The interfaith dialogue conference in Spain is a necessity for the Muslim world just as it is a necessity for the West.
The importance of the conference for the Muslim world lies in the fact that it reins in the forces of extremism and for the West, the conference constitutes a global effort to combat what may be described as the unjustified fear of Islam and Muslims or what has come to be known as Islam phobia. Thus, the issue has two facets: One facet fights against radicalism in the Muslim world and a second facet that opposes Islam phobia in the West. And here lies the importance of the strategic initiative of King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz on interfaith dialogue. The Madrid conference that was chaired by King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz and Spanish King Juan Carlos constitutes the first step of this initiative.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia represents the fulcrum of the Muslim world in view of its stature in the hearts of Muslims as the cradle of the two holy shrines and the site of the holy Kabaa to which Muslims make their pilgrimage. Similarly, Spain represents an important bridge that links the southern Mediterranean to the northern Mediterranean. Spain also is a symbol of dialogue where Muslims co-existed with non-Muslims for many centuries until the end of the Muslim empire in the 15th century. In addition to being the symbol of openness to the Muslim world and to interfaith dialogue, Spain is also the country that set up the scaffolds during the period of the Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. This dark period in the history of Spain stands for the highest forms of Islam phobia since it was not acceptable for anyone to profess any religion except Christianity and a particular Christian church [Catholicism] at that.
Spain, which during a certain period in its history was the symbol of religious tolerance and co-existence, is the same Spain that at another period in its history was the symbol of self-seclusion and rejection of others professing a different faith.
It is important for the Muslims to understand facts rather than incomprehensible clichés. One of these facts is that the philosophical principles on which Islam is based agree not only with instinctive intuition but also with the principles of modern civilization. Islam is the religion of punishment and reward; in other words, it is the religion of what is known in the modern age as the principles of responsibility and accountability. This means that a person is responsible and accountable for his actions and their results on earth. The issues of preservation of Planet Earth, the protection of the environment, and other climatic issues that preoccupy the mind of the West these days are issues in the core of Islam’s philosophy and Islam’s views on mankind and its role in this globe. We should also keep in mind that the philosophical common denominators between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are stronger than the apparent differences: “Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian; he was a true Muslim and was not a polytheist”.
In these days, the importance of the Madrid conference lies in the fact that it establishes the principles of dialogue and unleashes an initiative that aims at urging the three heavenly religions to shoulder the moral burden and responsibility when major crises erupt. As King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz has said, the world today is passing through a vague and foggy period resulting from the state of confrontations and clashes among ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups all over the world.
Although the Madrid conference enjoys importance as a launching pad for global dialogue, King Abdullah’s initiative should not become a mere program adopted by the Islamic Conference Organization [OIC] or other bureaucratic organizations, like the Arab League. This initiative should be activated on several levels. The first level is that the Islamic countries should go to the United Nations and put pressure in order to issue a draft resolution by the United Nations General Assembly or the Security Council officially endorsing the interfaith dialogue and including it as part of the greater United Nations programs that aim at promoting and strengthening world peace and stability.
The Madrid conference – in the form that it emerged – included the heavenly religions and other religious beliefs. Therefore, the initiative of King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz paved the way for a wider and broader dialogue among cultures and civilizations.
Furthermore – as I wrote in an earlier article -King Abdullah’s initiative represents the cultural context that includes and activates major strategic issues, such as the issue of Palestine and that of Kashmir. Dialogue among the various faiths is the cultural and civilization context and support that will strengthen many international initiatives and pave the general climate to ensure the success of such initiatives. For instance, a dialogue between Judaism and Islam – as two heavenly religions – means the beginning for building positive cultural bridges between the Jews and the Muslims, thus making a climate of peace possible if the politicians also exert efforts in this direction. In this context, King Abdullah’s initiative for interfaith dialogue becomes the broader and wider framework that encompasses his initiative for Arab-Israeli peace. If the West understands and appreciates the depth of this initiative, the horizons would be wide open for a better understanding of the problems between the West and the Muslims.
King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue initiative is also the cultural context in which the issue of Muslims and citizenship in the countries of the West is confused. When the Saudi monarch visited the United Kingdom, he delivered an important speech at the dinner that the British queen hosted in his honor. In this speech, King Abdullah advised Muslims in the West to be good citizens of their new countries. The king thus summarized in his brief address the crisis that the West has with the Muslims living in it; namely, the crisis of citizenship. The interfaith dialogue will inevitably expand the spheres of mutual understanding and reduce the misunderstanding and, sometimes, the ill intentions between the Muslims of the West and their countries of origin.
King Abdullah’s initiatives are an integrated whole. He initiated the national dialogue within Saudi Arabia and all its dimensions, including the issue of women and the Shias. The king also sponsored the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue in Mecca; he called for dialogue between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq; he released his historic initiative for peace between the Arabs and Israel; and he has recently called for dialogue among the various faiths. The king’s initiatives emanate from a total strategic thinking that believes not only in internal dialogue but also in external dialogue and dialogue with friend and foe.
This is a unique state in the Arab mentality where dialogue is not usually the prevalent or the proposed approach.