It is time to applaud the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia on taking its first steps toward the 21st Century. Since the middle of October, they hosted both an economic forum - where women were allowed to attend, and its first human rights conference. But don’t get too excited yet.
Freedom in general and freedom of speech and religion in particular are not standards of society in Saudi Arabia. In fact, there are no protections for any minority religious group in that country. According to the U.S. State Department, “Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslim.” Public practice of other religions are prohibited. (www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/14012.htm) Since the Saudi family is Sunni Wahhabi, it practices and requires its citizens to practice a strict sect of Islam, where even Shi’a Muslims are discriminated against, never mind other religions.
Somehow Saudi Arabia managed to conduct its first human rights conference in the capital city of Riyadh. However, during the conference, there was a peaceful protest of several hundred people calling for political reforms in the country. Even women were part of the protest, which is impressive since they are not even allowed to drive. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3191996.stm) The demonstration was quickly broken up since it is against the law to protest against the government. 83 of those protesters were arrested and turned over to the Sharia (Islamic law). (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3306477.stm) The reaction of the Saudi government was great. “What happened was just a limited gathering...this won’t happen again.” So much for freedom of expression, there isn’t any. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3194500.stm)
On a positive note, it’s a good day for those detained by the Saudi government. There’s is a brand new criminal code in place. Torture isn’t allowed any more and they’re even permitted to have a lawyer during questioning and trial. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3191996.stm). They’re moving right along into the 21st Century. Alright, so they haven’t had elections since the beginning of the country in 1932, but I suppose that progress moves slowly.
During the economic forum hosted last week in Saudi Arabia women were allowed to attend. They were allowed to participate and actually speak to the group. Hang onto your seats. Lubna al-Olayan, a leading businesswoman, spoke without wearing a head scarf. Women were even allowed to mix and discuss business with the men in attendance. But surprise, the religious establishment was very unhappy. The highest religious authority of the land, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh commented, “I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences...What is even more painful is that such outrageous behaviour should have happened in Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy shrines (Mecca and Medina).” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3415757.stm)
Now the question that all of us need to ask ourselves is why we care about Saudi Arabia. Most of us would answer that we don’t. Let them be a dictatorship, let them treat religious minorities as criminals, let them crush demonstrations, let them treat women as second class citizens, that’s fine with me. The most important part of not caring is that they live far away from us. But this is where we are wrong. We need to start caring about the Saudis because they are exporting their mentality across the world.
According to the Washington Times, The Saudis have sent and funded Wahhabi religious clerics across the world to spread the word of Wahhabi Islam to build mosques and medrassas (Koranic studies exclusively) This word includes anti-American and Western ideals. These schools are subsidized by the Saudis and some schools even offer free room, board, and food. Most of the 2000 mosques in the United States were started by Wahhabi Muslims. (http://washingtontimes.com/commentary/20030715-094951-6104r.htm) A Wahhabi expert explained that Wahhabism is a “death cult; it is supremacist in that it puts Islam ahead of all other religions. It stands for the proposition that Muslims are the natural rulers over all other religious communities.” (http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2002/11/24/170535.shtml)
By exporting this attitude across the world; to Southeast Asia, to Europe and the United States, Saudi Arabia has undermined what Western civilization has strived and fought for over the last two hundred years. They are undermining the tolerance and civility that we have worked so hard to have toward our fellow man. They need to grow up and join us in the 21st Century.