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.