If you want to understand why murderous Islamic extremists still pour out of the Middle East, consider a small drama under way in Saudi Arabia right now.
A few weeks ago, one of the nation’s most senior religious authorities directed that two reporters for a mainstream Saudi newspaper be executed for publishing stories suggesting that religions other than Islam are worthy of respect. In Saudi Arabia, malefactors are beheaded by sword, as the nation calls the punishment, often in public, outside a mosque just after Friday prayers. By official count, authorities beheaded 151 people last year.
So far, the two reporters, Abdullah bin Bejad al-Otaibi and Yousef Aba al-Khail, have not been put under the sword. They are still working at their newspaper, Al Riyadh. But they are reported to be terrified, and they have called on the government for protection. It has not responded, and the other Saudi papers have barely even mentioned the controversy.
None of this comes as much of a surprise to Saudi Arabia experts.
In some ways it’s routine. Last week, as an example, a Saudi appeals court agreed to hear the case of a Turkish barber who was sentenced to death by sword for taking the Lord’s name in vain in his barbershop one afternoon.
But the debate over the reporters offers a window into Saudi thinking and helps explain why so many Saudis dedicate themselves to anti-Western jihads. 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.
Still, Abdullah could not possibly have forgotten the world outrage that greeted the Saudi court decision last fall to administer 200 lashes to a 20-year-old woman who had been gang raped. The White House called this outrageous, and Abdullah eventually had to pardon the woman.
But even if he were so inclined, the king cannot easily interfere with a religious edict – especially one issued by a member of his own government. So instead, he issued a tepid appeal for an international inter-faith dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews “to help end inter-religious tensions,” the Saudi government said.
No details were provided. Right away, though, one of Israel’s chief rabbis, Yona Metzger, announced that “our hand is outstretched to any peace initiative and any dialogue that is intended to bring an end to terror and violence.” So far, however, Metzger remains empty-handed.
Barrak’s history is littered with pronouncements that many in the West would consider outrageous. A few years ago he decreed that Sunni Muslims not only had the right but also the duty to kill Shiite Muslims who openly practice their faith. (Among Saudi fundamentalists, talking about killing Shiites is a popular intellectual blood sport.)
More recently, Barrak was the lead signatory on a religious edict urging Saudi men to fight “the joint venture by the crusaders” and the Shia “to further their greedy designs” on Iraq. The Shiite goal, the edict added, was “to protect the occupying Jews and to besiege Sunnis throughout the region.”
Others signing this missive last year included university deans and presidents as well as judges and senior government officials.
Once again, not surprisingly, the king had nothing to say.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former New York Times foreign correspondent. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Â * This is what should be plastered all over the news tonight:
U.S. most charitable nation; oil-rich Muslim countries give almost nothing
The most likely reason for this is that zakat, the almsgiving that is obligatory for all Muslims, is generally not to be given to non-Muslims. Since there is nothing preventing this aid from being given to non-Muslims, they don’t give it.
“A Gulf in Giving: Oil-Rich States Starve the World Food Program,” by George Russell for FoxNews via DW