The Magazine

A Medal for Brass

A brazen publicity stunt from the House of Saud.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By NINA SHEA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Some on Capitol Hill agreed. Representative Frank Wolf, ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the State Department, home of the Foreign Service, took up the issue with Georgetown president John DeGioia. In a February 14 letter, Wolf asked whether the center could maintain "the impartiality and integrity of scholarship that befits so distinguished a university as Georgetown and that is required by the exigencies of national security for training American officials." Meanwhile, Saudi subsidizing of Western universities proceeds apace. Only this month, Cambridge University and the University of Edinburgh each announced the creation of an Islamic studies center funded by and named after Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

But if the ad's immediate purpose may have been to cast the appearance of a papal blessing over the growing Saudi presence on Western campuses, it also served a larger Saudi aim. The Saudi monarchy has begun using the model of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church to position itself as the authoritative voice of Islam worldwide. This is new. In the history of Sunni Islam, theological authority has been located in various centers, but never in the House of Saud.

In 2006, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in a letter to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, quoted the king as referring to his government as the "Vatican of Islam." The implication is that Saudi Arabia is not only hallowed ground as host of the two holiest Muslim sites, but also the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy.

The recent ad directly supports this power play. It sets up visual parallels between the pope and the king, the Vatican and Mecca. A slogan at the bottom reads, "Two great faiths, Sharing one cause: humanity." Using its control of the hajj and the vast wealth it pours into foreign evangelism, funding mosques, schools, libraries, and academic centers worldwide, the House of Saud is patiently pursuing its quest to make the Saudi variant of Islam--Wahhabism, with its warrant for the murder of heretics, apostates, and infidels--the Muslim norm. This is the ad's chilling subtext.

The latest Saudi publicity stunt should not be dismissed as merely a boorish hoax. It offers a useful glimpse of the ambitions and methods of the Saudi state, which deserve to be taken seriously.

Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.