Two Anabaptists Reflect on a Sojourn
in the Heartland of Islam
by Kathy Fisher and Al Keim
Kathy Fisher has spent much of
the last twenty years as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. She also
served with MCC in Egypt and has taught at Ohio State University.
In 2000 she married Al Keim who accompanied her to Saudi Arabia
for the 2000-2001 academic year. Keim retired recently, after
teaching American history at Eastern Mennonite University for
thirty-three years. He is also a past chair of the Historical
Committee of the Mennonite Church. Fisher and Keim now live in
We attended our first Christian service together in Saudi Arabia
at the American Embassy. A Presbyterian air force chaplain preached
the sermon. His message was entitled, "Why I Believe in
Infant Baptism." For Al, only three days in the kingdom,
it was a jarring reminder that he was in for some surprises.
I, Al's wife for only three weeks, was less upset. I had lived
in Saudi Arabia for most of the last twenty years and was aware
of the uniqueness of the place!
Al soon learned about the restrictive religious culture of Saudi
Arabia. Expatriate Christians meet for worship on Fridays at
various embassies, the only legal places for Christian worship.
Although there are many underground house groups, there are no
visible churches in Saudi Arabia. All religions other than Islam
are proscribed. Openly carrying a Bible on the street can get
you expelled from the kingdom on twenty-four hours' notice. Or
jailed. Or fined, if you are lucky.
Now that the Taliban have been routed, Saudi Arabia is almost
certainly the most intolerant and religiously reactionary kingdom
on earth. One cannot call it a nation; it really is a kingdom,
ruled by a feudal royal family whose possession of power is rooted
in oil and Islam. In terms of their hold on power, Islam is more
important than oil. Thus, the king's official title is "Protector
of the Two Holy Mosques."
The royal family governs, not by suffrage-there has never been
an election in Saudi Arabia-but by an arrangement with a group
of 200 imams who are the direct descendants of the great eighteenth-century
Arabian, the imam Wahhab. In about 1760 Wahhab entered into an
alliance with the Al Saud royal family, giving the Al Sauds the
right to govern as long as they were willing to promote and protect
his particularly rigid and austere form of Islam. This 250-year-old
compact is still in force today and is the basis for the royal
family's grip on power.
Clearly the vast oil income has been very useful to Islam, for
the Al Saud family is the most lavish donor to Islam in the world
today. Last year when Crown Prince Abdullah traveled to North
Africa and Latin America, he dedicated numerous mosques, which
his family's beneficence had built. The worldwide evangelistic
effort of Islam is largely funded by the Saudis in support of
Saudi society is saturated by Islamic rules and practice. Five
times a day the loudspeakers in the minarets call people to prayer.
All shops, schools, factories, gas stations close; everything
but traffic stops for the half hour of the prayer time. Mosques
are being built on almost every street corner so that no one
needs to walk more than five minutes from home to pray. Religious
police from the "Presidency for the Protection of Virtue
and the Prevention of Vice" prowl the streets in GMC Suburbans,
watching for infractions of religious rules.
In most ways Saudi Arabia is more like sixteenth-century Reformation
Europe than like modern-day western culture. As modern-day Anabaptists,
we mused endlessly on what it means to be followers of Jesus
in Saudi Arabia. We asked, for example, what is the content of
the "good news" in a society where religion and state
are one, and where total intolerance of all religions but Islam
is enforced with draconian vigilance? Should we mimic George
Blaurock and enter our neighborhood mosque for prayer? Should
we write letters to the editor of the English-language daily
Arab News and challenge the Saudi-Islamic gender apartheid?
There was never a lack of opportunity to discuss religious questions
with Saudis. We were witnessed to continuously. A story Al loves
to tell illustrates the forms such witness often takes.
"On the last day of our stay in Saudi Arabia I needed to
run an errand. It was a hot day, 125 degrees Fahrenheit. After
walking a block or two I realized I would not be able to make
it on foot so I hailed a taxi. As I got in I complained about
the heat. The taxi driver immediately wanted to know whether
I was a Christian and if I had read the Koran. Learning that
I had been reading the Koran, he wanted to know what I thought
about it. Did I agree with the Koran?
"Knowing that I had my exit visa safely at the apartment,
I made bold to say that I did not find the Koran as interesting
as the Bible, and that I especially disliked the Koranic understanding
of women. For the rest of the trip the driver lectured me on
the true place of women in the scheme of things, and when I got
out he said, 'When you got into the cab you complained of the
heat. You should know that unless you submit to the teachings
of Allah in the Koran you will burn in hell and it is 170 degrees
hotter in hell than it is here in Riyadh today.' "
There are many areas where Anabaptism could inform and become
good news for Saudis. It would end the outrageous gender apartheid
practiced against women in Saudi Arabia. Women have no legal
rights, and almost no opportunity for self-development. Another
would be to end capital punishment; two hundred fifty people
a year are decapitated for various capital crimes each year in
the public squares of Riyadh and Jeddah.
Above all, it would end the corrupting assumption that "might
makes right." Almost all relationships in Saudi society
are based on the dependency of the most powerless on persons
more powerful. Power for self-aggrandizement is a fundamental
norm of the Saudi social system. Most human beings are tempted
by materialistic gratification, but in Saudi society there are
almost no norms which at least call into question such an ethic.
The meager two-percent tithe, which is one of the five pillars
of Islam, is a minor challenge to self-gratification.
Anabaptism could help Saudi believers transform their communal
(tribal) identities from ethnocentric ("my tribe right or
wrong") to embrace new forms of community which transcend
and therefore transform the meaning and practice of their communal
ethic. Most of all, Wahhabi Islam needs the transformation of
divine grace, and the substitute of agape for the strict, austere
legalism of rewards and punishments which lies at the heart of
Islam. The remote Allah must become the Allah of love and shalom,
the exemplar of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our challenge in Saudi Arabia was not unlike the dilemma of sixteenth-century
Anabaptism: How to build a visible church in a society where
no visible church is tolerated? But we are not sixteenth-century
Anabaptists; we are circumspect twenty-first-century middle-class
Mennonites. Saudi Arabia made us face the reality of how remarkably
our understanding of faith requires a culture of tolerance and
freedom. In the absence of tolerance and freedom, deliberate
acts of kindness, personal witness, and a devotional piety became
our modus operandi: Christ in us and through us.