By Fahad Nazer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fahad Nazer is an analyst at JTG, Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy and Al Monitor, among others. You can follow him @fanazer. The views expressed are his own.
The uproar surrounding a recent Human Rights Watch statement on Saudi Arabia’s new terrorism laws is just the latest example of the tensions that have emerged in the country between liberalism and religious moderation on the one hand, and social conservatism and religious extremism on the other.
In the statement, issued late last month, the group warned that Interior Ministry regulations include “sweeping provisions” that “authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam.” Specifically, it noted Article 1, which covers “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
Unfortunately, such measures simply serve to highlight the disconnect between the conciliatory policies the government has adopted towards religion in its relations with the outside world, and the still strict policies implemented within the kingdom. And, with the tug of war between ultra conservatives and those who understand the dangers of doctrinal rigidity showing no signs of abating, one thing is clear – Saudi Arabia is being pulled in two quite different directions.
The question now is whether any of this is likely to produce a much needed public debate about religious tolerance in the country.
Back in February, the rumor that Saudi Arabia had agreed to allow the country’s first Coptic Church spread quickly around social media. Of course, the notion that the decades-old policy of not allowing non-Islamic houses of worship on Saudi soil would suddenly be reversed struck many as dubious. So it was not surprising that the Coptic Orthodox Church quickly released a statement denying the report.
Yet while the press release confirmed my suspicions, it did not douse my hopes that even an inaccurate story such as this one might spark discussion among ordinary Saudis about the eventual possibility of such a shift in policy, even if the mainstream media in the country appears averse to covering the subject.
Such a debate – especially if it were followed by some loosening of restrictions on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia – could have far reaching implications, not just for relations between Saudis and the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim expatriates in the kingdom, but also for relations between majority Sunnis and minority Shia Muslims. Indeed, as a leading voice in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia could send a powerful international message if it would only take some concrete measures to institutionalize religious toleration inside the kingdom.
The question now is whether Saudi Arabia is ready to take the next steps.
The September 11 attacks on the United States, and the targeting of housing compounds in Riyadh in May 2003 by al Qaeda affiliates, compelled Saudi officials to try to understand why their young people are too often over-represented among the perpetrators of violent jihadi campaigns inside the kingdom. This soul searching appeared to lend support to those who believed that the country would be better served by embracing tolerance towards not just other religions, but different strands of thought and practice within Islam.
At the same time, the Saudis have cracked down on imams and teachers espousing militant views, imprisoning those affiliated with terrorist groups like al Qaeda – during an eight-month period in 2010, for example, the government announced that almost 150 alleged al Qaeda members had been arrested. More recently, King Abdullah issued a decree declaring it a crime to participate in or to support military conflicts abroad, a move clearly aimed at stemming the flow of Saudis joining the “Jihad” in Syria.
But this tough approach has been coupled with some softer outreach. For example, Saudi Arabia has funded the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, while back in 2007, King Abdullah held an historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, the first such meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pope.
Meanwhile, there are also indications that the controversial Committee for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (dubbed the religious police in the West) is coming under increasing scrutiny, with some Saudis now publicly criticizing its aggressive tactics. Back in January 2012, King Abdullah dismissed the head of the organization, replacing him with the reportedly more moderate Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh.
But while these developments suggest progress, ultra conservatives still pose a barrier to the advancement of women’s rights, including their desire for education and the right to drive, and they have dismissed proponents of such change as “agents” of the West. In addition, there are also those that view the beliefs and rites of Shia Muslims as heretical, and something that should not be expressed publicly.
Such restrictions will need to be re-examined if Saudi Arabia wishes to foster a culture of respect for diversity within Islam, and Saudis should ask themselves whether allowing non-Sunnis or even non-Muslims to observe their respective religion truly constitutes an affront to their own.
It is a much needed discussion, and one that the government should encourage to be held in public because the reality is that refusing to allow freedom of religion is not a sign of strength, but of insecurity. The sooner the country’s conservatives realize that the better.