The US State Department has issued its annual report on religious freedom as experienced around the world. As is sadly usual, Saudi Arabia does not fare well and remains a “country of particular concern”, as it has been since 2004. The country report on Saudi Arabia can be found HERE. There is nothing particularly new here. The same violations of the rights of Saudi Shi’ites, discrimination toward non-Muslim foreign workers, and the absolute lack of freedom to practice religions other than Islam continue. Only the names of those arrested, threatened, or deported have changed over the years.
The global report draws attention to the rise of religious discrimination around the world, including that aimed at Muslims. It points to particular problems with laws that punish apostasy and the impunity with which people act in various countries when governments condone — or at least take no action against — religious discrimination.
Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose…we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace. President Barack Obama
Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Congress took a momentous step in support of religious freedom when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act, establishing within the Executive Branch the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. With this measure, the U.S. government made a bold statement on behalf of those who were oppressed, those who were persecuted, and those who were unable to live their lives at the most basic level, for the simple exercise of their faith. Whether it be a single deity, or multiple deities, or no deities at all, freedom to believe–including the freedom not to believe–is a universal human right.
Freedom of religion and belief and the right to worship as one chooses fulfill a deep and abiding human need. The search for this freedom led the Pilgrims to flee Europe for America’s shores centuries ago, and is enshrined in our own Constitution. But it is by no means exclusively an American right. All states are committed to freedom of thought, conscience and belief in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been the touchstone and the global standard for the protection of human rights around the world since 1948.
The right to religious freedom is inherent in every human being. Unfortunately, this right was challenged in myriad ways in 2012. One of the basic elements of the International Religious Freedom Act is the requirement that the Department of State publish an annual report on the status of religious freedom in countries around the world, and the record of governments in protecting–or not protecting–this universal right.
The US Department of State has issued its 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom. As is to be expected, Saudi Arabia did not fare well. It did, however, show some marked changes for the better. On the other hand, discrimination continued against Shi’a and non-Muslims, both officially and unofficially.
Below, I’ll highlight some of the points made in the report, including those changes. You can read the entire Saudi section here.
Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice. The country is an Islamic state governed by a monarchy; the king is head of both state and government. Sunni Islam is the official religion. The country’s basic law declares the Holy Qur’an is the constitution, and the legal system is based on the government’s application of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.
The status of respect for religious freedom by the government was unchanged during the reporting period. The government claims to provide for and protect the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious services. This right was not always respected in practice and is not defined in law. Moreover, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited, and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) and security forces of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to raid private non-Muslim religious gatherings. Although the government also confirmed its stated policy to protect the right to possess and use personal religious materials, it did not provide for this right in law, and the CPVPV sometimes confiscated the personal religious materials of non-Muslims. Religious leaders and activists continued to face obstacles in expressing their views against the religious establishment.
Although overall government policies continued to place severe restrictions on religious freedom, there were incremental improvements in specific areas during the reporting period, including increased scrutiny of and training for the CPVPV; somewhat greater authority and capacity for official human rights entities to operate; legal reform to broaden the officially sanctioned interpretations of Shari’a (Islamic law) to include other schools of Sunni jurisprudence; selective measures to combat extremist ideology; and encouragement of leading clerics to preach tolerance in their sermons. The king’s Interfaith Dialogue Initiative (IDI) launched a large-scale media campaign to promote tolerance and moderation.
The US State Department has issued its latest report on International Religious Freedom. Again this year, there is no apparent unified report available for download. Instead, general sections as the Executive Summary are set up as individual web pages. Each country also has its own page; Saudi Arabia’s is here.
Saudi Arabia remains a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), that is, a nation “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” As the country report begins, “Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice,” there’s little surprise in its categorization.
The Executive Summary paints broadly the actions taken by the US government to address the issue in the Kingdom:
Saudi Arabia first was designated a CPC in 2004 and most recently was re-designated on January 16, 2009. The Secretary authorized a waiver of actions under the IRF Act to further the purposes of the Act, pursuant to section 407 of the Act. U.S. government policy is to press the Government consistently to honor its public commitment to permit private religious worship by non-Muslims, eliminate discrimination against minorities, promote tolerance toward non-Muslims, and combat extremism. During the reporting period, the U.S. Ambassador met with senior government and religious leaders regarding religious freedom and raised with senior officials specific cases of violations. Other senior U.S. officials encouraged the Government to honor policies to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology within the country and around the world, protect private worship for all religious groups, curb harassment of religious groups, and promote tolerance toward all religions. Senior U.S. officials supported provisions calling for religious tolerance, including elimination of discrimination against religious minorities, improved respect for human rights, and improved accountability and transparency in these matters. They also raised specific cases and instances of religious freedom violations with senior Saudi officials. An official from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom visited Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dhahran to promote U.S. views on religious freedom.
