A Tale of Two Leaders: The Contrasting Messages of Pope Francis and King Salman

A Tale of Two Leaders: The Contrasting Messages of Pope Francis and King Salman October 1, 2015
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, photo user Catholic Church England
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, photo user Catholic Church England

By Ziyad Motala

Washington, D.C. played host to Pope Francis and the China’s Premier Xi Jinping last week. Commentators made comparisons of the symbolism and the lessons to be drawn from the visits of the contrasting leaders. But here is another comparison, perhaps more worthy of consideration.

A few weeks ago, the Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Washington D.C. The Pope is the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics. King Salman claims to be the “custodian of the holy mosques” visited by millions of Muslim (especially during the Hajj pilgrimage) and in the direction to which many of the 1.6 billion Muslims pray daily. Saudi Arabia is the heart and birth place of Islam.

The symbolism and substance is dramatic in its contrast of the best and worse — not in religion but in leadership. The optics speak for itself: Francis was driven around Washington in a small Fiat. Salman procured a fleet of luxury cars to ferry him and his entourage to the Four Seasons Hotel. The entire hotel was bought out for the duration of his visit. Red carpets were laid out throughout the hotel including the car park so the King would not touch the tarmac.

The hotel was outfitted with gold mirrors, gold tables, gold lamps and gold hat racks. The visit to Washington came in the wake of Salman’s visit to the French Riviera a few weeks before where the same profligacy was in full display.

Francis mingled and inspired the crowd. He was embraced for his common touch, humanity and moral authority. His message was one of humility, peace, rejection of abject materialism and profligacy, justice, redress of economic inequality, climate change and embrace of the downtrodden including the hundreds of thousands of refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim.

Most Muslims would say these are the values of Islam, which emphasize equality, justice, truth, charity, compassion, cooperation among nations, mutual consultation in the affairs of the community and a government that operates under the rule of law. The House of Saud cloak themselves in the cloth of religion. To what extent do they embody Islamic values?

The Pope conveyed the teachings of Jesus. He called on every Catholic parish to take in a refugee. To what extent do the Saudis exemplify the teachings of Prophet Mohammed? Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States has not provided refuge to a single Syrian refugee (though others would argue that they have brought in Syrians and others as indentured workers).

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, United States government work.
Sec. of State John Kerry greets King Salman. Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, United States government work.

Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the seminal treaties dealing with refugees. Giving protection to the persecuted lies at the heart of Islam. The first Islamic state, inaugurated by the Prophet Mohammed was actualized after the prophet and his companions took refuge in Madinah from the oppression of the tribes in Makkah. In Saudi practice, we find a surreal version of religion.

Whilst the Pope, in Joseph Stalin’s words has no military divisions, Francis spoke eloquently with moral authority for an end to war and human calamity. He urged an end to the supply of weapons to leaders that kill civilians. Saudi Arabia continues to bomb Yemen and bring incredible suffering to millions of civilians. It uses it largesse not in the service of the poor. Instead, it props up authoritarian leaders like Al-Sisi in Egypt to thwart freedom.

Francis called for the diminishing of unbridled materialism. The Saudi Royal family are notorious for ostentatiousness and their lavish lifestyles amidst a sea of poverty. They have transformed the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah into glitzy Las Vegas style mega hotels and malls on steroids largely affordable by only the rich. They reap super profits from the Hajj, which is increasingly beyond the financial reach of the poor.

Francis called for fair treatment of all human beings including immigrants. The Saudis are served by millions of foreign workers who subsist under brutal conditions akin to slavery. Women are treated as second class citizens. The system is riven with secrecy, corruption and sloth, favoring the elite, at the apex of which is the Royal family.

Members of the Royal family are notorious for their debauchery in foreign lands. Given the Saudi lack of transparency, the world might never know the actual number of deaths in this year’s Hajj stampede, or exactly why it happened (whether due to a convergence of pilgrims, heat or exits being blocked to accommodate a member of the Royal family).

Francis exhorted tolerance religious or otherwise. The Saudi rulers show scant religious or political tolerance. They promote Wahhabism, a strict (and in my opinion, narrow minded) interpretation of Islam. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS are offshoots that emerged from distorting an already hardline Wahhabi ideology. The ISIS practice of destroying ancient sites, because it is associated with idolatry, finds its roots in Saudi practice.

Pope Francis with moral clarity expressed concern about human behavior and it’s implications for human rights, poverty, refugees and a myriad other concerns affecting the powerless. We most certainly did not hear any words of inspiration from Salman on the pressing human rights issues confronting the world or benevolence towards the Syrian refugees.

The preeminent Saudi concern remains the security of the House of Saud, U.S. supply of arms, which they now use to bomb Yemen back to the Stone Age, and ensuring the global supply of oil, which funds the vast Royal family. Francis extoled the virtue of human dignity. Saudi Arabia has sentenced hundreds of people (including juveniles) and executes those who show dissension against the authoritarian leaders. I believe the Saudi leadership bends religion and distorts its precepts to justify their authoritarianism.

In a speech at West Point in 2014, President Obama spoke about leadership and seeing the world as it should be, where the aspiration of human beings are met. We did not hear Obama leaning on the monarch to take in Muslim refugees from Syria or Saudi human rights abuses, which plague the Muslim world and ultimately has repercussions for the international community. For short term gain, western leaders cannot continue the folly of embracing the Saudi leadership.

As much as many recoil at the bigoted and anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by the leaders of Hungary and Slovakia towards the Muslim refugees, or the offensive statements of several of the Republican nominees for President, the actions of the Saudi kingdom is worse. Its bigotry and lack of humanity knows no bounds.

Muslims in the West are constantly called upon to repudiate the savagery of extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and other terrorist formations. These groups are not representative of Islam. Nor are many of the political, social and religious practices of Saudi Arabia. The Pope delivered the message of Jesus and profoundly affected millions of people across religions and nations.

Does the “custodian of the holy mosques” represent the values of the Prophet Mohammed?

Ziyad Motala is a Professor of Law at Howard Law School in Washington, D.C. Click here to learn more about him.

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