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With friends like these

"With friends like these" Continued...

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

Why the designation this year? Mr. Bashir said pressure from his own commission and from Congress began building when State dawdled on announcing this year's worst persecutors. Eighteen months had lapsed since officials made the last designations. For the State Department, says Mr. Bashir, examining terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in May and November last year also have been eye-opening. As the two countries cooperate in the war on terror, U.S. officials are seeing firsthand the extent to which Saudi Arabia both encourages and exports extremist Islam. And ultimately, in a post-9/11 world, the U.S. diplomats could no longer ignore the nexus between radical Islam and terrorism.

But the United States also softened its rebuke against its largest Middle East ally by noting some reforms. Authorities have continued their National Dialogue with Muslims of all stripes, which includes men and women, and fired imams who preach violence. The Middle East Media Research Institute found a report 11 days after the State Department's citation that Saudi authorities are planning new training for the religious police in English, psychology, and how to handle the public. But without major reforms, no one expects sensitivity training to improve religious tolerance.

By law, the State Department has between 90 and 180 days to determine what measures to take against the eight religious-freedom violators it named (the other seven are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Vietnam). Sanctions against the Saudis, however, are unlikely, says Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

"They have been resisting for quite a while labeling them a country of particular concern," he said. "My guess is that the U.S. will think putting them on the list will be enough and wait to see how that works." Nor in the short term does Mr. Marshall see the Saudis implementing reforms that would annoy their most virulent Wahhabi clergy. After the designation, Saudi officials went out of their way to condemn themselves with their defense. The chief of the kingdom's religious police said non-Muslims may worship as much as they wish but must keep it private: "We will not allow them to publicly practice their religion in this country," he said.

Nonetheless, USCIRF will want the United States to ratchet up the pressure immediately. Among their policy recommendations, commissioners want U.S. officials to push for dissolving the Mutawwa'in, allowing in clergy of other religions, and releasing prisoners detained for religious violations. That may read like a wish list, but for longtime religious-freedom advocates, coming this far after U.S. silence on Saudi violations still seems like a dream.

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