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Speaking the truth about Saudi Arabia

The State Department has ignored the desert kingdom's lack of religious freedom for too long.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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ONE OF THE HARDER THINGS to do in Washington is to speak the truth about Saudi Arabia. So give the State Department credit for declaring that in the desert kingdom there is no freedom of religion.

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the department puts out an annual report on the state of religious liberty around the world. In this year's report, the department--for the first time--includes Saudi Arabia among "countries of particular concern," those that engage in or tolerate gross infringements of religious liberty.

The State Department's new list includes only seven such countries. Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and Vietnam are on the list for the first time while Burma, China, Iran, and North Korea have been there repeatedly.

The evidence justifying the designation of the Saudi regime is straightforward and concise: In Saudi Arabia, "freedom of religion does not exist."

It does not exist because it cannot exist. Saudi Arabia has an official, state-funded religion, a version of Sunni Islam that the report plainly identifies: Wahhabism, which is the terrible legacy of the 18th-century Arab militant Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. Discrimination in education and employment--and worse--is the lot of those who fail to adhere to Wahhabism. Religious police keep a vigilant watch.

The Saudi rulers cannot be happy that the State Department has judged their country fairly. They are used to hearing less than the truth from U.S. politicians and government officials. They have counted on their status as a key oil supplier, and more recently as an ally in the war on terrorism, as a prophylactic against such cold-eyed assessments as the department has now rendered.

The Kerry campaign concedes the correctness of the designation of Saudi Arabia but complains that the move is merely political, designed to suggest in the late stretch of the campaign that the president is tougher on the Saudis than he really is. John Hanford, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, says that the action was taken strictly on the merits.

What is unquestionably true is that the designation reflects a central concern of this president--the advancement of religious liberty. To an extent unmatched by his recent predecessors, President Bush has pushed for that liberty at home--with more vigorous enforcement of pertinent law--but also abroad. He has described religious liberty as "the first freedom of the human soul," and his national security strategy calls for "special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachments by repressive governments."

In the absence of drastic change, the issue raised by the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia has always been not whether--but when--it would be listed as a country of particular concern by an administration led by a president of evident conviction about the fundamental importance of religious liberty.

A patient, perhaps too patient, State Department has now acted as the evidence demands. And the action has important implications. The next president--Bush or Kerry--will find it hard to take Saudi Arabia off the list unless it makes demonstrable progress on religious liberty, especially in its treatment of Shiites and other Muslims who don't accept Wahhabism.

And the Saudi regime cannot easily ignore the question of whether the time has come to disestablish Wahhabism, the source of the religious repression inside its borders and the religion in whose name, not incidentally, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have pursued their bloodthirsty jihad.

A Saudi Arabia moving toward genuine religious pluralism would no longer be of "particular concern" to the State Department. More important, of course, such a development would mark a huge advance for democratic values in a part of the world where they are so desperately needed.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard