by Thomas W. Lippman

Imagine hearing news that North Korea was planning to organize an international conference on criminal justice reform, or being invited by Cuba to a conference promoting political freedom. The likely reaction would be incredulity, followed by laughter. Well, those conferences are imaginary, but here’s a real one: a “Global Conference on Human Rights,” sponsored by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia? That absolute monarchy where political parties and labor unions are prohibited, religions other than Islam are forbidden, women are second-class citizens, and human rights activists are routinely locked up?

Yes indeed, unlikely as it may seem. Saudi Arabia’s official Human Rights Commission, a government organization, and the Gulf Research Center, a think tank, have announced that they will organize a three-day international rights conference, to be held in Riyadh in December, “under the patronage” of King Abdullah. The announcement says the event “will gather together Heads of States and representatives of national ministries, members of Parliaments, international, regional, and inter-governmental organizations, religious scholars, academics, national Human Rights Commissions, and NGOs.”

Given Saudi Arabia’s unsavory reputation on this subject—it is routinely denounced in the State Department’s annual human rights report and by activist groups such as Human Rights Watch—Riyadh might seem to be an unlikely venue for such an event. But the key to understanding the rationale for this conference lies in the announced theme: “Promoting a Culture of Tolerance.” This is not about individuals’ freedom of expression, or the status of women, or freedom of assembly. This is about the Islamic State, or ISIS.

According to the announcement, “The objectives of the conference are to consolidate efforts to promote and protect human rights with a special focus on the promotion of a culture of peace, tolerance, dialogue and mutual understanding among people at the national, regional and global levels…Given the ever growing increase in cases of intolerance, discrimination, social exclusion and acts of violence including those motivated by religious and political extremism, this conference seeks to provide recommendations to be implemented by at the policy level.”

That language is entirely consistent with the ideological position Saudi Arabia has sought to stake out as the threat from the Islamic extremist group has spread across neighboring Iraq and in Syria. The Saudis, who find their position as the worldwide leaders of Sunni Islam challenged by ISIS’s proclamation of itself as a “caliphate,” or trans-national Muslim state, are preaching that the ISIS message is a perversion of Islam, unjustified by religious texts or by history, and that its ruthless violence contravenes the principles of the faith.

Last month, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the country, said ISIS and its ideological parent al-Qaeda, were “enemy number one of Islam,” not representatives of the faith. “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims,” he said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. King Abdullah and other senior princes of the ruling al-Saud family have issued similar statements. Earlier this year the government made it a crime for Saudi citizens to support ISIS or to go to Iraq or Syria to join the group’s military ranks.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni state that adheres to the most rigid form of the religion, known to outsiders as Wahhabism, and enshrines religion as a cornerstone of national policy. All citizens must be Muslims. In the last two decades of the 20th century, the kingdom spent billions of dollars of its oil wealth to promote that version of Islam across the Arab world, in Africa and Asia, and even in the Americas. But the rulers got a rude awakening in 2003 when al-Qaeda, denouncing them as corrupt agents of the West, began an armed uprising inside Saudi Arabia. It took the Saudis more than three years, punctuated by gunfire in the streets, to suppress that challenge.

Since then, they have been preaching a modified version of Islam that might be described as softer at the edges: the rules of personal and social behavior remain strict, as dictated in the Koran, but the religion favors tolerance, understanding, and non-violence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has published a “Platform of Moderation,” which declares that “beneficial knowledge and good deeds are the key to happiness and the basis of Deliverance.” King Abdullah even promoted an “Interfaith Dialogue” and allowed himself to be photographed with Pope Benedict XVI.

That is the context in which the agenda for the planned conference should be understood. Topics to be discussed include “national policies and strategies aiming to combat all forms of intolerance, discrimination, ethnic exclusiveness, and acts of violence based on religion or belief,” and establishment of an “international partnership for the promotion of a culture of tolerance, dialogue among civilizations, and combatting hatred.”

Saudi Arabia has never deserved to be included among the ranks of the world’s most oppressive regimes, as it is every year by Parade magazine. Life is restricted for women, and discrimination against the kingdom’s Shia majority is entrenched, but male Sunni citizens have far greater freedom than people in Cuba or North Korea. They are allowed to travel abroad, live where they like, take whatever jobs they find suitable, make money and keep it, interact with foreigners, have as many children as they want, attend any university they can get into, take their families to the amusement park or the beach, and—with some restrictions—surf the Internet. But those freedoms are granted by the regime, which can revoke them at any time for any reason, or for no reason. Public actions or statements that the authorities interpret as challenging the monarchy or promoting terrorism are likely to result in harsh punishment. Apostasy—a term that is interpreted broadly—is punishable by execution.

The announcement of the December rights conference makes no mention of any of Saudi Arabia’s domestic policies.

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