05/14/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Racing Backwards Into the Future: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have made significant headway in the rapid development of their countries in many areas. In recent years, the Saudis have launched a series of reforms including some religious reforms to reining in religious militants and preachers And King Abdullah has joined other government leaders like those of Morocco, Turkey and Jordan in promoting inter-religious dialogue internationally, including the opening of a center for interfaith dialogue in Austria.

Kuwait, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, has been seen as a somewhat more open and liberalizing country politically, socially and religiously, including in contrast to Saudi Arabia permitting the building of churches. Regrettably, recent religious decisions in both countries are unfortunate reminders about the hurdles and pitfalls in the implementation of religious reform.

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh issued the fatwa, or Muslim religious decree, on March 11, that further church building should be banned and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed in the Arabian Peninsula. The fatwa was in response to a Kuwaiti legislator query if under Islam the government of Kuwait could ban church construction in the country.

In contrast, overlooked are the opinions of scholars like Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 1449), the prominent Shafii scholar, in his Fath al-Bari reports that the majority of Muslim scholars held that the only part of the Arabian Peninsula that non-Muslims (even polytheists, as mentioned in the Prophetic hadith used as the basis for this ruling) are not allowed to be in is Mecca, Medina and Yamama -- an area that essentially covers the southern Hijaz. Prominent members of another Sunni school of law, the Hanafis, held that non-Muslims are allowed everywhere but the Haram area of Mecca itself, while the great eighth-century Muslim scholar Malik said they can even enter the Haram for trade (Fath al-Bari, ed. Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz, 6:210).

The Saudi government has remained silent as has the government-controlled media and indeed many Western media outlets. The Vatican and Catholic and Protestant bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia have expectedly and understandingly sharply criticized the fatwa.

Kuwait, another strong ally of the United States and a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council is poised to move down a similar slippery religious slope. Kuwait's Parliament approved last week severe new penalties for blasphemy: to impose the death penalty on Muslims who refuse to repent after being found to have insulted God, the Prophet Mohammad, his wives or the Quran. For non-Muslims, the punishment would be up to 10 years in prison; for Muslims who repent, the punishment would be up to five years or a fine. The Emir of Kuwait has 30 days to approve these penalties before they would become law.

Among its first critics was Leonard Leo, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who called for their rejection: "These penalties are alarming and contrary to international human rights standards ... because they jeopardize the lives of individuals that exercise their internationally-guaranteed freedoms of religion and expression."

Many will see these worrisome developments against a background of conflicts and killings from Africa to Southeast Asia. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions have flared up not only in Egypt and Malaysia but also in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. A significant minority of hard-line ultraconservative and militant Muslims -- like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism -- are not pluralistic, but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even fellow believers with whom they disagree. These myopic religious world views can turn ugly and violent.

Ironically, Muslim reformers (religious leaders and scholars across the Muslim world) have addressed the issues of Islamic reform and in particular pluralism, religious freedom and blasphemy laws.

Their efforts and voices are often drowned out by both the ultraconservative many religious leaders and the actions of violent extremists. Initiatives like the Amman Message and A Common Word, as well as coverage of reformist thinking, are invisible in much of the Western media. The Saudi fatwa is a case in point. Perhaps the strongest denunciations of the Saudi fatwa by Turkey's top religious leader went unnoticed despite the fact that he blasted the Grand Mufti's fatwa as in total contradiction to the teachings of Islam.

Mehmet Görmez, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, sharply criticized the fatwa as contrary to centuries-old Islamic teachings of tolerance and the sanctity of institutions belonging to other religions. He emphasized that "The opinion of the grand mufti also obviously contradicts the agreements that the Prophet of Islam signed with the non-Muslim communities both in Medina and in the region. It also plainly overlooks the right of immunity given by Islam to the holy shrines and temples of other religions on the basis of the rule of law throughout its history."
Görmez underscored the negative impact of the fatwa: "We strongly believe that this declaration has left dark shadows upon the concept of rights and freedoms in Islam that have always been observed on the basis of its sources, and it will not be recorded as an opinion of Islam." He also added, "We, therefore, entirely reject the aforementioned opinion and hope that it will be amended as soon as possible."

The plight of Christians and other minorities in some Muslim countries in the face of a significant and dangerous minority of religious extremists and the failures of political and religious leaders threatens both the safety and security of religious minorities and the very fabric of Muslim societies. Mainstream Muslim religious and political leaders and the media need to not only condemn religious extremism and terrorism, as many have done nationally and internationally, but also speak out against those religious leaders and others who continue to advocate religious exclusivist theologies or doctrines and their implementation in law and society.