Paying a Call on the Saudi Embassy
by Stephen Schwartz
October 22-26 was designated "Islamofascism Awareness Week" in a series of events held at college campuses around the United States. The effort was organized by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Predictably, the program elicited a bad reaction from Islamists. The Saudi daily Shams announced on September 4 that the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh--known to moderate Muslims as the "terrorist factory"--had begun an Internet offensive against Horowitz, mentioned by name as the organizer of the campus awareness campaign. It was one of many recent signs that the Saudis are attentive to Western criticism of their doctrine and regime.
Coincidentally, even as college students and visiting speakers were exploring the concept of "Islamofascism" in an academic setting, more than 1,000 American Muslims from the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard gathered in Washington on October 22 to demonstrate outside the Saudi embassy against Saudi Arabia's support for "Wahhabi fascism." Called by a new coalition, Al-Baqee.org, the protest demanded that the Saudis stop exporting Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist state religion in the Saudi kingdom, and thus end support for global terror.
Al-Baqee.org is named for Jannat al-Baqi, a cemetery in Medina that housed the graves of the Prophet Muhammad's relatives and companions, and which was leveled by the Wahhabis in 1925. The Wahhabis justified this vandalism with their claim that religious honors to any human being, living or dead, even Muhammad himself, detract from worship of the one God. Al-Baqee.org was established by Iraqi-American and other Shia Muslims affiliated with moderate Iraqi ayatollah Ali Sistani.
According to the Al-Baqee leaders, the demolition of that cemetery in Arabia is a direct antecedent to the bombings of Shia and Sufi sacred structures in Iraq, such as the Golden Shrine in Samarra, blasted three times over the past two years. Their demonstration at the Saudi embassy was inspired by a report in the Saudi daily al-Watan (The Nation) in late July that Wahhabi clerics had issued fatwas calling for attacks on Shia holy sites at Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. If these sites were attacked, coalition soldiers as well as innocent Iraqis would almost certainly be killed in the chaotic aftermath.
Al-Baqee's literature provides a novel and encouraging example of American Muslim candor about the problems within Islam today. Above all, the group has no compunction about identifying radical Islam with fascism. A leaflet distributed at the protest called Saudi Wahhabism "a radical doctrine that is a dangerous and violent threat to Americans and non-Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As a close U.S. ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible to uphold the values of the American Constitution in defending religious freedom and providing safe spaces for worship within its borders."
A letter addressed by Al-Baqee to Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir declared,
"The Kingdom has neglected to provide basic civil rights to many of your citizens, and knowingly persecutes them based on their race, gender, and religion. As a government, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities in providing the basic civil rights all humans deserve."
This sentiment echoed the latest report on Saudi Arabia by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, issued on October 18 (and accessible at uscirf.gov). Saudi Arabia remains a "country of particular concern" to the State Department for its violations of religious liberty. A delegation of the commission, led by Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, visited the desert monarchy in May and June to assess Saudi promises to promote greater religious freedom and abate radical indoctrination. It found most of the promises hollow.
Saudi authorities did little to facilitate the commission's work during the visit. Riyadh's officialdom refused commissioners' requests to meet with top functionaries of the religious militia or mutawiyin, formally titled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as well as representatives of the ministries of education and justice. Similarly, the commission's requests to the Saudi embassy in Washington for copies of current Saudi school textbooks--a major concern since older textbooks incited violence against non-Muslims--have gone unanswered.
The commission's report strengthens calls for an end to the export of extremist ideology, real change in school curricula, a curb on the activities of the mutawiyin, removal of limitations on all religions, and establishment of effective human rights agencies inside the country. It also supports the charge that Wahhabi clerics have issued a series of fatwas legitimizing violence against Shia Muslims. And the American delegation reported that they were prevented by U.S. diplomats, on the pretext of lack of security, from visiting Najran, on the Saudi-Yemeni border, to investigate complaints of discrimination against the Ismaili Shia minority there.
The commission directed special attention to the possible use of a school in the Washington suburbs for the export of extremism. Owned by the Saudi embassy, the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) operates two campuses in Fairfax and Alexandria, Virginia. The commission has recommended that the State Department investigate closing ISA, which instructs the offspring of Saudi diplomats and other children in Wahhabism. The academy may be in violation of the Foreign Missions Act, which regulates institutions operated in the United States by other countries.
The ISA has replied to inquiries from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom the same way Saudi dignitaries did on their home soil: with silence and denial. But Saudi media reveal that the Wahhabi clerics and their supporters in the royal family are feeling pressure from within and without. They have come up with new and irrational means of harassing ordinary Muslims. For example, female members of the mutawiyin now chase other female Muslims out of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, ending an Islamic tradition, since the time of Muhammad, that encouraged women to pray at Islam's most sacred site.
But not all the news from Saudi Arabia is bad. The country's highly popular satirical television show Tash Ma Tash (meaning, roughly, "Whatever"), shown only during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, this year criticized death sentences for apostasy under Saudi sharia. Some weeks ago, a group of women organized a committee to demand the right to drive. And, partly in response to the protests of Shias and other victims of Wahhabi terrorism in Iraq, the Saudi government claims it is going ahead with the construction of a security fence on the Iraqi-Saudi border, which could cost $1 billion.
Despite this mixed picture, many believe that King Abdullah actually wants Saudi Arabia to become a modern country that excites respect rather than fear and contempt. In 2005, he authorized the establishment of a 24-member all-male Human Rights Commission appointed by the government and reporting directly to him. This is in addition to the more independent National Society for Human Rights, created in 2004 and appointed by the country's Consultative Council. Its 41 members include 10 women, and it too reports to the king. While not all parts of the government have fully cooperated with these bodies, the U.S. commission notes their work as a positive step in any Saudi transition away from a totalitarian form of Islam.
Yet another independent group pressing for peaceful change in Saudi Arabia, this one headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (cdhr.info), led by a Saudi American, Ali Alyami. In its new strategic plan for the democratization of the Wahhabi monarchy, the center proposes, among other measures, expansion of the 150-member Consultative Council to become a representative legislature, full citizenship and empowerment of women, free elections at local, regional, and national levels, public oversight over the treasury, a non-sharia judiciary, and firm repudiation of sectarian discrimination.
Nearly all these matters--Wahhabism and its export, cultural vandalism, harassment by the mutawiyin, discrimination against Shias, radicalization in schools, abuse of extraterritoriality by Saudi diplomats in the United States, oppression of women, absence of public transparency, and rejection of elementary norms of human rights--have been thrust into public awareness since the revelation in 2001 that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally of the United States. The forthrightness of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is laudable, but an effective solution to America's Saudi problem has been unconscionably delayed. The Bush administration should pay as much attention to Wahhabi fascism as Saudi diplomats were forced to do when their prison-like embassy was surrounded by Muslim protesters--on the first day of Islamofascism Awareness Week.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Shiism, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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