Saudi Arabia's image has been burnished in recent days by the floating of Prince Abdullah's "vision" of a land-for-peace deal in the Middle East.
No doubt that was the point, and congratulations are due Saudi Arabia's highly compensated U.S. public relations consultants. And so, from the Saudi point of view, it may be of no great consequence that debate over the proposal was cut short by the Passover Massacre — a terrorist atrocity launched from territory Israel had given over to Yasser Arafat's authority under an earlier land-for-peace deal.
But, if Saudi Arabia's ruling aristocracy wants to achieve not just the appearance but also the reality of being a peace-loving, tolerant and moderate leadership, there are any number of steps that might be considered. Here are just a few:
Clarify the significance of the Saudi rapprochement with Saddam Hussein at the Arab summit in Beirut last week. American troops are currently stationed in Saudi Arabia to defend that nation from Iraq. Is that no longer necessary? Are the Saudis prepared to tell Saddam that he must renounce his plans of revenge against America and fulfill his obligations to allow inspectors to search every corner of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction? Surely, it would be ingratitude bordering on treachery for the Saudis to say, as they now appear to have done: "Saddam isn't threatening us anymore, only the Americans who saved us from him — and that isn't our concern."
Pledge one month's oil revenues to help alleviate poverty in the West Bank and Gaza.
Put a halt to the neo-Nazi, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-American lies and slander that routinely appear in Saudi Arabia's government-controlled press and are taught in the government-controlled schools.
As devout and respected Muslims, the guardians of Islam's holy sites, and the financial backers of countless mosques and Islamic schools around the world, the Saudi princes have enormous influence with senior religious authorities. They should prevail on those authorities to issue a religious edict — a fatwa — stating without equivocation that henceforth "jihad" should no longer be interpreted to mean a holy war against "infidels" — Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others. Instead, the religious authorities should instruct Muslims to understand jihad as a peaceful struggle for truth and spiritual enlightenment.
Issue a second fatwa declaring that because Islam is a religion of peace, terrorism — to be clearly defined as the intentional murder of non-combatants for political purpose — is prohibited. This prohibition should specifically include suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
Discontinue the Saudi policy of giving free trips to Mecca to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
A third religious edict should explicitly and unequivocally condemn Osama bin Laden and the murderers of Daniel Pearl as terrorists and apostates who have brought shame to Islam and to Muslims around the world. Muslims everywhere should be called upon to stop naming babies "Osama."
The Saudi princes should convene an international peace conference in Mecca and invite the leaders of all of the world's great religions to attend. The pope should be invited to stand side by side with the Dalai Lama, the Rev. Pat Robertson, Israel's chief rabbi and with the Guardian of the Islamic holy sites, King Fahd himself, in Mecca, Islam's holiest city. Such an unprecedented and historic display would establish that the Saudis have finally embraced the principles of religious tolerance and religious freedom.
Along these same lines, the Saudis should immediately decriminalize the practice of other religions within the country's borders. Right now, Christians caught practicing their faith in Saudi Arabia are beaten, jailed and deported — some have simply disappeared. Even U.S. servicemen on active duty in Saudi Arabia are told to hide their religious affiliation if they aren't Muslims. Converting from Islam to Christianity or another religion is still a crime — one that may be punishable by death. In this way, too, the Saudis should declare that they recognize that religious freedom is a fundamental human right.
The Saudis should take steps to change the curriculum at the schools they fund and support around the world (including here in America). These schools too often teach intolerance and disrespect for other religions.
The Saudis should declare that they will work toward ending discrimination against women, especially discrimination decreed by law and enforced by government authorities. Recently, scuffles broke out in Mecca between firemen and members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice when the latter tried to keep girls inside a burning building — because they were "immodestly" dressed. A civil defense officer said he saw three members of the religious police "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya (the veil)." Beyond taking steps to prevent such incidents in the future, Saudi leaders should lift restrictions that deny women educational opportunities, prohibit them from working in professions of their choosing and driving cars. Saudi women should no longer be forced to seek the written permission of a male relative before traveling abroad.
King Fahd or Prince Abdullah should declare once and for all that Israel has a right to exist — and to exist as a predominately Jewish state. The challenge, he should say, is to establish borders between Israel and an independent, predominately Islamic, Palestinian state. Prince Abdullah should go to Jerusalem to discuss in person his "vision" of Middle East peace with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
By taking even a few of the steps outlined above, the Saudis would demonstrate that they are not hypocrites who whisper soothing words to American journalists on the advice of their American public relations consultants, while simultaneously promoting racist hatred and terrorism around the world.
They would show that they really do seek peace and reconciliation among the world's nations, cultures and religions. For all their faults — indeed, in large measure because of their faults — the Saudis have a unique opportunity to be a force for peace and positive change. Whether they will embrace that opportunity remains an open question.