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Interfaith Dialog: Responsibilities and Challenges - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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This is the greatest initiative by Saudi Monarch King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. His call for interfaith dialog comes at a time when the societies and countries are living through a moment of stumbling and confusion to the extent that shocking pronouncements, such as clash of civilizations and clash of religions, are prevailing.

The essence of the initiative is that it pursues building common bridges between religions, bridges that are based on the ethical foundations that unite all religions, such as preserving the family cohesion, which is undoubtedly the corner stone of building healthy societies.

The interfaith dialog will not end today or tomorrow, it is something that will continue for future generations. Therefore, international response to it is necessary, and it should be followed by establishing an international organization to secure the continuation and the vitality of the dialog. Moreover, it is necessary to guard against and not to underestimate the abilities of the institutions and groups that always try to empty every serious initiative of its content, especially in the Arab world.

In the Arab world policies proceed in one direction, while politics move in another. For instance, all our educational and technological policies follow the successful western examples, while most of our political address rejects the west. King Abdallah’s openness to the other religions and cultures is a unique attempt to incorporate policies and politics and to make them proceed in the same direction. This harmony between policies and politics is required in all Arab countries.

The west, which is naturally the other side in the interfaith dialog, is obliged to consider the issue seriously. This is an initiative launched by the country of the largest weight in the Muslim world, and which is the center of the strongest attraction to the Muslims in general. Moreover, the importance of the initiative lies in its universality, as it confronts the crisis which most societies face at the current times, a crisis that nearly adopts the form of conflict and clash. If we take into consideration the volume of the population to which this initiative addresses itself, and the volume of its impact on the relations between the individuals, the societies, and the countries if it is implemented, the Saudi Monarch will deserve to be one of the strongest candidates to the Nobel Peace Prize.

The King’s interfaith dialog initiative is the second following his first peace initiative, which was adopted by the Arab League in its conference that was held in Beirut in 2002. This is a courageous initiative that confirms the civilizations’ confidence in Islam as a religion of coexistence, dialog, and peace. It is an initiative that is founded on the Koran principle of openness to the other who is different, “To you be your Way, and to me mine [Surah Al-Kafirun, Verse 6].” The courageous act of launching the initiative by the leader of a conservative society such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stems from the fact that King Abdullah enjoys a large popularity in the Saudi society. It is a real popularity in which the people stand behind him, trust his wisdom, and have confidence in his decisions and initiatives. For instance, anyone who visits Riyadh will see how the girls draw the picture of the King on their cloaks, and how the young men place his picture on their cars, a big picture that represents the hawk of pan-Arabism without mentioning his name.

It is clear from the words of the King that his interfaith initiative was not born yesterday. He pointed out that the idea had been in his mind for two years, and that he discussed it with the ulema in the Kingdom, who approved of it, and welcomed it. Here, there are two points. The first point is that the King knows that such an initiative needs unanimity before it is launched. This is what a skillful statesman does. This unanimity ought to include those concerned with the issue; the ulema in the Kingdom represent this point. The second point is the long period of time (two years), which the thinking of and preparation for this initiative required. King Abdullah, who understands very well the structure of the Saudi society that needs different assessments of the public opinion, took enough time for thinking and preparation. However, he came up with an ambitious and courageous initiative that extends its hand to the entire world from the heart of a country, which is the one with the largest weight in the Muslim world. Many politicians search for easy popularity, and hence they adopt an address of hatred of the other, which quickly finds acceptance by the common people; however, King Abdullah chooses with complete courage the language of openness and dialog, behind which the world inevitably will stand.

The appreciation of the initiative should not be through praise, but it should be through building institutions and organizing international conferences for the protection of the interfaith dialog. For instance, a major international conference should convene, whether in the Kingdom or in one of the major capitals of the world, to establish a dialog in which the countries should be the basic participants, and which should be supported by international civil organizations concerned with the interfaith dialog.

The interfaith dialog is the cultural and civilized support which will strengthen many international initiatives, and prepare the general climate for their success. For instance, when there is a dialog between Judaism and Islam as two heavenly religions, this means that the building of the positive cultural bridges between Jews and Muslims has started, which will make an atmosphere of peace possible if the politicians exert their efforts. Within this context, King Abdullah’s interfaith dialog initiative is the wider and bigger framework that embraces his Arab-Israeli peace initiative. If the west understands this initiative with its great depth, the horizon will be open for a wider understanding of the existing problems between the west and the Muslims.

King Abdullah’s interfaith dialog initiative is also the cultural context in which the issue of the Muslims and of citizenship in the western countries moves. When the Saudi Monarch visited the United Kingdom recently, he delivered an important address at the dinner banquet offered in his honor by the Queen of Britain. In this address King Abdullah advised the Muslims in the west to be good citizens in their new countries. Thus the King in his short address summarized the crisis of the west with Muslims residing there now, namely the citizenship crisis. The interfaith dialog inevitably will reveal areas of mutual understanding, and abolish areas of misunderstanding, and sometimes bad intention, between the western Muslims and their countries.

King Abdullah’s initiatives are an integrated whole, from his establishment of the national dialog on the Saudi domestic arena, with all its dimensions including the issues of the women and the Shiites, to his sponsorship of the Palestinian-Palestinian dialog in Mecca, and also his call for a dialog between the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq, his historic peace initiative between the Arabs and Israel, and his latest call for an interfaith dialog. The King’s initiatives indicate a comprehensive strategic thinking that believes in dialog not only domestically, but also internationally, with both his friends and enemies. This is a rare case in Arab mentality in which dialog is not usually the prevalent or offered formula.

We should not forget that there are groups in the east and also in the west, which hate dialog, and earn their living from conflict. These groups will do their utmost to sabotage the initiative, or at best to empty it of its content. Here, I am not talking only about extremists similar to Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, but about groups that have infiltrated the apparatuses of the Arab and western countries (the bureaucracies and the ideological strongholds) that try to thwart any attempt to reach a real understanding between east and west. These groups want the dialog to be between organizations and movements, and they do not want a dialog between countries governed by international law or international agreements.

Therefore, in order that this initiative would succeed it ought to keep its momentum, which is linked to the personality of King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, and hence it ought to be sponsored by the authorities of the Saudi State, and not to be handed over to the Arab League, or to institutions that might dilute it and transform it from the domain of seriousness to the domain of public relations and shuttle trips by Arab and non-Arab bureaucrats.

The value of the initiative is linked to the lofty reputation established by King Abdullah for himself and for his country in the east and the west. This man enjoys the respect of the Pope of the Vatican, and the trust of the leaders of small and major countries, be they Muslims, Christians, or seculars. The trust stems from the man’s sincerity, and the compatibility of what he says with what he does.

Radwan Elsayed

Radwan Elsayed

Dr. Radwan Elsayed is a prominent Lebanese intellectual and a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University.

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