In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.
The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.
Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.
So where is King Abdullah on the timeline of interfaith dialogue? Up there at the cutting edge? Or a decade or so behind the times? It’s hard to say if we only have some official reports of his comments to go by. But there are a few red flags popping up in the mostly positive reporting, suggesting that whatever he comes up with may not amount to real progress.
For example, the Sunni-Shi’ite harmony message supposedly sent by the presence of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani looked a lot thinner when journalists looked beyond centre stage. “Some Shi’ites said that, despite the presence of Iran’s Rafsanjani, few of their number were invited to the Mecca meeting. None came from Europe or North America and one from Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority which complains that it is given second class status,” our Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond wrote.
Riazat Butt, religion correspondent for the Guardian, covered the conference and heard one of the classic Muslim views that goes against Abdullah’s position and turned some non-Muslims off dialogue with the muftis years ago. She wrote: “Abdullah’s understanding of interfaith dialogue differs from the one held by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, who said dialogue with other religions was a way to bring non-Muslims into Islam. The cleric, who is the highest official of religious law, told the delegates that converting people to Islam was the ultimate goal of dialogue, a point made several times. “It is the opportunity to disseminate the principles of Islam. Islam advocates dialogue among people, especially calling them to the path of Allah.”
The grand mufti also contradicted Abdullah on dialogue with Jews, who the king has suggested could come to Saudi Arabia for talks on what would be an unprecedented visit. As Butt (right) wrote, “Several clerics, including the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, said it was almost impossible to talk to them because of the situation in the occupied territories. ‘How can you negotiate with someone who is against you all the time? They seem to be against us in every way so I don’t know how we’re supposed to have dialogue.’ Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi said he would only talk to Jews who denounced Zionism and he urged Muslims to talk to Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. His impromptu speech, lasting 15 minutes, garnered the loudest applause, proving his popularity among fellow clerics even if the west views him with suspicion.”
After having a front-row seat at the Mecca meeting, Butt was quite sceptical about the prospects for Abdullah’s initiative. But the attention this idea has been getting at the Vatican and among Jews shows there is a lot of official interest in it. If the Saudis start organising these interfaith talks, do you think they will actually produce more than nice words? Will they reflect what Saudi clerics actually think?