Of all the criticism Donald Trump has taken in recent weeks for making provocative statements, the most interesting was uttered by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. Following Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, the Prince, a member of the Saudi royal family, said of the Republican presidential candidate, “You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.”
Hearing that message from Prince Alwaleed is like the pot calling the kettle black. If intolerance to other religions is the criteria for a disgraceful policy, he ought to direct equal attention to his own government’s long-standing positions. Is it necessary for the “custodian of Islam” — by virtue of Saudi Arabia being the location of the Haj — to prohibit the practice of all other religions? Is it right that barriers to citizenship and even entry into the Kingdom can be enforced on the basis of religion?
Most Americans side with the Prince in affirming that the U.S. — founded by people seeking religious freedom and established under the principles enshrined in the First Amendment — must grant Muslims equal protection under the law, and that banning Muslims strictly on the basis of their faith is un-American.
But imagine how much more powerful Prince Alwaleed’s statement would be if he championed changes back home. There is no tension between being one of the leaders of the Muslim world and creating an open society where people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome. Indeed, such policies would demonstrate to the world that those who characterize Islam in negative terms are wrong.
But why stop there? Saudi Arabia hardly is the only country guilty of discrimination in the Muslim world. It wasn’t such a long time ago that sizable Jewish and Christian communities lived alongside Muslim neighbors throughout the Arab world.
Where once there existed flourishing communities dating back to biblical days, today only a few dozen Jews remain in Egypt, a handful in Iraq, perhaps a dozen in Syria and none in Jordan or Saudi Arabia. The situation is not quite that bleak for Christians, but the trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. The only country in the Middle East where the number of Christians is increasing is Israel.
Recently, Saudi Arabia has begun to think more expansively about its foreign policy. Earlier this year, a senior Saudi official met publicly on stage with an Israeli leader as part of a political forum. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has responded positively to Saudi efforts to revive its 2002 peace initiative intended to lead to an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. In recent days, we learned that Saudi Arabia organized and is leading a large group of Arab nations to take greater responsibility to address extremism in the region, and to send troops to fight ISIS.
This also would be a good time for Prince Alwaleed and all Saudis to look in the mirror and acknowledge that while a U.S. candidate has made a “disgraceful” statement, the Saudi government has enforced for decades a state policy equally based on prejudice and intolerance.
Few things could contribute more to a changed perception in the U.S. and the West than for one of the leading Muslim nations to acknowledge its own shortcomings and point the way forward not just for an Islamic state, but for the region as a whole. It would be a wonderful lesson for the entire world.