Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2004 / 9 Tishrei, 5765

Jeff Jacoby

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Saudi Arabia's religious hatred | Last week, the State Department added Saudi Arabia to its list of the world's most religiously intolerant nations. It was a step long overdue. Section 402 of the International Religious Freedom Act requires the department to designate each country that has "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" as a "country of particular concern for religious freedom." Few nations deserve that designation more than Saudi Arabia. But for reasons of politics and corruption, the law's clear mandate was always flouted before.

For years, the Saudi regime was exempt from harsh criticism in official US circles - an immunity bought with the hundreds of millions of dollars Riyadh lavished on US policymakers, ambassadors, and lobbyists. Former CIA officer Robert Baer laid out many of the disgraceful details in his recent bestseller, "Sleeping With the Devil."

But that changed after 9/11, when a group of mostly Saudi terrorists sent thousands of innocent victims to their deaths. Countless Americans realized for the first time that Saudi Arabia, with its Wahhabi strain of Islam - a radical, aggressive, and poisonously intolerant creed - was the incubator of the world's most virulent anti-American savagery. The old speak-no-evil wall of protection began to crack. One result is the addition of Saudi Arabia to the State Department's list.

"Freedom of religion does not exist," the department states in its report on Saudi Arabia. "It 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. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their religion, and non-citizens practice their beliefs under severe restrictions. Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims."

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The report notes that "conversion by a Muslim to another religion is . . . a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant. . . . The government prohibits non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers" - millions of foreign-born Christians and Hindus work in Saudi Arabia - "risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention."

That is clear enough as far as it goes, but Ambassador John Hanford, whose office compiled the report, took pains to reassure the Saudis that it would go no further. Asked at a press briefing whether the listing of Saudi Arabia should be seen as a "pressure tactic," Hanford replied:

"Oh, no, no. Uh-uh. No. These designations are ones that we make with a certain degree of sorrow because these are valued relationships, particularly in a case such as Saudi Arabia. But the US Congress has laid out for us a standard that we feel we must follow."

Secretary of State Colin Powell likewise did his best to allay any Saudi worries. "This is not to punish them, or in any way to show displeasure," he assured Al Arabiya, the Arab satellite channel. "One should not see this as anything but two friends talking to one another about a problem of mutual concern."

Not in any way to show displeasure? Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi fanaticism is the root from which Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda draw their ideological sustenance. It is the ultimate source of the hatred that destroyed the Twin Towers three years ago - and sawed the heads off two American engineers in Iraq this week. We will never win the war on Islamist terror unless we shut off the wellspring that feeds it. That means speaking bluntly about Saudi Wahhabism and the kind of country it has shaped.

Saudi Arabia is the kind of country in which an 8th-grade textbook teaches that Jews and Christians were cursed by Allah and turned into apes and pigs, and in which 9th graders learn that on the day of judgment, "a Jew will hide behind a rock or a tree, and the rock or tree will call upon the Muslim: 'O Muslim, O slave of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!' "

It is the kind of country in which a guest worker from India can be arrested for leading Bible studies in his home. Brian Savio O'Connor was beaten and threatened with death unless he agreed to renounce his faith, Christian news services have reported. "My legs were chained and I was hung upside down," he told friends who visited him in prison. "My captors alternately kicked and beat me in the chest and ribs."

And it is the kind of country, let's not forget, in which Muslims, too, can be hideously victimized - as when the state morality police, the "mutawwa'in," forced a group of teen-age girls to stay inside a burning school building because they were not wearing the head scarves and black cloaks that female Saudis must wear in public. Fifteen of the girls died; 52 were injured.

Saudi oil fuels the world, but the enemy we are fighting is fueled by the feverish religious bigotry that is Saudi Arabia's other leading export. Unless we squarely face that bigotry, and cast a cold eye on the regime that sustains it, the war on terror is one we will not win.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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