The Country Report goes into more detail and the level of detail is markedly higher than in previous reports. The section on imams and khateebs even goes into their salaries. On the religious police, CPVPV in the report, the report notes the back-and-forth between the government, the media, and the religious authorities about the proper role and powers of the group.
The report points out that much of Saudi law, based as it is on the Sunna, is ambiguous in its application. Nowhere in the report, however, is there a mention of the reforms to the legal system now underway. These reforms include codification of laws that would prevent much of the discriminatory practice now common in Saudi courts.
By internal evidence, the reporting period for collecting data ended in June, 2009. Thus, reforms such as the banning of imams from issuing fatawa are not included.
The report does mention, though, that private religious practices have seen an improvement in avoiding government interference, that individuals have not had problems bring into the country various religious texts, DVDs, paraphernalia, etc. for their own use.
Government relations with the Shi’a population—in the Eastern Province, in Nejran, and for the first time in the history of the reports the Ashraf and Nakhawala Shi’a resident in Mecca—are covered in considerable detail. These include complaints about text books, restrictions on building mosques, representation in both governmental policy-making organizations and government jobs.
I do recommend you read the entire Country Report for Saudi Arabia.
The US Dept. of State has issued is global report on International Religious Freedom for 2008. The report covers the period of Summer 2007-Summer 2008. The global report can be found here.
The text below is taken from the introduction to the Country Report for Saudi Arabia. Click on the link to go to that section to read it in full.
Overall, the report finds general improvement in the status of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. For instance, it reports no seizures of religious books or paraphernalia by Saudi Customs on entry into the country. It reports that officials interfered with far fewer private religious services during this period. It also reports efforts to rid schools and mosques of extremism and a tightening of the reins on the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The particular problems it notes involve great intolerance toward the Shi’a, particularly the Ismailis in Najran.
The bottom line, of course, is that by law, the Saudi government (and society) do not recognize the legitimacy of religions other than Sunni Islam. The Country Report is worth reading in full. The global reports, too, for comparative purposes
There is no legal recognition of, or protection under the law for, freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice. The country is a monarchy and the King is both head of state and government. The legal system is based on the government’s official interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law). Sunni Islam is the official religion.
The Government confirmed that, as a matter of public policy, it guarantees and protects the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious services. However, this right was not always respected in practice and is not defined in law. Moreover, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited, and mutawwa’in (religious police) continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings. Although the Government also confirmed its policy to protect the right to possess and use personal religious materials, it did not provide for this right in law, and the mutawwa’in sometimes confiscated the personal religious material of non-Muslims.
While overall government policies continued to place severe restrictions on religious freedom, there were incremental improvements in specific areas during the period covered by this report, such as better protection of the right to possess and use personal religious materials; sporadic efforts to curb and investigate harassment by the mutawwa’in; increased media reporting on, and criticism of, the mutawwa’in; somewhat greater authority and capacity for official human rights entities to operate; and limited education reform. In addition, there were larger public and private celebrations of Shi’a holidays in the Qatif oasis of the Eastern Province.
There were also several positive developments in government policy that, if fully implemented, could lead to important improvements in the future. The Government reiterated its policy to halt the dissemination of intolerance and combat extremism, both within Islam and toward non-Muslim religious groups, in the country and abroad. For example, officials advised that they were monitoring sermons at government-supported mosques and would dismiss or retrain imams whose preaching promoted religious extremism. The Government continued to state its goal of “balanced development,” by promising greater infrastructure development in predominantly Shi’a and Isma’ili areas of the Eastern and Najran Provinces. Most significantly, this year saw the beginning of an interfaith dialogue process, led by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. The King, along with the support of the Muslim World League, sponsored an intrafaith dialogue in Mecca between June 4-6, 2008, bringing Sunnis and Shi’a together, and at the end of the reporting period, was planning to hold a similar conference in Madrid, Spain, in July, bringing together Christians, Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other faiths.
The text below is taken from the executive summary of the US Department of State’s 2007 Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom. You can find the global report here, and the whole section on Saudi Arabia here. As is now current practice, the online report consists of HTML pages with links to the various sections. There is no PDF report that can be downloaded in its entirety.
