The cards looked innocuous enough. Their heading was bland and uninformative: “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia/Royal Saudi Air Forces/Prince Sultan Air Base/ReligionDepartment/Communities Section.” Then followed a listing of Web sites, including Islamtoday.com and discoverislam.com. Islamtoday.com describes itself as “a forum to call people to Allah”; Discoverislam.com offers a series of posters that “communicate the beauty of Islam, and yet are gentle enough to sway any heart, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.”
These wallet-size cards were given out at a Saudi “Cultural Fair,” where visitors could also pick up free copies of the Koran and browse displays on Islam. But a “Cultural Fair” is one thing, and a United States Air Force Security Forces headquarters is another. According to Bill Tierney, a former military intelligence officerandUNSCOM inspector, a Muslim interpreter who worked at Air Force headquarters at Prince Sultan Air Base went to the fair, took a few hundred of the cards and put them on his desk, inviting all and sundry to take one.
Mr. Tierney also worked as a liaison officer at King Khalid Military City in the run-up to the first Gulf War. To show its gratitude to American military personnel there, the Saudi government gave each a gift: a handsome,exquisitely-bound Koran.
Touching, but illegal — just as the interpreter’s making the cards available was illegal. A general order for American personnel in Saudi Arabia strictly prohibits “proselytizing of any religion, faith or practice.” Evidently, when it comes to our friend and ally Saudi Arabia and the Islamic faith, this prohibition is not absolute.
A clue as to why comes from the explanatory heading to this general order: “Current operations” place American military personnel in “countries where Islamic law and Arabic customs prohibit or restrict certain activities which are generally permissible in Western societies. Restrictions upon these activities are essential to preserving U.S.-host nation relations and combined operations of the United States and friendly forces.” Pornography, gambling and alcohol are also restricted, as well as “adopting as pets or mascots, caring for, or feeding any type of domestic or wild animal.” That may stem from the Prophet Muhammad’s statements that the presence of dogs annulled prayers and drove away angels.
Clearly, then, the proselytizing ban was put in place to please the Saudis — not out ofsomeconcernfor church/state issues. But while a single evangelistic tract could imperil the entire U.S.-Saudi alliance, it causes no discomfort to the Saudis to allow them to proselytize in the other direction. American officials’ eagerness to look the other way was evidently not dampened by the possibility that the Saudis might be inculcating a singularly violent version of Islam.
Although most material designed to spread Islam soft-pedals more violent aspects of Islamic tradition, at the Islamtoday.com Web site an article declares with unusual forthrightness that “the specific meaning of jihad is the military engagement of the unbeliever and those who carry the same legal status as the unbeliever.” Could America’s most famous recent convert to Islam, John Walker Lindh, have put it any better? According to Mr. Tierney, the owner of Islamtoday.com, Sheikh Salman bin Fahd Al-Oadah, was “arrested by the Interior Ministry in 1994 for his radical preaching,” but was “released in 1999 without cause or comment”; today, he “enjoys the protection of Prince Nayef’s ministry.” Prince Nayef is one of the leading figures in the Saudi government.
It is, of course, bitterly ironic that all non-Muslim religious activities are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, and that American military personnel have been forced to abide by those restrictions. But the recent allegations of espionage at Guantanamo Bay are only a hint of just how risky the military’s stance toward Saudi Arabia and Islam in general really is. Since September 11, the military has been nothing if not eager to present a welcoming face to Muslims. Eager enough to turn a blind eye to possible connections to terrorism? Certainly, the revelation that the Defense Department was seeking approval for Muslim chaplains from two organizations that are now under investigation for funding terrorism was no cause for reassurance.
Professor Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky recently remarked that “the military really has taken the lead in being sensitive to Muslims and accommodating Muslim lifestyle.” Let us hope that the hearings to be held beginning today by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, on the prevalence of radical Muslim infiltration in our military and elsewhere will trim some of the most dangerous excesses of this sensitivity.
Robert Spencer is an adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation.