During the early 1980s I lived for a short while in Saudi Arabia. Early on I asked a couple who lived in my compound if there was any shot at going to Mass on Sunday. They looked quizzically at each other, then the husband told me that he “thought” there was a priest in the kingdom about a year before. No, there would be no Mass.
Although Americans frequently refer to our “friends” among the Saudis, not even the most oil-drenched politicians pretend that freedom, democracy, or a healthy attitude toward human rights even remotely exists in the kingdom. That in no way implies that Saudi Arabians are not a religious people. Quite the contrary. Overt tributes to Allah are on display everywhere and at all times, as is true throughout predominantly Muslim countries.
I was in-country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which the faithful fast from dawn to dusk, every day. The intermittent call to prayer can be heard country wide from ubiquitous minarets. I had to wait an extra 15 minutes once to get to a meeting in an office building because an imam was leading a prayer group in front of the elevator. Driving through the desert along a highway, one commonly sees truck drivers pulled off the road, kneeling on a prayer rug, facing Mecca.
Even their way of speaking reveals their theocentric culture. “Yes, yes, we will meet promptly at 9:00 tomorrow morning, Insh’allah” (spelling diverse using English letters), that is, God willing. “The water purification plant project will be completed on-time and within budget, Insh’allah.” World peace? Why not, if only God wills it.
The if-God-wills-it aspect of theocracies sounds almost quaint to multiculturalists. I mean, whatever happened to live and let live? Free and open dialog, even about religious matters, forces free and open people to challenge core beliefs, while allowing other folks to hold their own. No one gets hurt, everybody wins. But people do get hurt in closed societies and there are plenty of losers.
It was the implied closed philosophy of communism we abhorred in Vietnam. We couldn’t tolerate intolerance in political/economic thinking. We went to war. We lost. We have not yet as a nation shaken off the hangover. A whole generation of generals and congresspersons have chanted the mantra, “no more Vietnams,” as if to ignore that the seeds of our demise were sown right from the beginning of our ill-defined mission.
Jimmy Carter was soundly jeered when he said that the country was experiencing “malaise.” He was right. Despite being shouted down by the jingoists, slogans do not trump reality. Having lost the war in Vietnam, the nation was traumatized. Having been to war, veterans were, and so many still are, confused by “let’s make America great again” rhetoric. At the risk of being simple-minded myself, the sloganeering seems to be coming predominantly from fundamentalists. Would America really be a better place if we all belonged to the same party (pick one), if we all practiced the same religion (pick one), if we all hated the same ethic group (pick one.)?
Positive responses would sadly make us more like “them” than “us.” Pity.
Count me in the ranks against myopic political ideologues, against fundamentalist zealots, and against racism. I want to believe that most Americans, for the most part, are open-minded souls. The minority, no matter how small in actual numbers, lead many beyond our shores to brand us hypocrites.
We Americans are fully capable of leading by example. Let’s choose to do so without bigotry, bullyism, and chauvinism.