Saudi Arabia remains a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ when it comes to religious freedom. There just isn’t much of it in the country. State Department, though, does note areas in which marked (and not so marked) improvements have been made since last year. (You can find last year’s report here.) It points to changing public attitudes as well as state action aimed to increase tolerance to those who are not Salafist Muslims.
Due to the deadline in producing the annual report (usually by late July), it misses an important reform. The religious police are now prohibited from detaining anyone. Instead they must have the person taken into police custody. This is a major change.
Further below, I’ve quoted the section of the report that focuses on ‘Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom’. The negative facts will be widely enough reported by others who seem only able to see the negative, so you’ll have to read the report itself for those. I’m not denying that they exist, not at all. I’m instead choosing to focus on the positive.
The Secretary of State first designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC in 2004. Senior U.S. officials and embassy officers met with numerous senior Saudi government and religious leaders regarding religious freedom issues. Despite the fact that religious freedom remains severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, there were positive developments which could lead to important improvements in the future. Through a series of discussions and through public announcements, the Saudi Government confirmed a number of policies to foster greater religious tolerance, to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology within Saudi Arabia and around the world, to protect the right to private worship and the right to possess and use personal religious materials, to curb harassment by the religious police, to empower its Human Rights Commission, to eliminate discrimination against non-Muslim religious minorities, and to respect the rights of Muslims who do not follow the Government’s interpretation of Islam. The Government announced plans and began efforts to implement these and other policies aimed at curbing intolerance. For example, the Saudi Government is overhauling its educational system, including teacher training, curriculum reform, and revising textbooks to remove intolerant references to other religions. It is reforming the procedures under which the religious police operate and retraining the religious police force to ensure that the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims are protected. In view of these developments, the Secretary issued a waiver of sanctions “to further the purposes of the Act.”
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
During the reporting period, the Government made clear in the context of various discussions its policy, efforts, and new proposals to allow people to practice their faith in the privacy of their homes and to improve the climate of tolerance towards other religious groups and within Islam. Some of these positive developments started to yield improvements in the status of religious freedom.
During the reporting period, the Government issued a decree that all members of the mutawwa’in must wear official photo identification badges so members of the public can tell them apart from religious vigilantes.
In June 2007 the Majlis Al-Shura voted to provide radio equipment to the mutawwa’in so they can call the police during an emergency and possibly prevent the mutawwa’in from overstepping their authority. In addition, the Majlis Al-Shura voted against expanding the jurisdiction of the mutawwa’in and voted for additional training for them.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued it report for 2007 and, once again, Saudi Arabia is named as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, along with Burma, China, Eritrea, N. Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
The report to Congress seeks to put pressure on State Dept. by suggesting a required report, every 120 days, on whether or not Saudi Arabia is implementing reforms it says it is undertaking.
Saudi Arabia has had and continues to have no significant religious freedom. Things have improved somewhat for Muslims who do not follow the strict ‘Wahhabist’ interpretation of Islam, but non-Muslims enjoy barely any religious freedom whatsoever. Reports of the religious police shutting down or arresting non-Muslims caught in the act of worship did drop over the last year, but so much remains to be done that it barely matters. Anti-Semitism remains a serious problem across Saudi society, a result of the intolerance that has played such a major role in Saudi history since the 7th C.
I am not comfortable with the role of Nina Shea, Director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, as Vice Chair of this commission, however. Shea’s role in the intellectually dishonest report on Saudi books to be found in US Islamic facilities should disqualify her and her organization, in my belief. The Saudi is bad enough; it doesn’t need exaggeration.
The full Religious Freedom report is available at the Commission’s website as a 292-page PDF document. The section on Saudi Arabia begins at Page 227 and is re-published below.
Religious Freedom Report: Saudi Arabia
The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Since its inception, the Commission has recommended that Saudi Arabia be designated a â€œcountry of particular concern,â€ or CPC. In September 2004, the State Department for the first time followed the Commissionâ€™s recommendation and designated Saudi Arabia a CPC. In September 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approved a temporary 180-day waiver of further action, as a consequence of CPC designation, to allow for continued diplomatic discussions between the U.S. and Saudi governments and â€œto further the purposes of the International Religious Freedom Act.â€ In July 2006, the Secretary decided to leave in place the waiver â€œto further the purposes of the Actâ€ by announcing that these bilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia had enabled the United States to identify and confirm a number of policies that the Saudi government â€œis pursuing and will continue to pursue for the purpose of promoting greater freedom for religious practice and increased tolerance for religious groups.â€
Despite this potentially positive development, the Commission has studied the situation and again determines that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia and that the country should continue to be designated a CPC. The Saudi government continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its repression of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Abuses include: torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person, including coercive measures aimed at women and the broad jurisdiction of the mutawaa (religious police), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.
