U.S. and other Western forces deployed in Saudi Arabia, in vast array, in major part to defend the kingdom, have been under strict instructions not to display any sign of their religions because, the Saudis assert, this would be an affront to Islam. That is simply untrue.
Intolerance of other religions reflects Saudi custom, not Islamic practice. The Wahabi sect, which is dominant in Saudi Arabia, even considers many non-Wahabi Muslims to be infidels.
In fact, the teachings of Islam provide specifically for the other so-called Peoples of the Book--meaning the Jews and the Christians--to whom God has revealed himself through his messengers and the holy books, the Old and New Testaments. By injunction, all these peoples are to be given the protection of the Islamic community. Within certain rules and regulations, Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands are free to practice their faith without fear.
The Prophet Mohammed made a point of saying that he did not come to eliminate the other monotheist religions but rather to complement them. The Koran accepts and venerates all of the Old Testament prophets, and it holds in special esteem both Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, calling her “the spiritually most beautiful person in this world and in the hereafter.”
Clear testament to this tradition can be found in the existence of Christian and Jewish communities, with their places of worship, throughout Muslim lands. No doubt, not all Muslim governments have always been as observant of the rights of their non-Muslim peoples as the Koran prescribes. But that fact does not lessen the validity of those rights.
Recent tensions between many Muslims and many Christians and Jews have stemmed not from the nature and character of any of the religions but from the politics of the Middle East.
It is important for the future of U.S.-Muslim relations that these facts become known and that Saudi customs should not be equated with Islamic rules. But it is more than simple politics.
At this time when Christians and Jews are celebrating important festivals, while many of them are serving in the armed forces in the Persian Gulf, religious tolerance and understanding is critical. Otherwise, the current crisis could drive apart peoples who otherwise have a common purpose in combating aggression, instead of bringing them closer together in pursuit of a moral purpose that, as People of the Book, they all share.