Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?
Since 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding.
(Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)
In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.
A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”
During an interview in London, AbuSulayman, wearing a cream-coloured headscarf, talked broadly about the need for interfaith dialogue, and included Judaism in that. But she said the Alwaleed Foundation definitely wouldn’t open a centre in Israel even though it does support dialogue with Jews.
“Would we do something on Jewish studies? Most definitely. We really do separate the idea between Zionism and Judaism,” said AbuSulayman. “We do believe in this tradition of all of the Abrahamic religions being together.”
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no diplomatic relations, although last summer King Abdullah hosted a meeting of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists in Madrid.
“We wouldn’t get into the political part of it,” said AbuSulayman. “The prince really believes in academia as a way to solve problems, a way to ask uncomfortable questions.”
The prince, who has a majority stake in the Kingdom Holding Company and is among the world’s richest men, is certainly laying a very well-funded path towards greater dialogue.
But can the foundation really improve relations among people of different faiths — especially between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East — if debate remains solely within academia?