Ultimate Hypocrisy: Saudi Crown Prince touts Religious Tolerance in NYC

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s charm offensive in New York allegedly involved meeting Oprah Winfrey, which may be the only canny thing I’ve ever heard of him doing. He also had some religious leaders over to his condominium in NYC to stress the importance of religious tolerance.

MbS may be sincere, but here is an area where he has to put his money where his mouth is.

Saudi Arabia is not religiously tolerant. It is religiously intolerant in ways that contradict Islam and give the religion a bad name. Muslim-majority countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have lots of churches and Christmas festivities.

Saudi Arabia has none?

Saudi Arabia has none.

You can’t even blame the Wahhabi or Unitarian strain of Islam favored by Riyadh for this problem, though its traditional texts are not innocent in it.

Neighboring Wahhabi Qatar has a clause in its constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Saudi Arabia does not.

Qatar has licensed churches for its Filipino guest workers.

Saudi Arabia has not.

I was wandering around the back alleys of Dubai one time and came upon a small Hindu temple. There are hundreds of thousands of Hindus in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. You’d be more likely to find a unicorn in Saudi Arabia than a Hindu temple. But note that nearby Hindu-majority India has a huge Muslim minority and mosques all over the place.

MbS’s hypocrisy is not a new thing in Saudi policy. Under the last king, Riyadh established a King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria. That’s great and from all accounts the center has done good work.

But if MbS wants to be taken seriously on religious tolerance, he has to bring the principle home from Vienna. He has already slashed the power of the bigoted religious police who controlled public behavior on Saudi streets. Sometimes they have been more interested in enforcing gender segregation than in allowing firefighters to get to the scene of a conflagration, putting women at risk or even becoming responsible for their deaths. The old Saudi religious police would not like religious tolerance.

Not only members of other religions but other Muslims, including Shiites (15% of the Saudi population), non-Wahhabi Sunnis, and Sufis have often felt persecution. Some observers think that Saudi Arabia is only 40% Wahhabi, but it is that sect that sets state policy.

So MbS would be better not to open his mouth on the subject until Christmas can be celebrated at a church in Riyadh. As it is at churches throughout the Muslim world. And as Muslim Eids are commemorated at mosques throughout the Christian world.

Ironically enough, the Qur’an, the scripture revered by Muslims, has poignant passages about Jesus’s nativity longer than the accounts in the New Testament. But the people of Jesus can’t commemorate that nativity publicly in MbS’s Muslim country.


Bonus video:

Al Jazeera English from last summer: “US criticises Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for lack of religious freedom”

16 Responses

  1. Saudi Arabia certainly needs reforms and it is good to hear the Saudi leader speak about religious tolerance. However, in many of his interviews and speeches in the West he has stated that Saudi Arabia turned to religious fanaticism as a reaction to the Iranian revolution, and that he wants to take the country back to tolerant Saudi practices. This statement is clearly false and is not very reassuring.

    It is true that the Islamic revolution in Iran introduced an intolerant form of Islam. It did not introduce greater political freedom, but even reversed some of the social and religious freedoms that the Iranian people had enjoyed under the Pahlavi government, but to blame the rise of fanaticism among the Sunnis on the Islamic revolution in Iran is clearly not supported by facts.

    The Wahhabi teachings contained a strong element of anti-Shi’a, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiment. The destruction of sites associated with early Islam, particularly the shrines of Shi’a Imams, has been a continuous feature of Saudi Wahhabism. In 1801-02, the Saudis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, destroyed the tomb of Imam Hussein and massacred a part of the Shi’a population. In 1803 and 1804, the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed many historical monuments, including the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, Ali’s wife and Imam Husayn’s mother, who is especially revered by the Shi’is.

    Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928 and spread to many other Sunni-majority countries. The radical teachings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) spread strong anti-Western and anti-modern ideas and distorted the meaning of jihad, turning it into a war of aggression against the non-believers. Qutb’s writings have helped frame the extreme ideas of the jihadists and radicals and have fostered anti-Western views.

    What is needed is for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to turn towards a more tolerant form of Islam and allow freedom of expression and of worship to the believers in all faiths and none.

    • Very nice comment Farhang Jahanpour.

      Do you think MBS really wants to reform (for the most part hasn’t started yet)?

      MBS has done two very good things:
      1) put pressure on Pakistan and Taliban to abandon Jihadis and reform
      2) reached out to the Iraqi government for the first time since 2003.

      But these things matter a lot less than reforming Wahhabism at home. Can MBS do this?

