Over the past three years, my family has had the privilege of hosting several Saudi students through a home-stay program affiliated with local universities. The current students we have come to know typically adhere to the strict Islamic guidelines of the Hanbali legal school. Most of them pray five times a day, attend the Friday Jumu̒ah services at local mosques, and faithfully adhere to prohibitions on pork and alcohol.
Yet despite their apparent conservatism, they have demonstrated remarkable openness to different ways of life. In our home, they see a strong and loving mother pursuing a career outside of the home and a father who spends the bulk of his day caring for the children. Needless to say, this domestic arrangement is not common back in the Kingdom.
Ever since the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on January 23rd of this year, media pundits have debated his legacy. Some have characterized King Abdullah as a reformer, citing his decision to allow women to work as supermarket cashiers and his founding of a co-ed university where men and women can study side-by-side. Others have argued that little had changed under his rule. Women are still not permitted to get driver's licenses and, in early January, an activist was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes because of his criticism of Saudi clerics. Amnesty International has spoken out strongly against the royal family for its growing suppression of free speech and its frequent use of capital punishment. However, even if the internal politics in the Kingdom have not changed markedly in recent years, King Abdullah has perhaps sown the seeds for dramatic change in the future.
According to the Institute of International Education, 53,919 students from Saudi Arabia were studying in the United States during the 2013/2014 academic year - up from just over 3,000 per year a decade earlier. Since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, as many as 200,000 Saudi students have been sent abroad for study. This is unprecedented in Saudi history. Most begin their adventures in the U.S. by enrolling in English-language instruction in order to prepare them for applying to graduate schools in business, medicine, engineering, and other fields. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program provides full tuition, travel expenses, and a generous living stipend that even includes yearly dental benefits of up to $5,000 per year. Much of this program was funded out of the king’s personal treasury.
Our students have attended worship services at both our local Mennonite and Methodist churches (both queer-friendly, I might add) and have come to appreciate Christian hymns. Additionally, I have had the pleasure of leading groups of Middle Eastern students on field trips to the U.S. Constitution Center and walking tours of some of Philadelphia's oldest churches and synagogues. As we strolled past the historic Arch Street Friends Meeting House and the Mikveh Israel Synagogue, I introduced them to the history of William Penn and his "Holy Experiment," to found a colony where religious minorities would be protected.
Although Philadelphia is an especially appropriate place for Saudi students to think about the freedom of speech and religion ensconced within the U.S. Constitution, the tens of thousands of students who now study throughout the United States will also no doubt be profoundly changed by their experiences. When these students return to Saudi Arabia one day, they will be catalysts for change, whether the Kingdom’s conservative clerics like it or not.
For those of us who care deeply about the plight of religious and ethnic minorities and gender equality throughout the world, King Abdullah should be remembered as one who planted the seeds for a hopefully more tolerant and pluralistic Saudi Arabia. The New York Times obituary is right to suggest that King Abdullah’s study abroad program could be his greatest legacy. The students with whom I speak grieve deeply the death of King Abdullah, but are overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunities he gave them to live abroad. I sincerely hope that his successor will continue the potentially risky endeavor of sending students to study in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In the aftermath of the recent Charlie Hebdo bombings in Paris, the vicious murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina, and the escalating inter-religious tensions throughout the world, it is critical that we find opportunities to practice interfaith hospitality. Having lived in a Christian enclave for much of my life, I am profoundly grateful for my Saudi friends and how they have challenged me to have a more expansive view of God. I enjoy how they have become honorary “uncles” to our two young boys. I love the laughter we share around the table as we collectively struggle to understand the peculiarities of the English language. I also love the chicken kabsa they often cook for us. Opening one’s home to persons from other cultures has the power to change both the hosts and the hosted.
For Christians, hospitality is a mandate of the faith and I think the verse in Leviticus 19:34 says it best:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. NRSV.