Poisoned Relations (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In July, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah convened a three-day interfaith conference in Madrid, where he called for religion to be a force of moderation rather than fanaticism. The conference, attended by Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist representatives from 50 countries, was organized by the World Muslim League at the king's initiative. It was an unusual, if not unprecedented, step for the leader of a country whose dominant religion is a strand of conservative Sunni Islam, sometimes called Wahhabism, with little tolerance for other streams of Islam - let alone other religions. Among the Jewish religious leaders who attended the conference was one Israeli: Rabbi David Rosen, head of interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee and president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. Rosen spoke to The Report about the Saudi move and the reception he got as the lone Israeli there. The Jerusalem Report: Were you surprised by the initiative? Rabbi David Rosen: Yes, because Saudi Arabia is the heartland of the conservative Muslim world - a society in which there is no freedom of public worship for other religions. As far as I know, it's not only the first Saudi interfaith initiative, but the first time any Arab leader has put together such a conference. On the other hand, one Saudi commentator told me that the initiative was not, in fact, so radical and that it reflected the culmination of a trend towards greater openness and engagement with the foreign world that has characterized King Abdullah's approach for the last two years. Is this evidence of a real change in Saudi orientation or just a PR gesture to improve its image as a hotbed of religious fanaticism? No doubt the Saudis are in need of better PR in the Western world, especially after 9/11 and with all the terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. But this does not contradict its desire to maintain stability in the region. It reflects Saudi Arabia's recognition that its future depends on a more effective encounter with the outside world. The declaration issued at the end of the conference calls on governments to respect all religions and promote diversity. Doesn't this sound hollow, if not ridiculous, given that Saudi Arabia bans the public practice of any religion other than Islam and requires all citizens to be Muslim? There is a degree of cognitive dissonance in this. But it also reflects a certain utopian aspiration which some - including the king himself - share. Certainly not all Saudis are happy with that aspiration. I was told that there were bitter accusations against the king, with one notable preacher accusing him of having sullied Islam by sitting down with Christians and Jews. For the king, this was a very courageous step. Also, what's important about this sort of conference is not the program or the declarations, which all sound like motherhood and apple pie, but rather what goes on in the hallways. As the only Israeli at the conference, what kind of response did you get from the Muslim and Arab representatives? There was overwhelming interest. It was as though once the king took the initiative, a cork was removed from a bottle, releasing an outpouring of interest in Jews and Israelis. I granted about 30 interviews, the vast majority to the Arab or Muslim media, including Saudi's state TV. I always said I was an Israeli. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.