Grant Walliser
Grant Walliser

The great Saudi Arabian mosque hypocrisy

On the 25 July 2008, the Rosebank and Killarney Gazette published an article about the proposed building of a large mosque in the heart of residential Houghton. The building will house between 1 500 and 2 000 people in prayer and provide for the increasing need for places of worship for Houghton’s Muslim community.

Phase 2 of the project will apparently include an Islamic research centre, a resource library and a cultural and conference centre.

Phase 1, the mosque itself, will cost somewhere in the region of a whopping R52-million to complete and no figures are given for the costs of phase 2.

The fact that Houghton needs such a large mosque is perhaps an interesting indication of cultural integration in post-apartheid South Africa. The fact that mosques have been built in Melrose, Forest Town, Greenside and even Norwood, a predominantly Jewish area, is perhaps an even greater indication of this integration and a sign of the high level of South Africa’s religious tolerance and freedom.

The Houghton mosque will, of course, be located on some of Africa’s most expensive suburban real estate and some of Johannesburg’s most historical land. Since religious groups normally battle with funding, one wonders if it would not have been more cost effective and less intrusive to the residential nature of leafy Houghton to build the mosque on Louis Botha Avenue. It’s a hop and a skip away from Houghton where land costs a fraction of the price. The reason is that the price of the land, it turns out, is not really an issue.

That’s because, according to the article, the King Fahd Islamic Trust Centre, Saudi Arabia, is funding the entire project. That’s right, local South African Muslims do not have to foot the bill on this one; it’s a gift from the Saudi Kingdom. And the Saudis have not just extended their benevolence to us here in South Africa it would seem, but are doing the same around the globe.

A cursory search on the internet revealed this somewhat outdated but relevant posting on the website of the Saudi embassy in Washington DC:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz, has played a significant role in establishing a large number of Islamic Centers and Mosques all over the world. The latest statistics show that the Kingdom has set up, or contributed to the building of, a total of 210 Islamic Centers and 1 359 mosques worldwide, in addition to donating generously to another 1 569 such projects.

Among the most prominent European projects are the center in Geneva, which cost SR16 million (US$ 4.3 million); the grand mosque in Madrid, the largest Islamic complex in Europe with buildings housing cultural, educational and sports facilities; the mosque in London which was set up at a total cost of about SR43 million (US$ 11.5 million); the grand mosque in Brussels which was designed to accommodate 4 000 worshipers at a cost of about SR20 million (US$ 5.3 million); and the Islamic Center in Rome, also with a capacity for 4 000 worshipers, which was opened last year. There are also mosques in Zagreb and in Lisbon.

The Kingdom has sponsored mosques in many parts of the United States, including Maryland, Virginia and Ohio, as well as in Washington DC; also in Canada, Australia, and countries along the Pacific Rim, in addition to a total of twelve in Latin America. Saudi Arabia has also established four schools, including the Islamic Saudi Academy in Northern Virginia which opened in 1984, and the King Fahd Academy in London, set up in 1985. The other two are the recently-established King Fahd Academy in Moscow and the King Fahd Academy in Bonn which opened in 1995.

In addition, you can visit King Fahd’s own website and catch up with the mosque projects he is supporting through various trusts all over the world. There are numerous sites listed but overwhelmingly these are in Western democratic, predominantly Christian-majority countries including Latin America and a few in Africa. Presumably a major reason must be that the Muslim communities are smaller there and need the additional funding to build their places of worship from areas where Islam is stronger and better funded like the Saudi Kingdom.

Now possibly the Saudi’s are just a giving nation, concerned about the spiritual well being of our local Muslim community here in Houghton. They could be funding this mosque with the philanthropic dual purposes of investing money into a developing country that needs it badly while simultaneously supporting the needs of like-minded religious folk in our land. For that they could rightly feel proud. South Africa embraces freedoms of all kinds, including religion, and the Saudis are possibly keen to be a part of that vibrant mix and add a dab of their own flavour. The mosque will create, or at least sustain, existing jobs in the building industry and stimulate the local economy with a nice tidy injection of cash.

All of this is really just local news and largely of little interest at face value until you perform an internet search for reciprocal churches or temples being funded and built in Saudi Arabia.

You will discover that there are no churches in Saudi Arabia at all.

It is forbidden to build them. The closest that anyone has come to convincing the Saudis to relax this rigid intolerance seems to be the other great and powerful religious cartel of soul-savers: the Roman Catholic Church.

In this Time Magazine article published in March of this year, it is asserted that negotiation are finally underway to discuss the possible building of the first Catholic church for the more than 800 000 migrant Catholic labourers working in the kingdom. No conclusive agreement appears to have been reached as yet and at present Catholics or any other followers of any other religion besides Islam have no religious rights of public worship at all. Remember, the Saudi’s had already built a mosque to house 4 000 worshippers in Rome by 1995.

To be frank, that’s a tad hypocritical.

Had the Saudi’s openly allowed the other religions of the world to operate within their borders, their own reciprocal Islamic expansion could be viewed as both their right and part of a global freedom to practise the religion of your choice in the country of your choice. Nobody could really complain about that and I doubt that anyone would.
It would signal understanding, tolerance and progress.

The Saudi Kingdom is, however, pumping millions of its petro-dollars into a massive and vastly expensive expansion of Islam across the largely Christian, secular and religiously tolerant parts of the globe while steadfastly they are banning the same in their own theocratic country. This seems to point not only to a steady and relentless expansionist strategy for their religion and its associated philosophies and cultures, but also to a need for ultimate global representation of sorts and it seems the focus is largely on areas where they are poorly represented.

The spirit of the Saudi foundation’s programme is, therefore, unclear. In simple terms, the Saudis are putting their dirty shoes up on our coffee table while outlawing such exact behaviour in their own homes. They are abusing the freedoms and religious hospitality extended by others while extending none of their own. That’s a dubious and selfish double standard and indicates a probable deeper agenda that goes beyond simply helping us out with a couple of bucks.

In the business world, this would possibly be called the laudable exploitation of a gap in the market. Religious entrepreneurship and investment for future gain if you like. An Islamic multinational footprint is being created across the globe.

Even in the ruthless world of business, however, there are rules. Global free trade agreements require all parties to relax their internal laws and agree on a common set of principles. They don’t work out if only one side complies while the other exploits the conditions created by the new freedoms and access to new markets. Why should the global trade in the minds (or souls if you insist) of people be any different? First level the playing fields and then let the indoctrination games begin.

Of course this exploitation of a gap in the market could be seen as a good thing, especially if you are a fan of Islam or subscribe to the idea that the world needs more religion to make it a better place. Anyone who has read a smattering of history might be quite well equipped to argue that it needs less; but that is off the point. The most proactive religion is filling that gap and meeting the needs of the people. Islam has adapted and is staking its claim.

The Christians, over the centuries, never made any pretence about their desire for religious world domination, galloping off far and wide to convert people, often by brutal force instead of harmless funding, so why should the Muslims do so?

Well for one, there is that huge Mosque in Rome so it would seem that even the once ruthless Catholics have become tolerant over the centuries and are quite rightly asking for some reciprocal relaxation in Saudi Arabia, a country where getting caught with multiple bibles in one’s possession is a serious crime.

Of course, the fact that systematic and aggressive religious expansionism of all types and across all faiths and time has historically caused predominantly division, war, grief and suffering may be the most relevant observation of all pertaining to this little local story of the mosque in Houghton; but lets leave that for another debate at another time …