A Revolution in Saudi Global Interfaith Engagement

Badea Abu Al-Naja and Michael Cousins write important pieces on the revolutionary conference that has just taken place in Madrid sponsored by the Saudi Custodian of the Two Holy Places and the World Muslim League. In attendance were hundreds of prominent religious participants representing all the major religions of the world. The event was inaugurated by the two kings of Saudi Arabia and Spain, and the entire cabinet of Saudi leadership. I was there and can attest to the accuracy of these reports. The organizers bent over backwards to demonstrate a new era in Saudi embrace of world religions, and an attempt to develop a non-political track of interfaith engagement that would enhance global cooperation.

The level of responsiveness to participant concerns was at times astonishing. One day there was a very respectful comment from two people, including Rabbi Arthur Waskow, that it would be good if women could be included the next time on the panels. Immediately, the next day, a woman speaker appeared on the program with very powerful and persuasive evidence on the importance of women in interfaith dialogue. Rabbi Waskow has written an excellent piece on the conference as well, putting to rest some of the nastier efforts in the press to downplay the significance of the event.

Throughout the three days, and even after the event has concluded, some of us are still deeply engaged with the Muslims present, exchanging information and opening up worlds of information to each other, from information on the inner workings of American Jewish politics to the inner realities of the Madrassas of Pakistan. We have been in in-depth conversation with Saudi journalists, Saudi sheikhs, and Pakistani activists. I was also on Saudi Television last night and was amazed by the respect that I was shown. This is the essence of how and when religion can become a bridge of peace in a complicated world.

In particular, from my experience with senior Saudi officials in the last two weeks in several venues, I get the impression that the leadership of Saudi Arabia at the highest levels has made a strategic decision that now is the time in their history to open up to the world. Considering the dangers that currently abound, the disastrous war in Iraq, the still unanswered Arab League call to Israel for comprehensive peace, the dangerous state of relations between Iran and the United States, the dangerous state of affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I think that they have decided to launch a new era in Saudi history.

This official embrace of the global trend toward interfaith relations and cooperation is the most profound indication to date that the Saudis want to put behind them any use of religion for political purposes that leads to violence and extremism. The heavy price for this Cold War tactic, that was led by the CIA in many cases, has left us with a disastrous set of violent results in many Muslim countries. From private conversations and recent public events that I have witnessed, it is abundantly clear that the Saudis are signaling Washington that the era of using Islam for geopolitical purposes is over. No more pitting of Wahabbis and Deobandis in Pakistan against Shi’ites as a tactic against Iran, for example.

Thank God this era is over. The senior Saudi leadership in a single set of days has moved right past acceptance of the de-politicization of religion all the way to a whole-hearted embrace of multi-faith engagement and cooperation. And now if we have new leadership in Washington we can put to rest the use of Islam-and religion in general-as a violent American international tactic as well. Americans have to face the painful fact that this American Cold War tactic led eventually led to the creation of thousands of jihadis like the 9/11 hijackers. Military and policy professionals in Washington call 9/11 “blow back”. What a callous, primitive phrase. It is much more than blow back. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been wasted, a generation of young people destroyed, by exploiting religion for political and military purposes. It is a new day, an Islamic Vatican II, when the Saudi Kingdom treats Shi’ites, Jewish rabbis, and Buddhist nuns with honor and respect. I saw it with my own eyes. I hope the American Vice President and the National Security Advisor are paying attention. Islam is not for sale anymore.

© Marc Gopin