» Continue Reading
On Monday, the US State Dept. sent to Congress its latest report on International Religious Freedom. The report, prepared in September [which I posted here] has been revised. Vietnam has been taken off the list; Uzbekistan has been added. Saudi Arabia remains a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, a status it received in 2004.
The dispatch to Congress was accompanied by a press conference by Ambassador-at-Large John V Hanford. In his remarks, he spoke of Saudi Arabia noting that while very serious issues of religious freedom remained, the country had made some progress:
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: When we re-designate a country, it’s because there has not been sufficient improvement in the past year to warrant taking them off the list. I made an announcement not too long ago — I guess about four months ago or so — that we had done a lot of significant work with Saudi Arabia, and we announced that we had been able to identify and confirm a number of policies which we took encouragement from which addressed various aspects of religious practice. This included efforts by the government to control the religious police, the Mutawwa’in, who are often the ones who are guilty of the harassment or physical abuse of religious believers. This included retraining teachers and imams, who may have in the past been guilty of extremist statements.
And then very importantly it included a commitment to address the problem of intolerance in educational literature, which has been disseminated around the world by the Saudis and which included many intolerant statements against both other branches of Islam, Christians, Jews. And we were very encouraged. The Saudis said we’re going to take this seriously, we are going to remove these intolerant references. They gave us a time frame of one to two years. We see some progress already. We know that on certain fronts things have been slowed down a little bit. I know that there was a desire to update the science and technology portions of their textbooks and that has not happened as quickly as they had planned. They have a national dialogue which the King is responsible for having started in the country on educational issues which will be occurring soon and this will be very pivotal. But we’ll continue working with the Saudis towards these goals which they have come out with and set for themselves and which we take some encouragement from.
In speaking about why Uzbekistan was added to the list, Amb. Hanford also pointed out that the US State Dept. had made serious efforts to improve the religious freedom of Muslims around the world:
I should make clear here that the United States is committed to protecting the internationally recognized right of religious freedom for people of all faiths. We work hard in our interactions with countries around the world to protect the religious freedom of Muslims of all Islamic traditions, regardless of a particular government’s officially sanctioned interpretation or tradition of Islam. Harassment, restrictions on or persecution of peaceful religious practice are unacceptable and, in the end, work to exacerbate extremism and violence.
We’ve advocated for the rights of Muslims in many countries around the world, including Burma, India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, China, France, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Uzbekistan, and we’ve protested a host of different ways in which governments may restrict religious practice. For example, in China we’ve pressed for the freedom of Muslims to teach their children their religious beliefs and attend mosques. We’ve advocated for the right of women to choose to wear headscarves in France and Turkey. We’ve worked for the freedom of Muslims of all traditions to worship without harassment by religious police in Saudi Arabia and in Iran. In Turkmenistan, we’ve asked for all Muslims to be able to register their congregations and practice their faith. And in Uzbekistan, we stand with Muslims for their right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences without being unfairly suspected as terrorists.
Now I want to make clear that we recognize that the Government of Uzbekistan faces a legitimate security threat from groups that have used religion as an excuse for violence, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that is on the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations. In addition, we recognize that although the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir claims it is committed to nonviolence, it is in fact an extremist political organization that promotes hatred and whose members have praised acts of terrorism.
The Government of Uzbekistan has banned these two groups, and it’s important to be clear our designation of Uzbekistan as a CPC is not in any way a defense of these groups. However, we do take issue with the Uzbek authorities’ use of religious observance to profile religious believers as extremists without offering little if any material evidence that these individuals have been involved in or planned any specific acts of violence. This religious profiling has resulted in the arrest of many peaceful, observant, non-extremist Muslims, as well as allegations, dozens of them confirmed, that law enforcement officials have physically mistreated or tortured hundreds, perhaps thousands, over the years.
