St. Thomas’ decision not to run an alumni profile in the business school’s magazine because the Saudi government could not be reached for comment is a familiar one. The decision drew comparisons to online comment boards in October 2007, when an invitation for Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at a campus event was pulled because of concerns it would offend the Jewish community.
Again, our school sided with a powerful minority over an internationally respected voice expressing concerns over the treatment of human beings.
According to the Associated Press, the university decided Ali Al-Ahmed’s alumni profile in B., the business school’s department magazine, would not be published in the upcoming issue.
Doug Hennes, university spokesman, said the decision was made out of journalistic fairness because the Saudi Embassy did not respond to e-mails and phone calls from the story’s author, and St. Thomas wouldn’t publish the story “without a chance to get both sides of the story in.”
Al-Ahmed’s profile reportedly included allegations of systematic human and religious rights violations in his home country, Saudi Arabia.
The story may never be published
It’s unclear what St. Thomas expects to hear from the Saudi Embassy. Many of Al-Ahmed’s past civil rights allegations condemn Saudi government sources such as education ministry textbooks and Saudi law.
Strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is the source of the Saudi legal code, and it applies to all people in Saudi Arabia, even visitors. There is little tolerance for any behavior deviating from it, especially concerning religious practice and the legal rights proscribed for women. Examples of this justice, such as stoning, crucifixion and beheading for the renunciation of the law, abound on the Internet.
Our school’s desire to hear the other side is not shared by the Saudi government. Reporters Without Borders ranked Saudi Arabia 161 out of 173 countries in the world on its 2008 press freedom index. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Saudi Arabia fifth on its list of worst places in the world to blog, citing the government’s aggressive online censorship of “anything contrary to the state or the system.”
Al-Ahmed is not the first Saudi journalist, blogger or human rights advocate to be censored, or to claim to have been held without charges by the Saudi government. No one should be surprised that the embassy declined comment on a dissident in exile.
Is the pope Catholic? Not if he’s in Saudi Arabia
The first visit between a pope and a Saudi monarch occurred at the Vatican in 2007. According to a Reuters report, “The Vatican [wanted] greater rights for the one million Catholics living in Saudi Arabia, most of them migrant workers who [were] not allowed to practice their religion in public.”
An estimated 100,000 Saudi Catholic children cannot receive catechism under Saudi law. In 2006, a Catholic priest was arrested in a private apartment and deported for performing a Wednesday Mass during Lent.
Any student studying abroad in Saudi Arabia are not be able to wear any object, perform any act or celebrate any holiday identifying them as a Christian, or a Jew, or of any religion other than Wahhabi Islam. Laws for women are especially restrictive by Western standards.
I understand that some of the Saudi students Dease attempts to recruit have St. Thomas ties and that the Saudi government sponsors sending students abroad to receive college education. I welcome them to St. Thomas with open arms and hope they enjoy their time in America. But I don’t think our school should be deferring an internal publication’s decisions to a theocratic absolute monarchy that confiscates Bibles.
A poor excuse for journalistic fairness
Publishing the article would have hurt no one, except maybe a foreign government that still persecutes Christians. The only things guiding St. Thomas officials’ moral compass should be Catholicism, American law and the needs of the archdiocese. St. Thomas should be promoting fair speech within modern Catholic teaching, all available information suggests that they were not.
St. Thomas should be sensitive to the needs of other religions. But St. Thomas apparently feared displeasing the Saudi Embassy so much that it wouldn’t take Al-Ahmed at his word, in his own profile. St. Thomas has no excuse for silencing people it should be in moral agreement with. Working toward a just and inclusive society is supposed to be a core conviction.
Zack Thielke can be reached at email@example.com