Confront Saudi Arabia

Kingdom banned 'bibles, crucifixes, statues and the Star of David'.

Bible Turkish (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bible Turkish
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Saudi Arabian Airlines declares on its English-language Web site that the kingdom bans "Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings, items with religious symbols such as the Star of David." Until the Saudi government changes this detestable policy, I say its airline should be barred from flying into Western airports. Michael Freund focused attention to this regulation in a recent Jerusalem Post article, "Saudis might take Bibles from tourists," in which he pointed out that a section on the SAA Web site, "Customs Regulations," lists the disapproved articles above under the rubric "Items and articles belonging to religions other than Islam." Freund followed up by calling the SAA office in New York, where "Gladys" confirmed that this rule really is applied. "Yes, sir, that is what we have heard, that it is a problem to bring these things into Saudi Arabia, so you cannot do it." An unnamed official at the Saudi consulate in New York further confirmed the regulation. "You are not allowed to bring that stuff into the kingdom. If you do, they will take it away. If it is really important to you, then you can try to bring it and just see what happens, but I don't recommend that you do so." RESPONDING to the Saudi ban on churches and Bibles and Stars of David, some would ban mosques, Korans and crescent moons in the West, but that is clearly untenable and unenforceable, given the freedoms of speech and worship. The Koran, for example, is not a Saudi artifact and cannot be held hostage to Saudi policies. However closely it identifies with Islam, the Saudi government does not own the religion. Further, as Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism points out, signs in Saudi airports warn Muslim travelers that the airport's mutawwa'in (religious police) confiscate Korans, other Islamic literature and Muslim objects of non-Saudi origin. While discriminating specifically against Shi'ites and Ahmadis, this policy manifests a broader insistence on Wahhabi supremacism. More broadly, the Saudi leadership runs a country that the US government has repeatedly condemned as having "no religious freedom" and being among the most religiously repressive in the world. SAA, the state-owned national carrier and its portal to the world, offers a pressure point for change. To take advantage of this vulnerability, Western governments should demand that unless the Saudi government at least permits "that stuff" to come in, SAA faces exclusion from the 18 airports it presently services in Europe, North America and Japan. Were those routes shut down, Riyadh would face a tough choice: • Ignore this action. Allowing Western airlines to service Saudi Arabia without reciprocity would presumably be too great a humiliation for the monarchy to abide. • Cut off the Western airlines in return. Cutting off the Western airlines would unacceptably isolate Saudis from major markets and premier destinations. • Permit non-Wahhabi religious items. That would leave the Saudis with no choice but to accept the import of "Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings, items with religious symbols such as the Star of David." Further, once these materials are allowed, other benefits would likely follow, such as permitting non-Islamic religious buildings and services in Saudi Arabia for the millions of non-Muslims resident there. Muslims who reject the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam would also eventually benefit from this loosening. Such joint action would also send a long-overdue signal to the despots of Riyadh - that Westerners have thrown off their servile obeisance to their writ. WHO WILL be first to act? Which national government or municipality will arise from the customary dhimmi posture and ban SAA (slogan: "We aim to please you") from its runways, thereby compelling the kingdom to permit infidel religious items, monotheistic and polytheistic alike, into its territory? Where are you Athens, Frankfurt, Geneva, Houston, London, Madrid, Málaga, Manchester, Milan, Munich, New York, Nice, Osaka, Paris, Prague, Rome, Vienna and Washington, DC? If no government acts, what about a delegation of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others boarding an SAA flight with much publicity, openly displaying their religious artifacts, daring the airline to confiscate them? Or which public service law firm in those 11 countries will bring local human rights suits against SAA as an arm of the Saudi government? This issue provides an opportunity for left and right to unite against radical Islam. Who will take the lead to confront Saudi discrimination, arrogance and repression? The writer ( is director of the Middle East Forum.