Experts Discuss Saudi Arabia Religious Freedom, Human Rights Reform

WASHINGTON – The situation in Saudi Arabia, including the status of religious freedom and human rights reform in a country where religious freedom is nonexistent, was discussed at a conference on Monday.

“To be a Saudi citizen you have to be a Muslim. There is no choice. That is a fact,” said Dr. Dwight Bashir, senior policy analyst of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), during a conference held at American University.

As an example, Bashir made note of foreign guest workers who may have lived in Saudi Arabia for generations but cannot be Saudi citizen if they are non-Muslims.

Bashir spoke about an extensive USCIRF report on Saudi Arabia released in May 2003. He said that the commission had talked to enough people that had “clearly indicated beyond anecdotal evidence” to show support that Saudi ideology promoted “hate, intolerance, and violence against not only non-conforming Muslims but also non-Muslims.”

The USCIRF policy analyst also referred to a report released by Freedom House in May entitled Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance, which documented and analyzed a set of Saudi textbooks. The report concluded that the textbooks promote an ideology of hatred towards non-Wahhabi Muslims.

Bashir conceded that there has been some religious freedom progress in the country. However, he said an “objective observer” can see the country’s long list of reform initiative compared to the progress and conclude there has not been substantive improvement in recent years.

“Religious freedom could have been and still can be an important issue of common ground for the Saudi to respond to – something that is not only meaningful to the U.S. government but the American people…,” concluded Bashir.

Dr. Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, spoke, among other topics, about the lack of woman’s right in the country. He said that 90-94 percent of women are not allowed to work, noting it has nothing to do with religion or tradition but rather the political system.

“It (Saudi Arabia) is the center of Islam. It is the center of religious incitement and hate. It is a country with a lot of money,” said Alyami. “If Saudi Arabia is democratized it will go a long way to minimize if not eradicate the causes of terrorism and extremism.”