Islam and Saudi Arabia, champions of dialogue?


The Saudi king takes more steps to show openness towards Christians, Jews and other religions. The most urgent reason is to rectify Islam’s violent image but also stems from a new attitude towards inter-faith dialogue towards the People of the Book (Jews, Muslims and Christians), but also atheists, Hindus and Buddhists.


Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Muslim world is showing increasing signs that it wants to engage others in dialogue. Greater tolerance is increasingly visible in Muslim countries, signs like the opening of a new church in Kuwait or one in Qatar, greater openness towards the Vatican, the letter signed by 138 Muslim scholars to Benedict XVI, the creation of a joint Islamic-Catholic commission; Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to the Holy See . . . .

More signs of openness and tolerance have come from the Saudi monarch himself like the intra-Muslim meeting in Makkah (4-6 June 2008) and the inter-faith conference in Madrid (16-18 July 2008) as a start to inter-faith dialogue, one that includes Jews as well.

Dialogue seems to be the order of the day in a religion that since 11 September 2001 and the attack against New York’s twin towers has come to be regarded by the general public as the most intolerant religion. What is going on? Here is the analysis of Islam expert Fr Samir Khalil Samir.

I am certain that all these signals mean that something is changing and there are political and religious reasons for it. In this case the union between the two is not necessarily a bad thing.

First of all, religion has become an important factor in international politics. The whole world is in turmoil; all sorts of shocks seem to be produced by religion or anti-religious atheism. Whatever the case may be, religion is challenging past ideas and positions.

Let us take the collapse of Communism. It was a shock that pushed many people to ask themselves whether religion was the opium of the masses or its opposite, namely that ideology was the real opium of the masses. We also see this in China, thanks to news reported by AsiaNews for example, and the reaction and differences in the world over the issue of Buddhism in Tibet, over Nepal or Myanmar. In India fanatical Hindu and ultranationalists groups are pitted against other (Christian and Muslim) communities . . . .

Islam’s new image

In Europe Islam has unsettled the way Europeans look at religion. In France everyone was untroubled by French secularism based on the dogma of the absolute separation between faith and life with religion as a private affair. Now people realise that the link between faith and public life is still strong in Islam and this undermines some certainties in modern secularism. Along with this “discovery” has come religious fanaticism. For political and cultural reasons this has manifested itself with an unprecedented level of violence that was never reached in the past in the Muslim world.

Plus interest in the Muslim world has to do with its numbers since a billion and more people have a huge weight on world politics and demographics.

Similarly, there are pressures and violence in the Jewish world as a result of the collusion between Zionism and politics. Likewise among Hindus Hinduism and Indian identity are seen as one and the same.

Correcting Islam’s (bad) image

For years now in the Muslim world, at the meetings of the Arab League, at those of the World Islamic League, endless debates have focused on violence and terrorism in order to assert that neither has anything to do with Islam, that Islam is a religion of tolerance, etc.

Yet at the same time ministers from Muslim countries have claimed that their main task is to fight this same terrorism rooted in fundamentalism (the literal, de-contextualised interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, i.e. the traditions associated with the prophet) and in Muslim religious radicalism.

Unfortunately, all decisions taken so far have not led to a decline in terrorism, which remains alive and well; perhaps because one of the causes of Islamic radicalism is precisely that corruption, dictatorship and social injustice are so pervasive in Muslim politics. This might explain why Muslim political leaders, especially presidents and kings, are in favour of change. “If we want to defend Islam from the negative image that it is acquiring around the world we cannot go on like this. We must positively show that Islam is a religion of peace and dialogue,” they say.

The drive for dialogue thus rises from this attempt to show a new image of Islam.

According to a recent survey in the United States, 45 per cento of Americans view Islam as the most threatening religion that exists; in 2005 they were 36 per cent. If surveys were conducted in Europe we would probably get the same results.

Even in the Muslim world, albeit not openly, everyone knows that armed and militant form of Islam is the most terrible thing. In the Muslim world people have come to realise that Islam must protect itself against its own bad image.

This happened first at the 2005 Makkah conference (7-8 December) when Muslim government said “enough is enough!” and opted to fight Islam’s negative image and Islamophobia.

A word like Islamophobia has spread far and wide. For Muslims fear of Islam is a mistake, an unfair reaction. And yet it is true that much of today’s violence can be traced back to Islam, at least to its radical variety.

In Europe there is Christophobia, which might be even worse than Islamophobia. Still in the last few years Muslims and Europeans in Spain have come together to condemn Islamophobia. Even a UN document condemned Islamophobia (bit it said nothing about the contemptuous attitude towards all religions) . . . .

One common thread that comes up all the time in the Makkah and Madrid documents is as follows. We [Muslims] must fight against the false image that the (Western) media convey about us. No mention is made of “Islamic terrorism.” Thus for those who drafted the Makkah document, terrorism is not Islamic, even if people blame Muslims for violence.

