The Media Project is a network of mainstream journalists who are pursuing accurate and intellectually honest reporting on all aspects of culture, particularly the role of religion in public life in all corners of the world. TMP welcomes friends from other faiths to join us in our discussions and training.

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current level of international intrigue? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

  • Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

  • A second angle is the final nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

The crown prince’s announcement that Saudi women would finally have the right to obtain drivers’ licenses prompted the optimism. However, that was not to be for the female Saudi activists that publicly agitated for the change.

For these women, prison was their reward, because, as I understand it, Salman couldn't stand the thought that some might think the monarchy gave into pressure rather than allow the change out of its own ain’t-we-forward-thinking benevolence.

Recent stories have emphasized that these female activists have been tortured and sexually abused. Here’s how CNN put it.

  • A third religion angle that local religion reporters might jump on is whether some American Muslims put off by Saudi Arabia’s despotic actions — beyond Khashoggi there’s also Yemen — might delay or even forgo going on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Check out this BBC News backgrounder if you're unfamiliar with the Yemen situation. Be sure to scroll down far enough to read the section on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, attributed in large part to Saudi military actions.

My guess is not many Muslims you speak with will say they’re postponing or forgoing a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in protest, since the Hajj is a requirement that all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are obliged to fulfill.

The pilgrimage is one of Islam’s Five Pillars that together comprise the codified acts by which Muslims are supposed to live.

But why not ask anyway, perhaps starting with local mosque officials? You just never know where asking around may lead.

  • The fourth angle, the one I hinted at above, is more for elite international reporters, and perhaps those who cover the White House, Congress or the federal government in general.

It's the story of a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen, a Muslim, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for the past year.

The lede of this New York Times piece sets the stage.

LONDON — President Trump once offered a simple rationale for his hands-off approach to the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul: “It’s in Turkey, and it’s not a citizen.”

But this week, as Mr. Trump declared that he was sticking by the Saudi crown prince despite accusations that he was behind the killing, an American citizen was languishing in the bowels of the Saudi prison system.

The citizen, Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor, hospital owner, television host and motivational speaker, has been detained without trial for more than a year.

Dr. Fitaihi, a dual citizen, is one of scores of businessmen, princes, clerics, scholars and activists rounded up at the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a drive to consolidate his power. Many detainees have been subjected to torture and physical abuse, according to friends, family members and rights groups.

The Times article then notes that Fitaihi — who was once active in Boston Muslim circles, who condemned the 9/11 attacks, but who in 2004 “was the center of controversy over anti-Semitic sentiments in columns he wrote for Arabic newspapers” — has yet to be formally charged. Nor is the Saudi government willing to confirm that he’s even being held, though witnesses saw his arrest.

The story’s bottom line is that the Trump administration, which has made a big deal out of gaining the release of other Americans held abroad, has done nothing, as far as is known, to help Fitaihi.

So I wonder, while Fitaihi may not be this Jewish guy’s particular cup of tea, would Trump be doing more if Fitaihi was, for example, a convert to Christianity who was nabbed proselytizing in Saudi Arabia, where such activities are illegal?

Or might the administration come to Fitaihi’s aid, even without a Christian conversion, if he were held in Jordan or Egypt for some quasi-political and not criminal reason?

The Times story sought comment from the Saudi embassy in Washington and the State Department. The Saudis did not respond and an anonymous State spokesperson provided a wish-washy statement that I read as simply kicking the can down the road.

Might another DC-based ace reporter get further?

photo by April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy

As the Dalai Lama ages, Tibetan exiles turn to secular unity over sacred

As the Dalai Lama ages, Tibetan exiles turn to secular unity over sacred

Protestants also face #ChurchToo scandals. Reporters: Here’s a handy way to assess them.

Protestants also face #ChurchToo scandals. Reporters: Here’s a handy way to assess them.