catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 12 :: 2003.06.06 — 2003.06.19


Liberty or national interests?

For any peace initiative in Israel and Palestine to be successful, President George W. Bush must be evenhanded and consistent in his dealings in the Middle East. The Muslim world has violently opposed U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has seen the United States' dealings in Palestine as favorable to Israel. Yet, the Muslim world seems to view Bush's proposed roadmap to be more evenhanded than traditional U.S. policy, which may be why this peace plan could work. However, for lasting Middle East peace, Bush must be evenhanded in human rights issues throughout the region, starting with religious freedom.

Each year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases its report on religious freedom worldwide. In addition to releasing its findings, the commission lists the world's worst violators of religious freedom, calling these nations Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). The State Department then uses the commission's report to determine which countries it will officially designate as CPCs.

The Commission released its latest annual report last month. Of the 12 countries the commission recommended that the State Department officially recognize as CPCs, only six have been so designated. The report states, "The Commission was deeply disappointed that Secretary Powell did not designate India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam." Countries on the list include Burma, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, China, and Sudan.

The commission focused "considerable" attention on Saudi Arabia in this year's report. "Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia" according to the commission. Not only is Islam the only religion that can be publicly practiced, but Saudi Arabia represses, often violently, any interpretation of Islam other than its militant Wahhabi version.

Wahhabism is the version of Islam which Osama bin Laden preaches, and is the only permissible religion in Saudi Arabia. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death in this country, which still beheads criminals. Foreigners among the country's large expatriate community are routinely arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for practicing non-Muslim religions. While in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. military was forced to abide by the country's strict Islamic code, which includes wearing the veil. The commission states:

The ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom by the Saudi government include torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by both judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges, and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person, including coercive measures aimed at women and the wide jurisdiction of the religious police (mutawaa), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.

Though the Saudi government says that it allows the private practice of religious faith, the U.S. commission found that in the past two years, at least 44 Christians were arrested and deported following raids during private worship services. The commission also found that Saudi Arabia exports its Wahhabi interpretation to countries around the world, including the United States.


At the same time, the U.S. government has worked closely with Saudi Arabia in its war on terror. In this war, meant to ensure for Americans the freedom we have grown accustomed to enjoying, Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Yet, the same rights we are fighting for are denied to Americans living and working in Saudi Arabia.

In Afghanistan, the commission found that a denial of religious freedom to non-Muslims may be written into that country's constitution. In Iraq, the country's small Christian and Jewish minorities, whose rights were somewhat protected under Saddam Hussein, are in a precarious position as vocal and violent Islamic fundamentalists work to impose an Islamic state modeled after Iran. In China, India, and Pakistan, religious freedom is denied by the government and the citizens of these countries.

If America is going to wage war on nations that oppose religious and human liberties, then it must do so evenhandedly. If peace in Palestine requires fair treatment for Israelis and Palestinians, then even more so in countries like Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Pakistan, where U.S. interests are closely tied. Countries such as these practice terrorism and oppose even the most basic of human rights. A president who claims Jesus as his savior must not selectively allow religious oppression while pursuing "national interests" in the name of liberty and freedom.

Discussion topic: Liberty or national interest?

Why is the U.S. selective in its enforcement of religious rights? What should the U.S. be doing differently? What tactics have been effective in addressing religious oppression?

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