Amb. Hanford also noted that the US supports those who follow fundamentalist Islam, as long as they do not slip over into terrorism or support of terrorism:
The government [of Uzbekistan] continues to target observant Muslims for arrest, often considering conservative Islamic practice to be evidence of extremism and terrorism. It is clear that many of those harassed, abused, tortured and convicted of membership in extremist organizations… are simply observant Muslims.
Remember that the next time Wahhabism is equated with terror….
The US State Department has released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2006. As is to be expected, Saudi Arabia continues to rank in the lowest levels of providing religious freedom to its citizens and foreign residents.
This year, the report shows continued, serious problems, however, it also notes changes that have increased the level of religious freedom. The Country Report on Saudi Arabia lists numerous issues of concern. Among changes, though, it cites:
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
During the reporting period, the Government identified and confirmed its policies with regard to a wide range of religious practice and tolerance issues. Senior government officials made efforts to improve the climate of tolerance toward other religious groups and within Islam.
In October 2005, in his first U.S. television interview since becoming king, King Abdullah stated that “people are free to practice their faith in the privacy of their homes.” In December 2005 King Abdullah hosted a ministerial summit of the OIC, which produced the communiquÃ© “A Ten Year Plan of Action for the Muslim World.” The king inaugurated the conference with a call for moderation, tolerance, rejection of extremist violence, and reform of educational programs (including textbooks and curricula). The communiquÃ© included provisions calling for religious tolerance, improved human rights standards, and state accountability.
There was an improvement in press freedom during the reporting period, and discussions of religious issues were more open. Additionally, increased press freedom permitted journalists to publicly criticize abuses by the mutawwa’in. The press reported on debates in the Majlis al-Shura that focused on whether individuals must be Muslim to attain citizenship and included opinions on both sides of the issue.
The Government also took limited measures to remove what it deemed to be disparaging references to other religious traditions from educational curricula.
Senior leaders, including the king, the crown prince, the foreign minister, the ambassador to the United States, the grand mufti, the imam and khateeb of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the imam and khateeb of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and imams in mosques in various parts of the kingdom continued to call for tolerance and moderation. In May 2004, the deputy minister of Islamic affairs was reported as saying that the country protects non-Muslims but does not plan to expand freedom of worship. In May 2006, an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca called for increased tolerance of other religious faiths.
Additionally, specific steps taken to address specific issues are discussed, along with the problems, in different parts of the report.
There’s no question that much more needs to be done. But based on what is reported here, it does appear that the waiver of official sanctions against Saudi Arabia, due to the low degree of religious freedom afforded, is merited.
Do read the entire report.
[Note: There does not seem to be a link to a PDF version of the entire, global report. As the report was only issued yesterday, it may still be in the process of being compiled. Once available, I'll link to it. In the meantime, you can find HTML pages for the individual countries.]
Administration Praises Saudi Reform
By BARRY SCHWEID
WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia is making progress in removing bigoted references to religious minorities in school textbooks, and U.S. trade sanctions will continue to be withheld, the State Department said Wednesday.
“We are very pleased with the reforms that King Abdullah and his government have been making,” said John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
“There still are some repugnant references,” and Muslims as well as non-Muslims are among the targets, he said.
Hanford, who spoke to reporters amid briefings for members of Congress and their staffs, said he had found senior Saudi officials with whom he met sincere in eliminating “textbook intolerance.”
“They agreed the language is inexcusable,” he said.
It will take a year or two to complete a comprehensive review by Saudi officials of the text books, Hanford said.
This Associated Press article (here published in The Washington Post) reports that the White House has again waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia for its lack of religious freedom because the county is making bona fide efforts to reform. This repeats the US government’s action of last year.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an organization created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) issued its annual report (260-page PDF document) last week.
The organization is required by American law to monitor violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in IRFA and set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments, and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
As expected, the Commission found that there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was found to be, again, a Country of Particular Concern. Discussion of the meaning of that phrase–and of the different countries so identified–begins on page 81 of the report (page 91 of the PDF). A discussion of Saudi Arabia and its problems begins on page 190 of the report (page 200 of the PDF).
It’s very clear that Saudi Arabia continues to have major problems; I have no real argument with the description of those problems. The Commission continues its discussion with a list of recommendations for US governmental action. I do have a problem with a few of those, not because they are unwarranted, but because they are largely ineffectual. I raised the same complaints in writing about last year’s report.
