Though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has opened its first ever interfaith dialogue centre in Vienna, there will always be naysayers who scream that Saudi Arabia is corrupt at its Wahhabist core. Women still do not enjoy the basic right to drive or travel without consent of the senior male member of their family, and Islam is the only religion granted any public freedom of expression. Let’s make that Sunni Islam.
When you fly into the country, the landing card asks every foreigner to declare his or her religion: Muslim or Other. Then the blank. There is no other answer but Christian in that blank. Church services are private meetings held in apartments. I went to one, a rather unusual Catholic service in the home of a Filipina in the women’s building on my compound. The room was packed. I never went back. Rather, I meditated to the peaceful cacophony of the muezzin calling the prayer five times a day. That was holy enough for me. The rocky desert offered me my peace. I never took issue with the lack of religious facility, or plurality, in Saudi. People were what they were, privately. Perhaps it was all part of the intrigue.
I am one of those who learned that if you can abide by the rules in Saudi, as a foreigner, or not get caught breaking them, you can have a good life. Because I befriended two families with significant respect and clout in their own circles, I had a great life. But I was willing to and that helped.
I lived through the era in my community which saw our mixed Community Centre ban women and men from sitting together, put up walls between the men’s and women’s eating sections, then another set of walls for families and single women (who were relegated to the back). For Saudi women, this might have been alright, but as a single woman I was none too impressed. I sat in the men’s section when I could get away with it, and in the family section otherwise. You learn in Saudi that the best way to keep living your life is to know when to break the rules and push the boundaries, and when to snap to attention and conform.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has moved the country in the direction of social reforms, but so slowly that some of those who believed in him have whispered to me (literally) with a cluck of the tongue that it’s a lie that reforms can’t happen faster – ie. with women’s right to drive. “If the King wanted to make it happen,” a high ranking Saudi friend of mine said, “it would be done.” That opened my eyes. Then she rolled hers and let her tongue sort of loll out in that way that signals: it’s all crap. And it might be. She pointed to the wall of the restaurant we were in. We both stopped talking. The walls have ears in Saudi Arabia.
It may be a red herring for King Abdullah to open and back an interfaith center in Vienna of all places. And the cynicism is ripe. Jihad Watch vents off so well it’s worth posting:
The center has ignited debate. Backers hope it will promote increased tolerance in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that now prohibits any religion outside of Islam. Detractors, including Austria’s Green party and moderate Muslim groups in Austria say the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting initiatives on religious coexistence.
If the goal is to change Saudi Arabia, they might consider trying it in, say, Saudi Arabia.
The founding document cites principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, “in particular, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It emphasizes “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
Its board will consist of three Christians, three Muslims, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu….
So, two thirds of the board could not openly practice their religion in Saudi Arabia. Tell us again which country is really in need of a brand spankin’ new tolerance institute.
I disagree. I maintain, like many liberal Saudis do, that King Abdullah is Saudi Arabia’s best hope for liberal change in Saudi, and change is underway.
Sponsoring a multi-faith centre in the heart of a country that many Saudis like to visit gives high profile to the King’s initiative to foster dialogue, in a way that does not jeopardize his immediate position and relationships with the religious rank in Saudi. It is an act of defiance in its own right, really, and as the King has said before (to Barbara Walters after his election) these things take time. It is a bold step to attach to one’s legacy a willingness to support any dialogue with a Jew in the name of Saudi Arabia while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved with Israel. No doubt, King Abdullah and the current ruling government have a plan and method behind this interfaith project, and my guess is that it is to provoke further discussion inside Saudi Arabia about the future possibilities, test the waters for reform, and maybe push forward with unarticulated plans for more liberty in Saudi. One can hope.
For a Saudi newspaper’s perspective, read more articles here at Arab News.