TCS Daily

Is Saudi Arabia Holy Soil?

By Stephen Schwartz - September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week -- that is, just over three years after the atrocities of September 11 -- the U.S. government, for the first time, listed Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" on issues of religious freedom. The State Department described the kingdom as a place where no religious liberty exists, except for the state-supported Wahhabi sect of Islam. Indeed, in a real shocker, State actually used the word "Wahhabi," rather than avoiding any specific identification of those to blame, or utilizing such favored euphemisms as "extreme Sunni Muslims" or "adherents of an austere, rigid Islam."

As State noted, millions of non-Wahhabi Sunnis as well as Shia Muslims living in the kingdom lack elementary religious rights. Shias, in particular, while making up as much as a quarter of the population and the majority in the Eastern Province, which possesses the bulk of oil resources, suffer "officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination," according to State.

This action by the Bush administation is long overdue. Critics of the Saudi regime, including dissident Saudi subjects, had every right to celebrate an end to Washington's accommodation to the doctrine holding that only "quiet diplomacy, behind the scenes," would improve the situation in the kingdom. This cliché had become boilerplate for the Saudi lobby in the U.S., mainly consisting of American diplomats who had gone to Saudi Arabia representing U.S. interests, but returned from there as if they had become Saudi diplomats assigned to represent that country on our soil.

Saudi hospitality, including gifts and donations to think-tanks in the U.S., did more for Riyadh than official diplomacy could ever have done, and the Saudi lobby in Washington has had the capital so thoroughly wired that it made the Israel lobby look like amateurs. After all, the Israelis actually had to engage in lobbying; the Saudis just sat back and enjoyed the love they believed was their due. It was in this manner that the kingdom avoided carrying out a serious inquiry into the involvement of 15 Saudi subjects out of the 19 suicide terrorists on September 11.

Saudi religious functionaries were quick to respond to State's negative listing of the country. A Saudi Shia representative, described by American Shia community leaders as a sellout motivated by fear, denounced the U.S. decision. One report noted, "Many Shi'ites privately complain of second class treatment in Saudi Arabia but [Shia cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar] said they 'reject their name being used to apply pressure'" on the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Saleh al-Fawzan, a senior member of the Wahhabi religious bureaucracy, defended the present ban against religious rights for non-Muslims in the kingdom by quoting a hadith (oral comment) ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. "The prophet said there should not be two religions in the Arabian Peninsula," Fawzan said.

This brings up a question that has been widely discussed by Westerners since September 11: is Saudi Arabia holy soil, and did the U.S. provoke Osama bin Laden and his followers by stationing troops there? It is amazing to what extent this item of extremist rhetoric has reached the status of common wisdom in the West. The same journalistic report that quoted a Shia cleric rejecting American efforts to defend Shia rights blithely added, "Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of Islam 14 centuries ago." Patrick J. Buchanan, fancying himself quite an expert on Islam, told Wolf Blitzer, on a CNN program September 12, that in a "fatwa," Bin Laden "declared war on us for three reasons... one, we're sitting with an imperial footprint on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia." Buchanan has repeated this claim many times.

Sorting out the knot of media myths about Saudi Arabia is surprisingly easy.

  • "Saudi Arabia" was not the birthplace of Islam. Saudi Arabia is a political entity that came into existence in 1932. For Muslims, Islam has always existed, since God's creation of humanity. But the places in which Muhammad heard God's revelation, transmitted indirectly through the Angel Gabriel, namely Mecca and Medina, are located on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. They are part of a region known as Hejaz, which was conquered by the House of Saud most recently in the 1920s. The House of Saud originates in a remote and primitive area of the peninsula called Nejd, with which Mecca and Medina had almost no contact.

  • Mecca and Medina are sacred. The rest of Saudi Arabia is not considered holy by the majority of Muslims, but only by Wahhabis, who refer to it as "the land of monotheism" in order to support the Saudi claim to power, on which the Wahhabi clerics depend for their own legitimacy.

  • American troops have never set a footprint, imperial or otherwise, in Mecca and Medina. U.S. forces have been posted on the other side of the peninsula, near the oil refining areas of Dhahran. The only non-Muslim troops that ever served in Mecca were French paratroops sent into the Grand Mosque in Mecca by the Saudi royals, in 1979, to kill and otherwise dislodge some 400 ultra-Wahhabis who had occupied it. The bullet holes caused by French arms are still visible in the walls.

  • Riyadh and other cities in the rest of Saudi Arabia are filled with American retail outlets and similar establishments that would hardly make them religious sites.

Now to the question of the Wahhabi, i.e. alleged Muslim, monopoly on religious life in the Arabian Peninsula, supposedly based on the aforementioned hadith. We may leave aside for the moment that Wahhabis do not consider other Islamic believers, including but not limited to Shias, as Muslims. What about the Prophet's alleged recommendation that "there should not be two religions in the Arabian Peninsula?"

In reality, this claim was made by the caliph Umar, an early successor to the Prophet, who cited the hadith in support of it, and who used it to justify the expulsion of Jews. But may Muslims believe the hadith, if it was indeed pronounced by the Prophet, meant that idol worship could not exist alongside monotheism (meaning Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the peninsula.

  • No Islamic exclusivity was ever imposed in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, or even in Hejaz, before the triumph of the Wahhabis 80 years ago.

  • Jewish communities totaling some 50,000 people lived in Yemen until the 1950s, playing a major role in global Jewish life, even in isolation. Some hundreds of them, along with two synagogues, reportedly still exist in that country, which is certainly no less a part of the Arabian Peninsula than Riyadh.

  • A Jewish community, with synagogue, remains on the island of Bahrein.

  • Indigenous Christian churches operated in Jiddah, the commercial center of Hejaz, until the Wahhabi takeover in the 1920s.

  • All of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula presently surrounding Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates to Oman and Yemen, grant the right of open Christian worship. Some also host Hindu temples which function publicly.

Claims about Christian intrusion onto the "sacred soil" of the Saudi kingdom are political propaganda, not theological argument, whether they are made by Bin Laden, Buchanan, or the bigots of the Wahhabi establishment. They should be disregarded as such, and most certainly should not be the basis of state policy by the Western powers. Above all, Pat Buchanan is not a credible source on Islam, since he does not even know that Bin Laden has no training to write a "fatwa," which is a theological opinion requiring that its author possess recognized credentials. But the gaffes of Buchanan would require (many) other columns. Suffice to say that here, as elsewhere, his opinions are crude blather.


TCS Daily Archives