As I did last year, I’ll annotate the list of recommendations with my comments. As many of the recommendations are repeated from last year’s report, my criticism is also similar. The Commission’s recommendations, beginning on the next page, are indented:
Saudi Arabia. Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. Religious freedom is not recognized or protected under the country’s laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam. The Government’s official policy is to permit non-Muslims to practice their religions freely at home and in private; however, the Government does not always respect this right in practice. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their religion. Members of the Shi’a minority are subject to officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination, including limited employment opportunities, little representation in official institutions, and restrictions on the practice of their faith and the building of mosques and community centers. The Government enforces a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam and discriminates against other branches of Islam. The Government prohibits the public practice of other religions; non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention, especially of the Mutawwa’in (religious police). All public school children receive mandatory religious instruction that conforms to the Salafi tradition. While there was an improvement in press freedom, open discussion of religious issues was limited.
This paragraph, from the Executive Summary of State Department’s 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom, is blunt and to-the-point. Religious freedom remains–and will remain, I fear–a serious difference between the US and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is in a difficult situation. But so is the American government’s position. Official American response to the program is summarized:
Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Government continued its policy to press the Government to honor its public commitment to permit private religious worship by non-Muslims, eliminate discrimination against minorities, and promote tolerance toward non-Muslims. In 2004, the Secretary of State designated Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Ambassador discussed U.S. concerns over the lack of religious freedom with a wide range of senior government and religious leaders.
Response is necessarily limited because there’s very little leverage that the US government can apply. It’s not about to declare a boycott on oil imports, for instance. And because Saudi Arabia receives no aid from the US, there’s no handle there, either. To start “reciprocal” messing around with religious freedom within the US, in relatiation for actions in Saudi Arabia, is simply impossible on American constitutional grounds.
Secretary of State Rice is traveling to Saudi Arabia in the near future and has promised to raise the issue in her meetings with King Abdullah. The best she–and the king–can achieve in the short run will not satisfy Western norms for religious freedom and tolerance. Read the section of the report dealing specifically with Saudi Arabia to understand the scope of the problem.
Nearly 1,400 years ago, non-Muslims were banned from public practice of religion in Arabia. Non-Muslims were, essentially, banned from living in the region. Necessity has now permitted something like 5 million non-Saudis to live in the country and not surprisingly they have brought their religions with them. But most Saudis believe that to be proper, in the birthplace of Islam, to restrict public religious services to Islam. A government that intends stability cannot overthrow the weight of that tradition–especially since that tradition is based on a hadith, purportedly quoting the Prophet Mohammed–any time soon.
What can be done is to moderate governmental and quasi-governmental actions against followers of other religions. To a limited degree, that is happening. Saudi Shi’a and Sufi leaders are making public appearances and making the case for their religious integrity. I’ve noted a press report saying that a Shi’a cleric might be broadcast over Saudi Arabia’s government TV.
But much more can be done to prevent harrassment of non-Muslims seeking the private practice of their faiths. The Mutawa’in and vigilantes can be stopped from persecuting those they deem “infidels”. This needs to be done.
Bush Delays Action Against Saudi Arabia
BARRY SCHWEID, AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has postponed punishing Saudi Arabia for restricting religious freedom, giving the U.S. ally six more months to show it has made progress in its treatment of religious minorities.
One year ago, the State Department declared that religious freedom was absent in the Arab kingdom. Under U.S. law, the Bush administration could have imposed sanctions such as trade restrictions â€” as it has done with some other countries.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notified Congress last week that she had authorized a 180-day waiver of action against Saudi Arabia “in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues.”
Rice raised the issue last week in a meeting in Washington with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and stressed the importance of continuing to work on it, said State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper…
The delay on Saudi Arabia coincided with a just-ended public diplomacy venture by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes designed to promote democracy in Muslim countries.
Stopping in Saudi Arabia, Hughes praised leaders of the kingdom for their counterterrorism work.
The religious freedom commission, in a statement, said real progress was absent in Saudi Arabia on religious conditions and that the U.S. government should use the 180 days to achieve real progress.
Otherwise, the commission said, licenses should not be issued for exports to Saudi Arabia of technology that could be used in military programs and Saudi officials responsible for religious freedom violations should not be permitted to visit the United States….
The US government appears to be continuing to keep pressure on Saudi Arabia, in reference to its record on religious freedom, without bringing out the hammers. It’s important that Secretary of State Rice discussed the matter with her Saudi counterpart. It’ll be more important to see what the Saudi government can accomplish in the next six months.
[NOTE: Links to news service stories degrade rapidly. If the headlined link disappears, you might try here.]