National Geographic’s August issue, featuring a cover photo of Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel, was “denied entry” into Saudi Arabia, according to a tweet from the Arabic edition editor-in-chief.
The magazine is normally translated into Arabic for a Saudi Arabian audience, but never made it to its destination this month.
The statement published on National Geographic’s Arabic-language Twitter account, from the editor-in-chief, Alsaad Omar al-Menhaly, read:
“Dear readers in Saudi Arabia, we apologize that you did not receive August’s magazine. According to the publishing company, the magazine was denied entry for cultural reasons.”
قراؤنا في السعودية نعتذر عن عدم حصولكم على عدد المجلة لشهر أغسطس. فحسب رد الشركة الموزعة أنه تم رفض دخول المجلة لأسباب ثقافية. رئيس التحرير
— ناشيونال جيوغرافيك. (@ngalarabiya) September 2, 2015
A report in Foreign Policy suggested that besides the outrage of having the leader of the Catholic Church on the cover, “Saudi censors might have also seen dangerous implications for the Wahhabi state in how National Geographic framed its coverage, as the cover referred to Francis leading a ‘quiet revolution’ to reform the Catholic Church.”
An editor’s note in the same issue of National Geographic’s Arabic edition praised the Pope for his forward-looking leadership but also moved beyond Catholicism to make inferences for all religions, arguing that to remain relevant religious institutions must adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Religious pillars, the article declared, “are only tools aimed at preserving something, and if they are no longer capable of that, they must be altered.”
Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious authorities, who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Quran, may well have seen these words as a challenge, FP noted. Wahhabis are Muslim traditionalists who look for a return to the practices of seventh-century Islam. They are radically opposed to the sort of adaptation that the National Geographic story seemed to propose.
This is not the first time the Arabic version of National Geographic has diverged from the English edition on matters touching on science and religion. Just last March, the Arabic edition removed a reference to evolution from the cover while the original tongue-in-cheek title was kept: “The War on Science.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome