A new State Department report puts it bluntly: "Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims risk arrest, deportation and even torture for engaging in religious activities that attract official attention. (Details are on the Internet at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2004/35507.htm)
You have to wonder how many Saudis will bother to read this scathing indictment of their country. Or for that matter, whether they read much of anything at all.
During a visit to the kingdom two years ago, I was struck by how hard it was to find a book, a magazine or even a daily newspaper. Riyadh, the capital, has several huge shopping malls full of designer clothing and high-tech gadgetry. Yet I didn't see a single bookstore in a mall, as you do almost everywhere in America and Europe. About the only place to find a newspaper was in the supermarket, where the only people reading were Sri Lankans and other foreign workers eager to see what was happening back home.
A few Saudi commentators have noted that the Arab world has a dismal record when it comes to enlightenment by the printed word. Only 330 books a year are translated into Arabic, the language of 280-million people. Five times that many books are translated into Greek, spoken by just 12-million people.
The implications are clear: Too many Saudis and other Arabs don't know, or don't care, what's going on around them. At its extreme, this lack of intellectual curiosity is manifest in the madrasas, or religious schools, where impressionable young men spend hours memorizing the Koran and being indoctrinated with an intolerant interpretation of Islam.
The Saudi experience came back to me recently on another overseas trip, this time to the African nations of Kenya and Botswana. But there I was pleasantly surprised.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, both countries are democracies that allow freedom of religion. And _ is it cause or effect? _ both are nations that value reading.
In the business district of Nairobi, vendors on nearly every corner hawk a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. Kenya has several daily and weekly papers that do an admirable job of exposing public corruption and holding government officials accountable.
The biggest paper is the English-language Nation, printed in Nairobi but delivered the same day to locations throughout the country despite an abysmal road network. Joseph Olweny, the editorial manager, said Kenyans consider it a mark of distinction to carry a newspaper.
"If you see someone with the paper folded under his arm, that is a sign to others that he is an educated man," Olweny said. We talked in the Nation's big, modern newsroom, where every reporter has full access to the Internet (unlike Saudi Arabia, where the government blocks "objectionable" Web sites).
Botswana is a smaller country _ 1.8-million people to Kenya's 30-million _ but it has one daily newspaper plus several weeklies and a good selection of papers from neighboring South Africa.
Though there's little American-style muckraking, Botswana's media is aggressive enough to occasionally ruffle official feathers. I heard an interesting story from Dr. Kenneth Good, a professor at Botswana University, that spoke volumes about the difference between democracies like Botswana and autocracies like Saudi Arabia.
Botswanan President Festus Mogae has come under fire for perks he has given his vice president, including granting the man a year's sabbatical as soon as he was appointed to the job and letting him pilot a government helicopter.
A Botswanan newspaper, the Guardian, ran a front page story about the controversy, along with an illustration of a tiny Mogae with a giant vice president towering over him. Mogae reportedly was incensed by the implication that the veep, not the president, was really running the country.
Botswana "has a free press, but a really critical journalist and editor will quickly find themselves in trouble," Good says. "Immediately government ministries were told to put no ads in the Guardian and its revenues dropped like a brick."
Instead of meekly acquiescing in this blatant attempt to squelch criticism of the president, the Guardian took the case to court. And lo and behold, the justices ruled that such reporting was a perfectly proper function of an independent press and that the government should not have yanked its ads.
"It was a good day for democracy," Good recalls with pride.
You have to wonder if that phrase will ever be uttered in Saudi Arabia.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com