      • anan, thank you for your kind comments.

        I don’t know of the kind of pressure that MBS has put on Pakistan and Taliban to abandon jihadis. It would be good to know of the kind of action that he has taken. The sad fact is that Pakistani Islam was initially much more tolerant than it has become recently, mainly as the result of many Saudi-funded madrasas teaching strict Wahhabi ideology, instead of a rather mystical variety of Islam that was practiced by the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal.

        As for reaching out to the Iraqi government, the fact is that the Saudis were so angry about Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the transfer of power to Shi’i majority that, despite American pressure, they refused to recognize the Iraqi government and send an ambassador to Baghdad until recently. Their recent reaching out to the Iraqi government is more due to their hostility towards Iran than to any change of heart about the Iraqi government and wanting to moderate their stances. I believe that the sooner the governments in the Middle East give up these childish games and learn to live with each other in peace the better. There are no military solutions to any of the problems of the Middle East and no country can achieve dominance in the region. The only solution is to conclude some common security pacts and try to cooperate instead of fight each other.

      • He wants an Islam edited to serve his interests in the same way that fellow Neocon Dick Cheney and his gang wanted an evangelical Protestantism edited to serve their interests.

        I.e., intolerant enough to keep the rednecks together bullying and silencing political dissent, but not so intolerant that it was “bad for business.”

      • Can we do away with this false narrative of MBS the great reformer? What reforms are we talking about? Is he like giving up authoritarian power for some new democracy? Last I read there was a ramp up of arrests of more liberal Saudis and other opposition (as problematic as religious fundamentalists are, they have rights too, and shouldn’t be forcibly disappeared). Did he renounce state sanctioned torture, like he did on his own royal relatives?

        Pakistan army still haven’t really abandoned the Taliban, so not sure he deserves much credit there, considering there are other players like Russia, China and Iran trying to make headway. Hey, at least the Saudis could ask them to help them out in their sectarian war against Iran…what could possibly go wrong? Besides war crimes in Yemen, or rise in sectarianism (including in Pakistan) and overall Sunni extremism globally…

        Even on Iraq really, it was certain Shia factions from Iraq that reached out to the Saudis…so as not to be screwed over by sectarian Sunni militant proxies next door in Syria.

        So he’s got some disdain for overtly religious fundamentalism (probably cramped his young lavish, clearly self-made and not from the nation’s coffers, half a billion yacht/art/real estate lifestyle) and wants to modernize, like letting women drive while ignoring every other issue Saudi women face in that societal gender apartheid. And I guess it was cool to give citizenship to a non-hijab female looking Artificial intelligent robot, though unfortunately that won’t be happening for foreign working migrants who’ve toiled their lives away in the holy land. Good PR moves, lacks substance.

        None of it also hides the fact he’s still violently prejudiced, like against Iran or his own Shia citizens (Yea, saying he has ‘Shia friends’ is like a far-right white conservative guy claiming he has ‘black friends’ and then delving into a rant about how their community is in bad shape because of their own damn fault and should be heavily policed and incarcerated).

        He’s currently trying to distance himself from Wahhabism, like as if he’s an enlightened moderate Sunni leader. Unfortunately he does it through revisionist lenses such as his latest remarks on it being exported globally on Western wishes during the Cold War. Earlier he claimed it was because of the Iranian revolution they became extreme. Every excuse except for taking responsibility for their own ideology and actions. Unfortunately, there is no self-introspection. So no…he won’t be any better in reforming religion the same way like el-Sisi claims to be in Egypt. But give him credit for cozying up to the supposed Muslim-friendly US under Trump and Israel under Netanyahu, I guess…

        • Thanks to both SAF and Farhang for your considered comments.

          Some Saudis that I respect think MBS “MIGHT” have some success. I certainly hope he does. My view is the only way to have success with respect to Islamism is freedom of art, thought, intuition and feeling. To encourage dialogue and protect those who engage in dialogue. Suppressing extremists in the absence of dialogue is unlikely to be successful over the long run.

          MBS is the first Saudi to put any non-symbolic pressure on Pakistan and the Taliban. Reform in Pakistan and within the Taliban is a multi-generational process just as Saudi reform is. It will take a long time to change Pakistani and Saudi public opinion.

          Without Taliban reform a peace deal between GIRoA and Taliban is impractical. GIRoA needs believable Taliban guarantees on extreme interpretations of Sharia, woman’s rights, economic development for a peace deal to be tolerable for Afghan voters. This too will be hard.

