudi youth will become less likely to adhere to radical clerics, who consider all who disagree with them heretics. If religious minorities in the kingdom are to feel like full citizens, the government must treat them as such, allowing them to worship freely and observe religious rituals without threat of harassment and intimidation.

 

Saudi authorities must reevaluate the utility of religious police, officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The notion that Muslims have a duty to ensure that the correct religious mores and codes are followed is controversial in Islam, especially if it implies the use of force. The recent deaths of two citizens in the custody of the Mutawa invited fresh condemnation from both Saudis and human-rights organizations.

 
A Saudi newspaper reported in April that citizen attacks on religious police are on the rise, an indication that at least some segment of Saudi society opposes the committee. Some have argued that brutish and intimidating tactics of the religious police have done irreparable damage to the image of Islam as a faith based on moderation and tolerance. The religious police certainly provide an easy target for those who want to indict Islam as a religion for the prevalence of radicalism, intolerance and militancy among some Muslims.

 
In a country where the average Saudi lives within steps of a mosque, those seeking religious guidance have easy access to it. In addition, Saudi and Arab television and radio stations offer a plethora of religious programming, much of it interactive, not to mention that Saudi students arguably receive more religious education than any of their peers around the world.

 
Finally, the Saudis must revise their educational curriculum that is still replete with notions of an imminent clash between Muslim and Western civilizations. Although authorities are said to be in the middle of implementing a long-term plan to modify the curriculum and update teaching methodology, some educators still subject Saudi children to material that many Muslims would find objectionable, never mind Westerners. The curriculum must also emphasize the diversity of sects and opinions within Islam.

 
By implementing these measures, the Saudi government can send a strong message to Muslims and non-Muslims around the around that Islam is indeed a religion of peace, moderation and tolerance.

 
Rights:© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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About Fahad Nazer

Mr. Fahad Nazer is a fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, DC. A native of Saudi Arabia, he has worked as a political analyst at the Department of Political Affairs and as a media analyst at the Information Office of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC. He is also a PhD candidate in political science at the Catholic University of America, where his tentative dissertation will examine the impact of the non-Islamist reform movement on the political culture of Saudi Arabia. His research interests include political development and reforms, democratization and civil society in the Middle East. He also has an interest in international relations theory and US foreign policy. His writing has appeared in The International Herald Tribune, Yaleglobal Online, The Straits Times, Outlook India, The Asia Times and Saudidebate.com, among others. In addition, Mr. Nazer is coauthor of a monograph on Saudi Arabia entitled "Inside the Kingdom" that will be published by the American Enterprise Institute in late 2007.

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