Saudi Arabia: No Small Challenge, No Great Ally
There are few more pointed examples of the long-term problem with Saudi Arabia than a recent fatwa calling for the execution of two reporters for suggesting other religions deserve respect. One would expect a Wahhabi cleric to issue such, perhaps. But that the Saudi legislature voted down legislation (77-33) calling for the same respect is a fair and clear barometer that the problem does not simply lie with a few dozen clerics. It's systemic.
If a respected religious authority calls for the execution of someone who simply suggests that people holding other faiths deserve respect, doesn't that tell Saudis that the lives of Christians, Jews, Hindu and Buddhists are of lesser value?
Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a 75-year-old sheikh, issued the fatwa calling for the journalists' death. In Saudi Arabia, he is a leading authority on Wahhabism, the country's fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam.
"It's disgraceful that articles containing this kind of apostasy should be published in some papers in Saudi Arabia," he wrote last month. If the reporters do not repent, they "should be killed," he wrote.
Barrak is not just some cranky old miscreant. He is a member of the Saudi legislature, appointed by the king. Barrak spent a long career in senior positions at a respected government-funded university.
Soon after, 20 other senior Saudi clerics stood up to enthusiastically endorse Barrak's fatwa. Later, about 100 human-rights advocates from across the region condemned the edict, calling it intellectual terrorism. That had little visible impact in Riyadh.But a striking feature of this episode is that the Saudi government has not said or done anything about it - probably because King Abdullah realizes that many and perhaps most members of Saudi Arabia's religious establishment agree with Barrak. After all, two weeks after he issued that fatwa, the legislature soundly defeated a proposal, favored by the Arab League, to adopt a law promoting respect for other religions. The vote was 77-33.