The American Department of State not long ago fulfilled a Congressional requirement and released its first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This is a gigantic work, covering 194 countries in over one thousand pages. It called on the labor of hundreds of individuals over a period of eighteen months.
Read the report and one thing stands out: the twenty-one states of the Middle East (plus the Palestinian Authority) - have no rival internationally when it comes to telling people how to pray and live.
Let's start right at the bottom of the heap: this region boasts the only state in the world - Saudi Arabia - that the report flat-out describes as a place where "Freedom of Religion does not exist." The report explains why: "Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims .... The Government prohibits the public practice of other religions." Does it! In late 1990, as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in Saudi Arabia to protect it against Iraq, President Bush visited the soldiers to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving with them. But: he planned to say grace before sitting down to a feast, so he had to eat that meal on a ship off the Saudi coast. A few weeks later, American troops could not attend Christmas services on Saudi soil but only "C-word morale services" held in unmarked tents or mess halls.
The Saudi authorities also insist on exactly the kind of Islam. They persecute their Shi'i population and permit only a specific kind of Sunni Islam. The report delicately, but also ominously explains: "Islamic practice generally is limited to that of the Wahabi order," the most narrow-minded in existence, and "Practices contrary to this interpretation...are discouraged."
The next worst countries are Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all described as places where the authorities "severely" restrict religious rights. Afghanistan is where a top military man says that some two-thousand year-old Buddhist statues must be destroyed because they "are not Islamic." In Iraq, it is the usual story of Stalinist repression: "the one-party Government controlled by Saddam Hussein has for decades conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, and protracted arbitrary detention against the religious leaders and adherents of the Shi'a Muslim population." Sudan is waging a horrendous war against its non-Muslim population, creating what is perhaps the worst humanitarian disaster anywhere in the world today.
One level less awful are Iran and Libya where the government merely "restricts" religious rights. In Iran, the main victims are the estimated third of a million Baha'is, with Sunni Muslims and others also feeling the brunt of the regime's wrath. In Libya, a more homogeneous country, beware to anyone who disagrees with Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi's eccentric ideas about religious devotion: "Islamic groups whose beliefs and practices are at variance with the state-approved teaching of Islam are banned."
Then follow the great bulk of states in the Middle East, characterized by two features: Islam as the official religion of state and a nominal freedom of religion. Egypt is typical in this regard: "religious practices that conflict with Islamic law are prohibited." Roughly the same situation obtains also in Algeria, Jordan, and Kuwait. In these and another ten states, Islam is privileged while other religions exist on sufferance.
Finally, the State Department's few words of praise go to an unlikely quintet: Tunisia, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, where the governments are said "generally" to respect religious rights.
Odder yet, only one policy gets a full endorsement, the Palestinian Authority, which "respects" religious rights without qualification. "There was no pattern of PA discrimination against and harassment of Christians," the report claims, thereby overlooking a vast pattern of discrimination and intimidation against the dwindling Christian minority, as well as such outrages as a Muslim attempt to take two rooms from the holiest church in Christendom to convert them into toilets.
These results prompt three conclusions. First, the whole concept of religious freedom remains alien to most Middle Eastern governments. Second, the State Department needs further to refine its methodology, for any report that finds Syria in the same category as Israel and needs some very basic rethinking. Third, its listing the PA as the finest practitioner of religious freedoms in the whole region shows again that no distortion of truth is too great in the effort to promote Arab-Israeli negotiations.