          Deep anti minority muslim and anti moderate muslim bigotry and sectarianism have been huge problems for a long time . . . MBS isn’t special in this regard. Even slight progress is welcome. For dialogue to work temporary semi stability is helpful.

          Iraqis have been at war since 1979 and any deal with MBS that allows them time to rebuild (their civilian institutions, civil society, private sector and ISF) is welcome. Without a deal with the Arab League the Iraqis cannot be free of excessive Khamenei influence.

          The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force want to establish and expand undergraduate and graduate school academies to build long term capacity and self reliance. Peace and international trainers are helpful to achieve this. Over 35,000 ISF martyrs have died for their country since 2003. (and a lot more GoI allied militia fighters have died in combat.) Don’t they deserve a break?

          If MBS is able to reach a deal with the Iraqis, then God bless him.

          For Khamenei and MBS to reach a deal on Yemen . . . both of them need to be treated respectfully. Virtue signaling by personally attacking one or both of them might be unhelpful.

  2. Juan:

    I’ve been reading your blog for 14+ years, but this is the first time that I’ve felt compelled to post a comment: Unfortunately, both Muslim would-be reformers and their skeptical interlocutors are fond of portraying the would-be reformers as “the few good ones.” This perversely serves the skeptics’ desire to confirm their bias against the majority of “others,” and bolsters the would-be reformers’ authoritarian will to power (“support my autocratic rule, because I am one of the few good ones who can possibly bring about reform”). The saddest thing is that I think both sides are often sincere in their beliefs and actions, albeit superficially due to lack of self reflection.



    • Mahmoud El-Gamal, reform is alive and well. For example Indian muslims. My hope is that attitudes among Indian muslims will spread throughout the Ummah.

      Last year the most popular TV show in India during part of the year was:
      link to en.wikipedia.org
      100 million to 200 million watched per night. Muslim reform was discussed more openly than every before in the internet age.

    • I agree with your general observation, but here I would attribute MbS words and (superficial) actions more to outright cynicism about how the US policy stands to be manipulated. I had the chance to mix with a few such characters in their salad days and was struck by the glib confidence with which they assumed to handle other people, rather like chess pieces.

      That attitude would naturally be seasoned by maturity and experience with the world’s complexity. Still, in the world of ‘public diplomacy’ in which he is now engaging (with I’m sure the steady guidance of some of the shrewdest PR people in business), each move can indeed be planned and calibrated for its impact on specific parties.

      So, let’s just recognize his actions here for what they obviously are: MbS is here to mould US policy and guide it in a direction he can manage, and if he uses the various resources available to him properly he stands to be successful.

  3. Speaking of Iran, it should be noted that “intolerant ” Iran has hundreds of Christian churches and even a couple of dozen synagogues.

  4. Question: Do any synagogues remain in Saudi Arabia and are they open for worship – assuming any Jews visiting might want to pray there?

  5. Saudi Leaders’ Concern: “All past threats to the Al Saud, from a 1920s tribal rebellion to riots in the 1960s, a siege at Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 and protests in the 1990s, were caused by conservative Sunni anger at modernization or ties with the West. That was why the al Qaeda uprising that began in 2003, and attacked the Al Saud by turning its own conservative Salafi brand of Sunni Islam against it, was such a danger.”
    When the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken over by five hundred Wahhabi fanatic salafis in 1979, the House of Saud had been concerned with opposition coming from the left. “But the attacks of 1979 had come from the very opposite direction—from those on the right… ‘Godless’ was the reproach that was now being thrown at the king and princes…[The rebels] had been nurtured in the traditional territory of Wahhabi mosques…” (To regain the Grand Mosque, the government lost 127 soldiers dead and 461 injured; 117 Salafi rebels were also killed.)
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  6. There is no God but money, and Ronald Reagan is Its prophet,
    there is no God but money, and Ronald Reagan is Its prophet,
    there is no God but money, and Ronald Reagan is Its prophet.

    That’s the only ecumenical vision between Saudi Arabia and Wall Street. You can worship whatever god you want, as long as it commands the rich to expand the economy at the expense of the poor.

  7. MNBS may be paying millions for PR consultants, to do what he is doing right now, trying to pull a rabbit out of a keffiyeh, to change Saudi Arabia’s terrible image, but who is he fooling? Only the naive, and the ignorant. Someone should interview the Saudi’s who were imprisoned at the Ritz Carlton, and find how how they were treated for weeks, someone should have asked him (Oprah?) why children are dying in Yemen for lack of food and water, and someone one should ask him why SA is radicalizing Muslims worldwide. Those are the tough questions.

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