What’s the proper response to the Saudi King’s speech about religious pluralism at the UN?
President Bush and Secretary of State Rice greeted his words with cautious optimism, as did President Shimon Peres of Israel who said, “I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of our region, of all people.”
Other responses ranged from cynical to critical. One Saudi Shia in exile said it was like South Africa decrying racism during the apartheid era.
Imam Moustafa al-Qazwini, an important Shia American leader, wrote in an Open Letter to the UN gathering: “Since the inception of the kingdom, it has institutionalized a systematic and deliberate process to discredit and marginalize its own citizens who follow the Shia belief. From the educational institutes, to the state funded media outlets, and employment the Saudi government has continued its religious prosecution, distortion, and denigration of the Shias.”
I am a Shia Muslim, and have heard my fair share of personal stories of Shias being persecuted in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Saudi government has supported a culture of ill will towards Jews and Christians, really towards anyone who is not a Salafi Muslim. None of these things make the Saudi King the most likely messenger of interfaith cooperation.
But I am choosing to approach this at a slight angle. Sometimes the external articulation of a message sets of a string of internal changes.
Consider America during World War II, fighting across Europe to free the Jews while its own swimming pools and water fountains were segregated. Americans were too smart to stomach their government’s hypocrisy for long. The American external message of freedom during World War II played a crucial role in catalyzing our internal Civil Rights Movement.
Maybe King Abdullah, by articulating the central Muslim value of religious pluralism on the world stage, will find the citizens of his Kingdom demanding that he implement it at home.