Wahabism is generally a short-hand expression for conservative Saudi Arabian religion. It has become synonymous in the West, but also in the Islamic world, with a very repressive form of Islam that is responsible, at least in part, for the growth of militarism in the name of Islam. I must confess that over the years I generalized about Saudis and their religion, while actually knowing very little about their culture or their religion. I heard many bad stories from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but I did not really take the time to ask Saudis themselves. In truth, Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative society with many religious laws in place that I do not agree with. But that did not give me the right to malign a culture in its entirety. That was reverse bigotry in the name of tolerance.

Imagine the cognitive dissonance of an entire hall full of prominent religious representatives from all over the world when the King of Saudi Arabia gave an inaugural address to the recent Saudi-sponsored, Muslim World League conference in Madrid. The speech turned out to be an impassioned plea for interfaith tolerance and an utterly new Saudi approach to other religions. The conference, which I attended, shocked me in the new and bold way in which the Saudis were embracing the world religiously and spiritually.

Every private conversation with Saudis present, as well as other high level Saudis in recent weeks, proves to me that that the King has launched a new era in Saudi approaches to religion as such. They are determined, in a word, to de-couple religion from politics. They will remain a country that is based on the Koran as its constitution, but the leadership is making a statement to the world that they are determined that religion will be a powerful international force only for peace, only for moral improvement, and not as a political weapon.

This is clearly at variance with at least some significant and powerful religious figures inside Saudi Arabia, and it will not be easy to wrest the entire educational and religious system from old, adversarial approaches to other religions, and other kinds of Muslims. But the King has opened a new chapter, it is deliberate and it is permanent for as long as he reigns. This is an opportunity that the global interfaith community must seize.

The Pope and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
The Pope and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The most challenging connection between religion and politics that persists regards the Jewish/Islamic relationship precisely because Israel is in possession of the third holiest Islamic site, as well as the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians are Muslims who have been suffering displacement and war with Israel for over sixty years. Now the Saudis also quite boldly offered Israel a peace treaty in 2002, and got the entire Arab League of twenty two states to go along with them. Israel has yet to respond to this offer.

A condition of the Madrid conference was that religion be seen as separate from politics. They did not invite Palestinians or Israelis in order to de-couple political from the religious global concerns. Many of the progressive rabbis in attendance understood that, respected it, and they did a marvelous job of interfaith peacemaking. But some rabbis refused to respect these boundaries, and felt the need to insert Israel wherever they could. They also over-reacted to one statement about Zionism and Judaism which was in no way meant to be pejorative or accusatory. It raised an issue for future discussions, but some of the reactions bordered on the hysterical.

Inserting Israel into the discussions was a mistake for two reasons: 1. Israel has proven that it can take care of itself militarily and politically, and does not need unpaid ambassadors, 2. The conference leaders were wisely trying to de-couple religion from politics precisely so that we can give both politics and world religions a chance to work out their relationships without entanglement with one another. We must respect this strategy and give it a chance.

I was very well aware at this conference that Saudi Arabia, like any state, is concerned with improving its image in the world. But anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Saudi Arabia knows that the price that the king was paying for the conference was substantial, and subequent death threats have proven this. Whenever you engage diplomacy internationally it is important to understand the role of public relations motivations in the events you participate in, but you also have to see objectively the risks and authentic motives involved on all sides. This is the only way to engage constructively but cautiously.

The Madrid conference was about the future of world religions as a resource for violence or a resource for peace, for belligerence or for cooperation. Jewish progressive rabbis, forward looking Catholic cardinals, Buddhists, and Saudi sheikhs were all in agreement that this was a historic moment expressed to the world in the most generous and honorable way conceivable. How does a Wahabi do interfaith relations? It turns out that he does it with grace, honor, and vision. And if this kind of gesture can come from the most conservative Islamic society on the planet it is time for every major religion to put their house in order and embrace global religious cooperation for civility, for tolerance, for justice, and for peace.

© Marc Gopin