Faced with such a situation Saudi King Abdullah has begun to act. In his meeting with the Pope last 6 November, he made an important statement in which he called for openness to engage Christians and Jews in dialogue as well as a willingness to cooperate with these religions on matters of the ethics and spirituality.1 It is interesting to note that whilst participating Muslim countries addressed Muslims at the Makkah meeting (4-6 June 2008) on inter-Muslim dialogue, they also tried to speak and open up to the entire world.

Muslims for ‘dialogue’

In the final declaration of the Makkah conference dialogue is justified as “central to Islam” because it was used by the prophet Muhammad. “Dialogue represents an authentic Qur’anic methodology and a prophetic tradition through which the prophets communicated with their people. The biography of the Prophet Muhammad presents a clear methodology in this regard through the dialogue of the Prophet and the Christians of Najran”2 as well as “his correspondence with great emperors and monarchs;”3 hence the statement that “dialogue is one of the most important mediums of spreading Islam throughout the world.” At face value such words are charged with much ambiguity. In order to convince Muslim countries that there is value in dialogue, the participants in the Makkah conference refer back to what the prophet did, and a bit disingenuously, confess that this serves the purpose of spreading Islam a little bit more.

The “Madinah society that was established by the Prophet is the optimal model of positive coexistence of the followers of divine messages,”4 says the Makkah document; words that are heavy with meaning. The optimal model of coexistence of the people of the Book (Jews, Christians and Sabians) is thus that structure, the precursor of the Dhimmi system.

It is clear that the Muslim world cannot free itself of the idealised model of the 7th century. This leads to contradictions such as what to do with atheists who are present in our modern societies. In Muhammad’s times atheists were fought and they could either submit to Islam or be killed.

Of course, none of this was mentioned in Madrid in the presence of representatives of other religions. But in Makkah, among Muslims, this is language that was used. Is it doublespeak or “pedagogical’ discourses?

It must be said that in the 7th century such coexistence had some positive aspects, but it was based on a political pact, not a religious one.

At present the issue is how to leave behind the 7th century Islamic system, which lasted through the Middle Ages, in order to build a new one of living together. Short of this the term “dialogue” remains ambiguous.

Some openness

Out of Makkah came a 12-point document. The first two are about rectifying Islam’s bad image, in a defensive mode. The third point is interesting because it “deals with challenges and offers solutions to humanity’s problems which are seen as the result of abandoning religion and estrangement from its principles.”

This is an idea that we Christians share but which must be closely looked at in all its nuances. The document for example emphasises that problems are “result of abandoning religion”, but no one should forget that some problems are associated with bad interpretations of religion. Card Jean-Louis Tauran, who was invited to Makkah and Madrid, made a reference to this aspect in his final address when he said: “Religion is accused of being the cause of violence. Religion is not the cause of violence; the cause is its [violent]use by its followers”. Modern society is not only afflicted by the decline of religion but also by the deformation and politicisation of religion. This has not yet been understood in the Muslim world.

The fourth point refers to human rights, namely the need to “support and defend the right causes in relation to human rights violations.” This, too, sounds very good, but it is essential that we define “human rights,” and accept the current universal definition. I refer here to the fact that in the Muslim world on several occasions human rights have been seen through Muslim eyes as in an Islamic charter, an Arab charter, etc. This means that for Islam there are no universal human rights. By contrast, I think it would be a good idea to take a closer look at what human rights are.

The document moves on to the clash of civilisation. The sixth point calls for the rejection of accusations that Islam is “the enemy of contemporary civilisation.” Accusations come however in different sizes; if a certain type of Islam sees itself as the enemy of modern civilisation, then the accusations are accurate.

According to the former, “such accusations lead to the hatred of Islam”. Once again we are back to the idea of “Islamophobia”, Islam’s self-victimisation, which has become a fixation in today’s Muslim world. As long as Muslims think that way, there will be no self-criticism and thus no in-depth reform.

Point seven is a good one because it calls for “learning to know people of other faiths and other cultures and establish common principles that allow for peaceful coexistence and provide human society with security.”

This is certainly something positive but it should have come at the beginning of the document. Perhaps those who drafted it psychologically felt it more important to respond to the criticism that Muslim world makes at the rest of the world, in order to later start building more solid bridges for dialogue.

Point number eight focuses on “mutual cooperation in spreading ethical values, truth, benevolence and peace to challenge hegemony, exploitation, moral degenerations, harm to the family and other evils that threaten society.” This is good as long as it is understood that such characteristics are not exclusive to any one group but are in fact found in all societies, in the West and in the Muslim world.

Point 11 looks at “understanding human cultures and civilisations”, a well-meaning idea calling upon Muslims “to take part in agreements between humanity’s civilisations to protect peace in the world.”

Point number 12 looks again at ecumenism within Islam, namely the “interaction and communication with the followers of [different]Islamic schools of thought to reach the unity of the Muslim Ummah and weaken fanaticism and antagonism.” The point on intra-Muslim fanaticism is a very strong one, especially if we consider that Saudi Arabia, main backer of the Makkah and Madrid conferences, is the stronghold of Wahhabism, a religious movement that has tried to exclude all other Islamic interpretations, whether Sunni or Shia. Perhaps this is an attempt by King Abdullah himself to push his own community towards greater tolerance.

