When I was in fifth grade at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, our teacher had us make paper snowflakes as an art assignment. Brimming with excitement, we all folded up our pieces of paper, cut into them, opened them up, used glue and glitter to decorate them, and labeled them with our names. They would be displayed on the bulletin board in the hall, after which we'd get to take them home to show our parents.
Unfortunately, that was the day that an officer from the Saudi Ministry of Education was visiting the school for a routine inspection. He saw our snowflakes on the bulletin board, slightly frowning, and turned around to briefly speak to our teacher, who at his request handed him a pair of scissors. He then proceeded to snip one of the six points off each of the paper snowflakes, leaving the disfigured, asymmetrical five-pointed figures on the board, not even bothering to pick up the amputated scraps of paper that had fallen to the floor.
At the time, the school consisted of about 2,000 students, exclusively children belonging to expatriate families of over 80 nationalities, mostly American and Canadian. Saudis were not allowed by law to attend the school -- more or less consistent with the generally minimal interaction that foreigners had with the native people. Consequently, our familiarity with local Saudi culture and customs was limited.
Needless to say, we were confused about what we had seen, and I didn't envy my teacher, who now had to struggle to answer our questions.
What was wrong with a six-pointed paper snowflake? What was the Star of David, and what was so bad about it? Aside from the trauma of having my creativity mauled, I had been given my first introduction to the Jews -- and that it wasn't a very good thing to be according to the Saudi government.
I'm pretty certain that many of us went home that day to ask our parents about the Jews and what they were all about. My father, a geography and history whiz, asked me to get my inflatable plastic globe of the world, and pulled out an atlas to show me Israel. He didn't seem surprised that Israel didn't appear on either map. Both items, which had been bought in Riyadh, showed Israel as a blue, nameless notch in the Middle East, a part of the Mediterranean Sea. As a 10-year-old who was suddenly coming across all of this in one day, I remember secretly wondering what was so horrible about these people.
I was traumatized significantly enough by this to be able to remember it vividly today, over two decades later. In retrospect, I think it took away some of my innocence. Until that point, I hadn't been exposed to the idea that for some people, being good or bad often means something beyond actions and deeds; it can actually be based on where you're from or what your parents happen to believe.
My trauma, however, has to be placed in context in a country like Saudi Arabia. It is virtually insignificant compared to that of the eight-year-old girl whose marriage to a 47-year-old man was upheld for the second time last week by a Saudi court. Child marriages were fairly common in the country while my family was living there, and still are -- in this case, it just happened to make international news, which has now prompted the country's justice minister to move towards "regulating" them. Although we still don't know what that means, it's certainly a step beyond the attitude of acceptance and resignation that most people have adopted towards the Saudi cultural status quo.
After we left Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at how little the rest of the world really knows about the country. Most recently, this was evidenced by the international outrage sparked in response to the now infamous video of a 17-year-old girl being flogged in public at the hands of the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley.
The practice of flogging both women and men as punishment has long been -- and still is -- routine, legal practice in Saudi Arabia. Last month, a 75-year-old woman Khamisa Sawadi was sentenced to 40 lashes, imprisonment, and deportation for simply being in the company of two unrelated men, one of whom was aged 24. Shortly prior to that, a 23-year-old woman was sentenced to 100 lashes and a year's imprisonment for trying to abort a fetus that was conceived as a result of her being kidnapped and assaulted by five men. These sentences, among others, are being doled out regularly despite the international furor over the case of a 19-year-old gang-rape victim who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months' imprisonment in 2007 by Saudi Arabia's Higher Judicial Council.
As horrific as the flogging video from Swat is, there is a gross discordance between the world's reaction to it and the relatively milder reaction to the same abuses being carried out as legal, state-sanctioned punishment in Saudi Arabia, a country that remains one of the United States' staunchest allies.
