Interfaith, Saudi-style

What to make of the organizers' refusal to invite an Israeli theologian?

king abdullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
king abdullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
My brothers, we must tell the world that differences don't need to lead to disputes. The tragedies we have experienced throughout history were not the fault of religion, but because of the extremism that has been adopted by some followers of all the religions, and of all political systems. - Saudi King Abdullah, Madrid, July 16 It would be naive to make too much - though self-defeating to make too little - of the ecumenical World Conference on Dialogue hosted by the monarch of Arabia. For years savvy Western observers of a radicalized Muslim world have insisted that the only reliable antidote to the toxicity of Islamism is a religious reformation from within. It is premature to suppose that what happened in Spain last month was the "beginning of the beginning" of a Muslim reformation. Yet it may be that key Muslim religious and political figures have come to appreciate the perilous consequences of a rapacious Islam - not only for its non-Muslim prey, but for those who embrace the faith as well. The Islamist revolution has already begun to consume its own. Al-Qaida's first and primary target: the Saudi monarchy itself. SO THERE can be no deprecating the ecumenical importance of King Abdullah having invited Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist figures to Madrid - not really for a dialogue, but to listen to a series of presentations. Plainly, the king was making an effort, after a fashion, to connect Islam to other religions and make Saudi Arabia less insular. The king set the stage for his ecumenical foray in June by gathering Sunni and Shi'ite leaders in Mecca - no small feat given the depth of religious closed-mindedness within Saudi Arabia, a country where Salafism, the extreme version of reactionary Wahhabism, rules. That Abdullah, the Custodian of Mecca and Medina, decided to dialogue with Shi'ites, Sufis and Ismailis on religious matters did not receive wholehearted endorsement from the country's clerical establishment. This is, after all, a society where religious, political and economic discrimination against non-believers is enshrined as a societal norm. Only by grasping the intolerance of the milieu in which the king operates can the relative boldness of his intra- and interreligious efforts be evaluated. Abdullah is undeniably a maverick. In November 2007, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Vatican and meet with the leader of the Catholic Church. Abdullah has also taken relatively modernizing steps to reform the Saudi legal and educational systems. Analysts suggest that the real purpose of the king's ecumenical outreach might be domestic - to influence Wahhabi clerics by creating new theological facts on the ground. THE JEWISH invitees to the Madrid "dialogue" comprised a virtual Who's Who of European and American lay and rabbinical figures involved in ecumenical work from across the Jewish spectrum. Its organizers withdrew a shameful invitation to the Neturei Karta when the faux pas was exposed. But what to make of the organizers' refusal to invite an Israeli theologian? Even if we accept that beyond its ostensible ecumenical purpose the gathering's underlying mission was mostly reforming Islam from within, the hypocrisy of holding a religious "dialogue" while blacklisting Israelis is disappointing. And though Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee lives in Israel, the Saudis adhered to their boycott of the Jewish state by sending his invitation to the AJC's Manhattan headquarters. CRITICS ARGUE that the event's Jewish participants, if they had to attend at all, should have taken an openly adversarial stance and denounced Saudi political and religious fanaticism. It's doubtful, however, that haranguing Muslims is the best way to convey the idea that politico-religious differences should be amicably addressed. Rosen - who points out that many Muslims he encountered during mealtimes in Madrid had never before met a Jew, much less a rabbi - may well be right that the Madrid gathering offers a "significant opportunity that must be seized," whatever King Abdullah's motives. Indeed, Israelis would be delighted to "seize" the next chance to participate in a Saudi-sponsored interfaith meeting. If, however, the Jewish state were again excluded, responsible Jewish representatives would want to ask themselves if future participation was warranted.