Saudis Call for Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue does not defy any religious principle. In fact, it is considered a basic element of Islam.

Saudi Arabia's call for an ongoing interfaith dialogue has raised a few eyebrows in the West.

The kingdom has long been perceived as a piece of desert ruled by an ultraconservative clergy with radical interpretations of Islam. Women are oppressed, it is often alleged; Wahhabi scholars want to convert the world over; and non-Muslims are banned from practicing their faith on Saudi soil—among other claims.

My Saudi friend calls these sheer misperceptions. "We are a people like all others in the world," she says. "We support reform, respect human values, and cherish modernity."

Incidentally, she—like other religious Saudi women—seems to enjoy her life as much as any of my Western female friends. Their conservative interpretation of Islam does not prevent education, shopping, fashion, and parties from being part of their lives.

Refuting allegations leveled against Islam and Muslims—including Saudi society—is the major aim of ongoing interfaith dialogue. The "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," as the King is called in Saudi Arabia, seems to feel a special commitment toward Islam.

Earlier this month the King inaugurated a three-day conference in Mecca aimed at promoting future interfaith dialogue with non-Muslims. He told the all-Muslim audience, "You have gathered today to tell the whole world that … we are a voice of justice and human values, that we are a voice for coexistence and a just and rational dialogue."

Last November, King Abdullah made history when meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, and this month, the Sunni monarch appeared next to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of mainly Shia Iran, in a symbolic gesture to encourage Muslim unity.

Such moves can be seen as part of a wider adaptation of Saudi Arabia's clergy to modern life. The first of its kind to stem from Saudi Arabia, the conference conveyed an important message: interfaith dialogue does not defy any religious principle. In fact, it is considered a basic element of Islam. Excerpts of both the Koran and the sunnah (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad) were cited to underline its importance.

The country's Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, stressed that religion encourages accommodation to modern life. "We live in a communication era," he said. "To adapt to it by holding dialogue and correspondence among humankind has become an obligation."

There is no doubt that the commitment to engage in interfaith dialogue took extra effort in Saudi Arabia, due to suspicious stances that the Saudi clergy now seems to have overcome. Hassan Al-Ahdal, director of media and relations at the World Muslim League, relates this reluctance to the fear of ending up with a "one world religion" to the detriment of each religion's teaching.

But this conference made it clear that the goal is not to compromise on any faith's principles. "The priority is to agree on common values without tackling religious matters because these are always ground for dispute," Al-Ahdal says. "No side will ever succeed in changing the other."

The country's Grand Mufti is in support of the interfaith talks, claiming "dawah" as the ultimate goal of engaging in dialogue. Although dawah is occasionally used in the Koran to signify preaching with the goal of conversion, it literally means "invitation," and can be used to invite others to understand Islam. "Disparity between people is unquestionable," he also said. "It is natural that people differ in behavior, language, color, and intelligence. The Koran acknowledges that."

While no definite timetable was yet issued for the Muslim-Christian-Jewish interfaith talks, the Muslim participants last week set up a strategy for dialogue, and agreed on establishing bodies to foster academic dialogue such as the King Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz International Center for Civilizational Interaction, and the creation of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Award for Civilization Dialogue.

It is not yet clear whether King Abdullah intends, through his forums, to solve political conflicts in the long term, but at present politics should be kept out of the agenda.

The key priority of this dialogue—to invite people of all faiths, and particularly Judeo-Christians in the West, to join with Muslims to rationally judge whether mutual suspicions are justified—ought to raise hopes instead of eyebrows.

Asma Hanif is a Brussels-based freelance journalist focusing on the intersection of religion and politics. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.