Tuesday, 13 November 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar
WHENEVER I saw King Abdullah on television as he visited European heads of state I bubbled with pride that history was being made as we expanded our vision of tolerance and understanding in this time of crisis in the Mideast. And King Abdullah's humble nature and desire to reach out to the common Saudis was evident during his visit to the United Kingdom when he met with Saudi university students to listened to their concerns and experiences of living abroad.
But nothing could be more exciting than the King's visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.
It's the first time a Saudi king has visited the leader of the Catholic Church. The message exchanged by the two leaders was to encourage tolerance and demonstrate the strong ties between Islam and Christianity.
Much has been written in Saudi Arabia and in the West about the visit. Inevitably we are on the receiving end of lectures from Western journalists about our alleged lack of tolerance when it comes to visitors or workers in Saudi Arabia practicing their own faith.
To watch the BBC or read the New York Times one would think our country is a hotbed of religious intolerance and persecution.
After all, according to these models of Western journalistic integrity, non-Muslims are not permitted in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. If a Mormon family from Utah wants to visit the Grand Mosque in Makkah and have their photos taken with the pigeons while thousands of Saudis and expatriates perform Friday prayers in the background, well, what's wrong with that?
Well, plenty. It's called respect. What's equally troublesome is the hypocrisy of journalists and human rights advocates when discussing their brand of religious tolerance.
Let's look around. Non-Jews are not allowed to enter the Inner Temple in Jerusalem. An average curious Jew walking by the temple is also barred from entering it. It's only for religious leaders. St. Peter's at the Vatican, the spiritual home to the Pope, does not welcome non-believers of the Christian faith. And I don't see Muslims and Jews setting prayer mats and tiny altars inside the Vatican to practice their faith.
And some Hindu temples are off-limits to tourists. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, allows tourists only in the outer areas. The laws that apply to the Golden Temple are similar to the borders of Madinah, in which two borders, the religious borders and the geographical borders, are established.
Non-Muslims are allowed in parts of Madinah if they observe the religious borders.
When I hear these so-called advocates of religious freedoms cry out for tolerance in Saudi Arabia, I think of their selective memories and narrow view of the facts when it comes to the rest of the world.
This doesn't mean that there isn't room for criticism of Saudi Arabia. Certainly we need to think about how to be more forward looking when it comes to viewing non-Muslims. Regrettably there are religious zealots who take it upon themselves to harass, if not arrest, Christians praying in the privacy of their own homes. This is silly. What they do in the privacy of the their homes is their business. Not mine. And certainly not of the Mutawwas.
And we need to do a better job of making the distinction between the actions of a country and that country's religious faith.
In other words being an Israeli and being a Jew are two separate things. We can recognize the faith as part of our religion while still maintaining our strong opposition to the policies of a country that practices its own brand of state-sponsored terrorism.
But let's also consider the fact that some non-Muslims engaged in illegal activity, whether it's prostitution, selling alcohol or gambling, use the religious card all too often. If someone is arrested on suspicion of operating a prostitution ring, what better way than to tell one's embassy that he was really arrested for practicing his own religion. It's a lot easier to get out of jail claiming religious persecution than trying to explain why you are selling Indonesian maids for SR100 on any given night.
There is room for improvement, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a one-way street. If Saudi Arabia needs to be put under a microscope, let all countries be subject to the same scrutiny.