A Saudi initiative to be encouraged

For the Saudi king to preach tolerance is quite a departure. But it does not come out of the blue.

Saudi King Abdullah 88 (photo credit: )
Saudi King Abdullah 88
(photo credit: )
The launching of an interfaith dialogue by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is a remarkable development that should be warmly welcomed by the Jewish people. On Monday, at a seminar on "Culture and the Respect of Religions" in Riyadh, Abdullah explained: "The idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same God." This idea, following Abdullah's historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI last November, should be encouraged and taken seriously. It is significant that the king of a state that has for decades promoted an extreme and intolerant form of Islam might have decided to reverse course and combat the monster it helped create. Osama bin Laden came from Saudi Arabia, as did most of the 9/11 terrorists. This is not a coincidence. Saudi Arabia remains the seat of the Wahabi strain of Islam. The extreme intolerance of this strain has not only led to the glorification of mass murder, but to atrocities directed against other religions, such as the destruction of ancient Buddhist stone carvings in Afghanistan. So for the Saudi king to preach tolerance and dialogue is quite a departure. But it does not come out of the blue. An analysis released in February by MEMRI found that "in recent years, Saudi Arabia has been making intense efforts to fight both terrorism and its religious and ideological underpinnings. ... Among the results of this comprehensive anti-terror campaign are the uncovering of several terrorist cells in the country; a government warning to Saudi youth to refrain from engaging in jihad outside the country; and fatwas and declarations by senior religious establishment clerics stating that engaging in jihad outside Saudi Arabia is a grave offense that does serious damage to Saudi Arabia and to the entire Muslim world." A prominent Saudi cleric has rejected suicide bombings as un-Islamic, as have columnists in the Saudi media. The MEMRI paper also noted that Saudi authorities have called on preachers to stop cursing Jews and Christians, and that the Education Ministry has developed a program to fight terrorist ideology in the schools. All of these are steps in the right direction that the Saudis have taken not for love of Zionism or the West, but because they have realized that the jihadi ideology that billions of their dollars has gone to fuel has come back to bite them. While the Saudis see America's regional push for democracy as a threat, an even greater threat is Iran's growing power, and this power has been fed by the jihadist culture of martyrdom. The Jewish response to all this should be encouraging, while insisting on some basic principles. For example, the Saudis have said that they are interested in Jewish participation in the new dialogue, but don't want anyone involved in "oppressing Palestinians." If this is code for excluding all Israelis, Jewish invitees should refuse to participate. The reason for this is simple: It is not possible to have a dialogue with the Jewish people that deliberately excludes the Jewish state. The first step of tolerance and understanding is to accept that the Jews are a people, that Israel is the Jewish state, and that the denial of Jewish national rights not only constitutes anti-Semitism, but the most virulent form of anti-Semitism today. It makes as much sense to reach out to Jews and boycott Israel as it would to reach out to Christians and boycott the pope, or to reach out to Muslims and boycott the Saudis, for that matter. The Saudis should understand that Jews are indivisible, since they claim the same for Muslims. As the Saudi Foreign Ministry explains: "The Kingdom endeavors ... [to serve the] Islamic World and achieve the motives of solidarity and unity based on the fact of belongingness to one belief. The Islamic symbiosis is the method to regain Muslims' position and honor." The Saudis cannot demand that Muslims stick together while attempting to drive Jews apart. No less to the point, they cannot combat militant forms of jihad while kowtowing to a major objective of that jihad - Israel's destruction. An attempt to dialogue with Jews, but not Israelis, will rightly be seen as a classic case of the "new anti-Semitism," with the supposed embrace of Jews as cover for delegitimizing Israel. The Saudis, if they want their campaign to tame jihad to be effective, must not fall into this trap - and if they do, Jewish leaders should not fall into it with them.