The Guardian: Saudi solidarity and the ‘Ground Zero mosque’
At a recent Iftar dinner in the White House, President Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to religious freedom and protection for all citizens, regardless of their faith, when he defended the right of American Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. The president should be commended for the courageous stand that he took in the face of so much opposition fueled by past tragedy, fear and sometimes plain bigotry.
Yet there is more the president could do to uphold the values of religious freedom, lift his slipping approval ratings and protect valuable votes in the November midterm elections. He can take his conviction and courage to the international arena and embarass his adversaries by calling on the America’s allies to provide similar rights and freedoms for their citizenry.
And no nation’s policies on religious freedom and tolerance today stands in starker contrast with America’s than those practised in Saudi Arabia, the country that President Obama recently described as one of America’s closest and trusted allies.
The only religion that can be openly practised in the kingdom is Sunni Islam in the Wahhabi/Salafi tradition, an austere Muslim sect that views non-Muslims and non-Wahhabi Muslims as heretics with very few rights. Millions of non-Muslim visitors and guest workers in Saudi Arabia, including thousands of Americans, are banned from public worship or celebration of their religious rituals and cultural festivals. The kingdom is the only Arab and Muslim country that has no churches.
In addition, houses of worship for its Shia and Sufi Muslim citizens are often suppressed or function under dismal conditions; in fact, a dozen Shia mosques were recently closed. The country’s public education system indoctrinates Saudi children with hatred and intolerance by teaching them that Jews and Christians are eternal enemies of Islam.
President Obama’s close relationship with King Abdullah was reflected in the mutual statement of praise from the two leaders. “I have been struck by his [King Abdullah’s] wisdom and his graciousness,” said the president. The king responded by saying, “Obama is an honourable and a good man.”
If these words are true, then Obama should call on his trusted and wise friend King Abdullah to implement more tolerant and inclusive policies towards non-Muslim residents of Saudi Arabia, especially the American communities in the desert kingdom. These communities trace their history back to the 1940s and have contributed much to the welfare and prosperity of Saudi Arabia and to the security of the monarchy itself.
There is no reason why the kingdom cannot follow the example of other Middle East countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and even Iran, all of which have churches and synagogues and allow non-Muslims to worship openly.
Assuming the “Ground Zero mosque” goes ahead, it will stand as a testament to freedom of worship and tolerance extended to all American citizens even in the toughest of times. The president should use this example of American commitment to freedom of worship to call on the Saudi Monarch to support similar freedoms and protection to non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Obama is tasked with protecting the freedoms of Americans here and around the world, including in Saudi Arabia.
As a Saudi dissident living in the United States since 1991 and awarded political asylum in 1998 on religious freedom grounds, I feel a special duty to advocate for the rights of Americans living in my country to practise their religion as freely and openly as I do in their land. I want for Americans in Saudi Arabia the freedom of religion I have had here for the past 20 years.