Ms. C.M. found this article, and it's a stunner, for more reasons than one. But first a bit of context: I've recently blogged about the Russo-Saudi summit between President Putin and King Salman, and the deals that came from it. This was preceded by a recent decision by the Saudi royals to allow women to drive, and I suggested that this might be heralding a long term domestic strategy of change in one of the world's most ignominious and repressive regimes. I offered the speculation that the old alliance between the Saudi royals and the Wahhabisst clergy might be slowly - very slowly -- breaking down. The hypocrisy has been rumored for a long time: overseas, the Saudi princes have been known to smoke a cigar or two and to enjoy a little fine Scotch or to attend a barbeque in Crawford, Texas. More interestingly, I also pointed out that one prince of the (out)House of Saud had called for a new kind of Westphalian peace, presumably to deal with the long-standing tensions within the Islamic civilization between the competing claims of the Suni and Shia versions of it.
It's in that context of Saudi princes brainstorming ideas about Westphalian peace that I find this article so interesting:
In particular, these statements caught my eye:
The king said the declaration was a natural extension of Bahrain’s national heritage.
“As Bahrainis, we drew from our national heritage as a beacon of religious tolerance in the Arab world during a time when religion has been too frequently used throughout the world as a divine sanction to spread hate and dissension.”
He said the declaration was drawn up “in consultation with Sunni and Shiite scholars, along with Christian clergy and Jewish rabbis, including our friend, Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center.”
He said the document “calls for pluralism, which ‘unequivocally rejects’ compelled religious observance, and condemns acts of violence, abuse and incitement in the name of religion. For national leaders like myself, the declaration makes it clear that ‘it is the responsibility of governments to respect and protect equally both religious minorities and majorities,’ and that there is no room for religious discrimination of any kind.”
“We welcome our Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical church communities. We are proud that our Hindu nationals can worship in a 200-year-old temple complete with their images, just around the corner from the Sikh temple and the mosques.
“We celebrate our small — but precious — Jewish community, who feel free to wear their yarmulke and worship in their own synagogue, which, we are informed, is the only one in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, our Jewish community plays a very active role at the highest levels of society, including an ambassador from Bahrain to Washington in 2008, the first Jewish diplomat to the United States from an Arab country. We wanted to protect our religious pluralism for future generations, so we have enshrined this in law, which guarantees everyone the right to worship unhindered in safety and to build their houses of worship.
“Our noble ancestors began this Bahraini tradition of churches, synagogues and temples being built next to our mosques, so there is no ignorance about others’ religious rites or practices. We all live together in peaceful coexistence in the spirit of mutual respect and love, and we believe it is our duty to share this with the world,” the king wrote. — Al Arabiya English
Now, I've never been to Bahrain and have no idea if all this is true or not, but it would seem to be an "easily verifiable" statement. Perhaps it is a bit of propaganda as well. If so, then Bahrain isn't doing anything other than what most other countries in the world do: talk up the good, spin the bad.
But what really grabbed my attention was that this whole article, which specifically mentions Sunni, Shia, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy, as well as Sikhism and Hinduism, was carried by - draw a deep breath and take a healthy swig of coffee - the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper/magazine/online service published in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Propaganda, to be sure, but if so, risky propaganda at that, for eventually, it is bound to percolate back into the kingdom, where it will be read by at least the Shia population in its eastern provinces.
And that might mean - in a sort of "barely hanging by a slim strand of a spider's thread - that this is presaging some long term plans for some real changes in the domestic policies of the kingdom. Everything else the Saudis have done lately is certainly pointing in the direction that Riyadh is doing some very long-term geopolitical thinking, and that surely includes some long-term reflection on domestic policy as well.
Granted, this is all over-the-top high octane speculation. Time will tell. But I suspect in fact that King Hamad might be being used as the front man to float a trial balloon, and if so, then the next few decades might bring some drastic changes to the region, because one thing seems clear: the Saudis do not intend to be left behind, or simply reactive to surrounding events.
See you on the flip side...