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The King and the Pope: Reaching Out in an Era of Divisions - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The meeting held between King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and Pope Benedict XVI was not a meeting between two heads of states, or even a meeting between the Saudi “state” and the Vatican state. In fact, it was much more important than this. It was more about establishing a connection between civilizations and cultures, as well as the coming together of two religions.

King Abdullah here is the symbol of the Muslim Ummah [nation] and Arab civilization, whereas Pope Benedict XVI represents the majority of the Christian nation and Western civilization, its religious characteristics and many of its cultural and historical aspects.

Therefore, this is a meeting between two revelations rather than a dialogue between two states. Even though the Vatican is a small state within greater Italy, it is a symbolic state rather than a state in the sense that we know it. This state is a tool with which the Catholic Church at the Vatican, the oldest and most established institution on earth according to the words of Will Durant, exercises supervision upon its nationals and religion.

To emphasize the significance behind this meeting would not be a waste of words or senseless elaboration; it derives its importance from several factors and givens including religious political tension that prevails in today’s world. We see its most prominent and most violent manifestations in movements adopting religious terrorism and also in movements of intolerance and isolation to one’s own identity and self; it exists in the Vatican just as it exists in our part of the world.

One picture is worth a thousand words, books, speeches and television programs. An image such as that which showed the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” with the “Custodian of the Catholic Church” as they shook hands, smiling and talking quietly and calmly as well as exchanging gifts could achieve a lot and destroy austerity without completely eliminating it.

Now, at this point, we are ruled by hatred and intolerance. Our future and our present are on the verge of falling into the fire.

Chaos and fear is prevailing and darkness is spreading the world over and no voice is rising above those of the instigators. All we can hear is the cries for thousands of dead people whose lives were claimed because of the fires of hatred and rifles of intolerance.

From Iraq to Somalia to Afghanistan to Algeria to Lebanon and so on and so forth…

Voices are calling for secession and barriers of isolation between people of the same country are increasing starting from the right-wing parties in Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Italy, to the ironic statements about Arabs as a race and Muslims as a nation by some fools in the United States. We have similar calls for annihilation of the “Christians and whoever supports them and Jews and whoever assists them” that fill the air during Friday sermons in some Muslim countries.

All these scenarios instill fear in the hearts of men since they obscure one’s vision and allow the imagination to create a false impression of the other; the absent one who is concealed from us!

This mad climate is the one that has created current wars and promises future wars; such wars are of a new kind and are unlike the conflicts between states that we read about in history books and that some of us witnessed ourselves. These wars are of a new kind that emerged as a direct repercussion of this new climate. These are wars that take place across states; they are wars of cultures that want to make their mark in history outside the context of the ruling regime and away from the ties between countries, which are governed by international organizations, laws and norms.

These movements disavow all existing “stories” and seek to delete the entire story and start from scratch. These wars, as English theorist Mary Kaldor stated in her book entitled ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era’, created a vacuum of power that characterized the transitional phase which started at the end of World War II (and ended in 1945, and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement Hassan al Banna was killed in 1949 may I add).

One of the characteristics of these new wars is that their main focus is upon the issue of identity rather than on geo-political or regional grounds. In these new wars, there is a revolution against universal or existing “cosmopolitan” values based upon multiculturalism in favor of a spirit of partial, local and fanatic values. These wars aim to destabilize, spread hatred and terror and to control people in order to dissolve competitive identities for the benefit of the model identity, (Faleh Abdul Jabbar, Al Hayat newspaper, 11 November 2007).

Of course, this issue is not confined to the example set by the Al Qaeda type of war but rather it could exceed to [include] militia wars of other non-Muslim groups such as the case in Rwanda. However, these models remain limited compared to the terrorism of Al Qaeda and its chameleonic nature, which is its permanent and pervasive feature.

But here we have an issue that is closely related to what we are discussing and it is a serious problem. There are several complaints put forward by human rights organizations and several intellectuals from all over the world that condemn despotism and the corruption of ruling regimes in the developing world. However, the alternative that has begun to replace these condemned regimes is devastation and chaos. In other words, let us take the Middle East for example, the alternative has always been another regime to replace the deposed one where society would destabilize for a short period but then the matter is over quickly; for example in the case of Syria’s successive coups. However, the alternative to the existing regimes is not another regime but rather it is chaos. This is exactly what happened in Siad Barre’s Somalia, Afghanistan under the Communist government of Kabul and in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq etc.

Under the fragility that distinguishes between what exists and what is promised on the political level, the opportunity to get rid of the state and what remains of the state emerges for the leaders of these new wars in order to build trenches, prepare rifles and launch more wars of hatred and intolerance as in the case of Iraq and Somalia. Leaders of new wars are supported by the imperviousness of criticism in Islamic nations towards their tense salvational ideas which is clear in the case of Pakistan that is welcoming back these leaders and their promised heaven.

The root of the problem lies in the procrastination of criticizing our history and ideologies until further notice.

What is even stranger is when Zawahiri and those like him air their complaints on satellite channels about the loss of the model of the Islamic state during which the complainant denies any accusations cast against him and stresses that he is the best representative of the Islamic state. However people failed to raise the question: What is the Islamic State? Was it originally a religious foundation or was it a natural evolution of a group of people called “Muslims”. This group had grown and developed many interests, thus a state was created and theorists, ideologies and books were introduced. Theorizing had developed and continues to develop from [Abu al Hasan] al Mawardi, [Abu al Maali] al Juwayni, Ali Abdel Razek to [Hassan] al Turabi and Ghannouchi, whereby each one of them analyze the formation of the state and its legitimacy from their own points of view.

This old-new difference in political theorizing about the state by Muslims is normal in the process of the evolution of ideas and changing conditions. This is why the state has always acted as a dividing element between nations and for several other reasons. However, the religious message and Daawa that is totally free from governmental control are the elements that unify people, provided that an air of political dominance and despotism behind such messages is not sensed. As Borhan Ghalion said in a remarkable note, “Islamic Daawa is a universal message for all human beings. And since it is based upon education, advice and self-commitment, it then contradicts with the idea of the state that is basically characterized by confinement to a certain territory. Its essence is to use external force and enforce its rules. Islamic revelation is a project for uniting people, yet the state is a reflection of division,” (The Theory of Authority in Shia Jurisprudence by Tawfiq al Said, p38).

For all this, and in order to escape the darkness and following excessive use of religion in global and local conflicts, it would be accurate to say that the meeting between King Abdullah and Pope Benedict XVI was a meeting and an initiative that came from someone with a civilized message and not merely a president or a king. We hope that the world would be able to see another side to Muslims, which has been obscured by leaders of new wars and their supporters.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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