The first hint of the story to come was Fox Business Anchor Maria Bartiroma walking onto the stage in the massive auditorium in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia Tuesday morning sans hijab. She was in the Kingdom to lead a discussion on the building of a futuristic Saudi city that will have more robots than people and be powered solely by solar energy - a project that is attracting investors from around the world.
That newsworthy story was largely overlooked by the American and European news media. And there was an even larger story ignored - one with perhaps, far greater ramifications for the future. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud quietly, and without fanfare, announced his country would begin to practice a more moderate form of Islam. Even Fox News made only a short, cursory mention of the new city and no mention of the move away from Wahhabism.
Saudia Arabia is the seat of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative practice of Islam that found its genesis in the beliefs of an itinerant Islamic Imam, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, in the eighteenth century. al-Wahhab's beliefs and Shari'ah law were espoused by Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the House of Saud, which has ruled the desert kingdom for more than two centuries. It became the state sponsored form of Islam in Saudia Arabia, which proselytized its radical tenants throughout the Middle East and the West.
It was adherents of Wahhabism who brought down the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. And it was adherents of Wahhabism who established the ISIS caliphate in Syria, and opened the world's eyes to many of the more cruel tenants of the ultra-conservative belief. Non-Muslims were publicly beheaded, including American journalist Daniel Pearl. The Wahhabi prohibition against revering "idols" may have led directly to the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan by the Taliban and the glorious ruins of Palmyra in Syria by ISIS.
Wahhabism adheres to a strict interpretation of Shari'ah law. Thieves have hands amputated. Non-believers are beheaded. Homosexuals are put to death. Defacing or insulting the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is punishable by death. But perhaps the greatest punishments under Shari'ah law are meted out to women. A female accused of adultery can be publicly stoned to death. If a woman is raped, there must be four male witnesses to the crime, and then she is prohibited from testifying against her accuser. A woman cannot venture outside or go shopping without a male family member accompanying her. If unmarried, a woman must wear a hijab; if married, her head and face must be covered by a burka. Until now, women in Saudi Arabia could not drive.
That changed a short time ago when the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia proclaimed women will be allowed to drive. And Tuesday came the far more reaching change that his oil-rich kingdom would embrace a more moderate form of Islam.
Only the future can show us how deeply this new embrace of moderation by Crown Prince Salman Al Saud takes hold in both the Middle East and among Muslims throughout the world. It will undoubtedly take time for nearly three centuries of Wahhabism to be cleansed from Islam. But a forward thinking leader in Saudia Arabia has taken the first courageous step toward restoring one of the world's great religions.
This is a story the world's new media should not ignore.