Until recently, most people I met in the United States weren't aware that Saudi Arabia still doesn't allow women to drive, or that public beheadings are still carried out at "Chop-Chop Square" for crimes ranging from alcohol consumption to pornography to murder. When a beheading is about to occur and a crowd gathers, Westerners who may be present in the area are often pushed to the front for a closer view. Limb amputation for offenses such as shoplifting are also carried out frequently in public squares.
When I was in eighth grade, I also witnessed the imprisonment and deportation of a Sri Lankan-English classmate and his family for having converted their small powder room into a shrine with statues of Buddha in it. Saudi Arabia's dismal record on religious freedom is well known. There are no temples or churches allowed in the country. Crosses and other non-Muslim symbols cannot be worn in public, and as recently as March 1, 2004, an official government website stated unequivocally that Jews were forbidden from entering the country.
Shia Muslim families such as my own faced state-sanctioned social and economic discrimination, and despite the government's claims to the outside world that non-Muslims are allowed religious freedom in the privacy of their homes, these homes are still frequently raided -- as in the case of my Buddhist friend -- just as Jews are still forbidden in the country well after that March 1 statement was taken down.
At Christmas time, flyers and posters are put up warning the public not to wish their Christian friends a Merry Christmas. Last year, all things red, including roses, were banned during the Valentine's Day season for fear of "encouraging immoral relations" between unmarried men and women.
The strict Saudi version of Wahhabist/Salaafi Islam was exported to Pakistan and Afghanistan via madrassahs and mosques soon after Saudi Arabia began rolling in oil money in the 1970s. The contribution of United States to this radicalization is well-documented. This was at the time when the Mujahideen (meaning those who wage jihad) were fighting the Soviets, and religion-fueled jihadism against the godless Communists was in America's national interest.
That is when Ronald Reagan bowed to the Saudi king. And as bizarre as Barack Obama's bowing to King Abdullah is, it certainly isn't unique for any US president.
George Bush Sr.'s close relationship with the Saudis is widely acknowledged, and pictures of his son George W. kissing and holding hands with Abdullah made headlines for weeks when they surfaced.
Most of all -- as many have pointed out -- we all bow to the Saudis every time we fill our vehicles with gas.
Hardly a week goes by where I don't hear someone complaining about America's bipartisan, unconditional support for Israel, and this message seems to have gotten across. The US is showing some signs of "getting tough" with Israel, specially now with Likud at the helm.
But where are the calls for getting tough with Saudi Arabia, that "other" country that has now enjoyed virtually unconditional, bipartisan support from the United States for decades?
Aside from being a country that stands out for its egregious human rights abuses against women, minorities, children, and non-Muslims, the state is the most relevant and prominent exporter of Islamist ideology in existence. As we know, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen -- not a disenfranchised, poor one -- but a member of one of the country's wealthiest and most respected families, which owns the Bin Ladin Group, a multinational construction conglomerate founded by his father in the 1950s. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were also Saudi citizens -- again, mostly from educated, well-off families.
In the American media, Saudi Arabia has largely been portrayed as a "moderate" state when in reality, it is more closely analogous to a Taliban-style country with lots of money. On the other hand, secular dictatorships like Iraq -- where Saddam's right-hand man Tareq Aziz was a Catholic -- were portrayed as extremist states.
Symbolism can be telling, as the Education Minister made clear in his desecration of our six-pointed paper snowflakes. This is why -- as Americans continue to maintain their warm alliance with Saudi Arabia -- they should take another look at the Saudi flag if they ever come across pages like this from the Saudi Ministry of Education website proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace, or when they hear King Abdullah say the same:
Underneath that statement...is a sword.
Think about what this means, and why the Saudis chose to place it under the Islamic declaration of belief (the Shahada) on their national flag.
Think about what values the secular West shares with Saudi Arabia.
Think about the fact that the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were all the products of indigenous and exported Saudi Islamist ideology and support.
And then, ask yourself why American presidents -- whether it's Barack Obama or George W. Bush -- continue to hold hands with or bow to the Saudi king, and what it really means when you put those "Support Our Troops" stickers on your gas-guzzling SUV.