Saudi mufti denies inviting Israeli rabbis
The call last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for an interfaith dialogue has provoked outraged reactions from Saudi Islamists and praise from Saudi liberals. Saudis of all persuasions were taken by surprise when Abdullah made his announcement, which met with a quick and positive response from religious leaders abroad. The Vatican was said to be especially interested in this idea because Abdullah made a groundbreaking visit to Rome and met Pope Benedict last November.
But one report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot went to the nub of the matter — will Jewish rabbis be able to visit the bastion of Sunni Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites? That would be big news. As the Israeli daily reported it, the Saudi grand mufti, the official government spokesperson on religious affairs, had begun sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis to attend some meeting in Riyadh at an unspecified date.
Well, the report made it into English and led to the mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, issuing a carefully-worded denial. “The mufti clarified that what was published in some newspapers and news agencies saying that he had called on a group of Israeli religious scholars to take part in a religious reconciliation conference in Riyadh is devoid of any truth and has no basis,” the Saudi royal-owned paper Asharq al-Awsat reported on its front page on Wednesday. “He said: ‘I hope everyone will check facts before reporting things’.”
The report did not reject the idea of such a dialogue, which the mufti would hardly oppose since he is a representative of a government that now officially wants to hold an interfaith conference. All he did was say that, up to this point, he had not asked any Israelis to come to anything. So he might in the future, but we’ll have to wait and see on that.
In an indication of the diametrically opposed constituences the mufti must consider, Islamists commenting on web sites were exultant that he had refuted the reports. “We all know that the Jews are people of lies and slander. So it’s no surprise they would claim the mufti did such a thing. Therefore, we have to be careful about what the newspapers and agencies are saying,” one user on Saha.net wrote. “It is well-known that the mufti rejects dialogues of religion since he has said before in sermons that they are empty and amount to concessions,” another said.
Meanwhile, Saudi dailies with liberal leanings are trumpeting the positive attention the king has won for Saudi Arabia abroad. “CNN describes the king as a history-maker,” al-Watan said on Wednesday in a front-page headline, adding: “Global support for the king’s initiative for a dialogue of religions.”
The king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a reformer but one who has been outmaneuvered by the powerful religious establishment and their allies in the royal family. The interfaith conference call may be a kind of trial balloon launched to see what kind of reaction it gets in a country where liberals and religious conservatives are engaged in an ideological struggle for the future of Saudi Arabia.