Invited to Madrid

The Makkah meeting set the stage for the Madrid conference. In looking at the latter I should like to make a few remarks.

First of all let us take a look at the participants. More than 200 of the 288 who were invited showed up. But who were they? They were people with social and political functions, not strictly religious figures.

For instance, in the case of Belgium, three people were invited: two orthodox metropolitans and Abdul Aziz Muhammad Yahya, director of the Islamic Centre of Belgium; in short no Catholics, but a couple of Orthodox (who can hardly be said to be representative of Belgium).

In the case of France the list is surprising. Altogether 11 people were invited. No liberal Muslim was among the Muslims invited; instead we had the director general of UNESCO, four rabbis, and a representative of the Armenian Church. Not a single Catholic bishop or cardinal. I wonder what criteria were used to come up with that list.

On the other hand, many people came from the United States and Great Britain, 56 and 46 respectively, including many rabbis.

I can only guess that people with cultural ties to the English-speaking world drew up the list of invitations.

There were people from other religions as well, but Catholics were picked by and large from those who tend to hold an idealistic view of Islam and are never critical of it. Famous Catholic scholars like John Esposito of Georgetown University were among the participants as were many of those who during Islamic-Christian meetings always take the side of Islam.

I wonder whether for the future it would not be better to have people drawn from a wider spectrum, letting each religious group choose whom to send; this way participants could actually be representative of a real community.

Even for the Middle East, the choice of participants was unbalanced. A small country like Lebanon had nine representatives, like Spain, but not people as important for dialogue as Orthodox Bishop Georges Khodr. From Syria only one person came, a bishop (a former student of mine). From Sudan came Gabriel Zubeir Wako, the archbishop of Khartoum, know for his resolve, a choice that is something of an exception.

Generally speaking I think that the meeting had one main concern, Islam’s image. Only famous people were invited, like Tony Blair, or people who would not make waves for Islam.

Except for the opening ceremony, the Madrid meeting was in camera and thus little is known about its conclusions. I did try though to vet the reactions of some participants.

Cardinal Tauran’s thoughts

I was very touched by Cardinal Tauran’s final address when he quoted the Pope’s encouragement, convinced that “dialogue based on love and truth is the best path to bring happiness and harmony to the peoples of the earth.”

Cardinal Tauran said that he was happily surprised by two facts that emerged during the meeting:

1) “we have made our rich traditions and thoughts to the members of the other communities to which we belong;”

2) believers are something precious, a gift to society.

He added that it “is imperative that religious freedom include the possibility of believers to actively take part in the public debate by being given social, political and cultural responsibilities.”

This is very close to Muslim perceptions with regards to Western secularism. His focus is in line with what Benedict XVI has very often said.

For Cardinal Tauran dialogue has three simple but important objectives:

a) increase mutual awareness;

b) encourage the study of religion in an objective manner;

c) train people to engage in inter-faith dialogue.

In cardinal Tauran’s concluding address there is something else that I personally deem important. In it the prelate said: “I don’t mean that all religions are equal but that all those who seek God have equal dignity.” This is an unambiguous distinction.

Often Christians and Muslims are into wishy-washy “ecumenism.” Ultimately people end up believing that the two religions are equal and that conversion from one to the other is either unnecessary or secondary. Instead for him religions are not equal.

Then again saying that “those who seek God have equal dignity” is an important point in the Islamic-Christian dialogue. It means that all people of good will have equal dignity; every believer, not only Muslims, Christians and Jews (as it seems in the Muslim world).


From this point of view, one positive thing that came out of Madrid meeting was the fact that members of all religions were present and that conference sponsor was the king of Arabia. For that reason I think that this event will have an important impact on the dialogue between religions.

But the most important step in this meeting was the invitation of rabbis. Some rabbis, like two from the ‘Shalom Center’ in the United States, were very enthused for being able to talk freely during the meeting. It was a giant step forward in modern history. I believe that at this point in time the Muslim world is tired of the situation of endless war in which the Middle East and Islam are mired, namely the open wound that is the Palestinian problem to the entire Muslim world.

But it was not without ambiguities; for instance few women took part in the event (only one Spanish Muslim woman actually gave an address). Still the step was an important one. And every step with which we build world peace, especially between East and West, is welcome.


1. Cf AsiaNews, 6 November 2007, Pope and King Abdullah talk about inter-faith dialogue and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

2. Najran is located in southern Arabia where Christians concluded a deal with Muhammad and his group. However, the agreement was ambiguous, at least as an example of dialogue since it was an act of submission. Christians could keep their life, hierarchy, etc., but every year had to pay a tribute in the form of camels, cloth, slaves, etc. This shows how questionable it is to idealise matters that concern Muhammad.

3. The quote here is also curious. The prophet said: “I invite you in the name of Allah to submit to Islam,” etc. It is hard to see this as an example of dialogue.

4. This point is also ambiguous. If in Madinah Muhammad founded the first Islamic society ruled by the Qur’an, he also made a pact of submission with local Jews after slaying hundreds of them.

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