A lack of choices

Steven Harbaugh

Saudi Arabia: one religion for all

Seventeen million people. One religion.

Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, and law requires that all citizens be Muslim.

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without legal protection for religious freedom.

The government restricts freedom of speech and association, and the media uses self-censorship regarding issues related to religion and how it is portrayed.

In Saudi Arabia, professors and students at universities pray about five times a day. A signal or siren is sounded that alerts citizens that the time has arrived to pray. During this time, people go to pray at a set location and then after a few minutes, return to their daily routines.

“It was just different for someone who has never seen it,” said mathematics professor Richard Varga, who gave six guest lectures on mathematical research in Saudi Arabia at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in 1997. “In my travels around the world, this is the first time I ever saw men so tenacious about religion. The men are very, very devout. I’ve never seen such dedication in my life.”

Varga’s wife, an organist at a Methodist church, opted not to go because of the way the society treats women.

Women are rarely seen, and they are not allowed to attend college or drive cars, Varga noted. On the trip he was invited to have coffee at a Saudi man’s house, but before he was allowed to enter, the doors were closed to separate the women and children. Varga said he found it very different from American culture that Saudi women are never seen or even introduced to friends.

The way the society regards spirituality and death is also different. Varga recounted a story of a father learning his son had drowned. Afterwards, his father said it was the “will of Allah that took him,” regarding death as a part of the process rather than something to grieve and bemoan oneself about.

While serving in Operation: Desert Storm, former soldier Alex Vernon, currently an English professor at Hendrix College, was secluded entirely from Saudi society.

The army made a point to prevent the soldiers from coming into contact with Saudi civilians, only ever passing them on the roadside as they drove by in tanks.

This segregation made it difficult for Vernon to internalize cultural differences between Saudis and Americans. Vernon later wrote his own autobiographical memoir of his experience in the book The Eyes of Orion published by Kent State University Press.

While serving in the country, a chaplain would hold a weekly service for the armed services personnel, as well as other separate private services. So, because of the pocket of Americanized freedom of religion, Vernon rarely saw the stringent religious monarchy outside the borders of the armed services.

Vernon said the only briefing given to the army about the differences of the culture were simplistic rules of thumb like not to shake hands with your right hand because it is an impolite gesture.

In Saudi Arabia, all religions are banned except for Islam and conversions to another religion are punishable by death under sharia law.

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].