MADRID (JTA) – When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced his intention some three months ago to reach out to the leaders of the main religions of the world to convene an interfaith dialogue and to work together to address major global challenges, understandably there was no shortage of skepticism.
Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Islam and arguably the most conservative of Muslim countries. Freedom of worship is not granted to other religions in Saudi Arabia, where the dominant brand of Islam is Wahhabism – or, more precisely, Salafism – which has a far more insular approach than other forms.
However, there appeared to be some obvious reasons why the king would want to take such an initiative. Aside from the need to improve the image of Islam in the West and that of his country in particular, at stake were the regional strategic factors that contribute to Saudi Arabia’s sense that the country needs to assert what it sees as its leadership role in the Muslim world.
In typically cautious fashion, King Abdullah first convened a pan-Islamic conference to discuss this venture, and while there were Muslim criticisms, he received widespread backing in much of the Islamic world. However, some who did not attend the conference expressed strong opposition to the whole idea of interfaith dialogue, especially to inviting members of other faiths to Saudi Arabia.
Probably for this reason, or at least in order to proceed as tactically secure as possible, the decision was taken to hold the multifaith gathering in Spain while indicating that it was the first such conference and hinting at future gatherings in Saudi Arabia itself.
There were important arguments against cooperating with this Saudi initiative. Why be party to advancing the public relations of a regime that is hardly an exemplar of religious toleration? Why cooperate with religious entities that promote a brand of Islam that does not by any means serve the interests of Muslim integration into Western democracy and pluralism?
Moreover, a number of the names that appeared on an initial list of invitees were considered problematic, including the secretary-general of the Saudi-based World Muslim League, who was allegedly implicated in supporting organizations that had served nefarious elements working abroad.
The counterargument was that a Jewish rejection of this invitation would not, in fact, serve the interests of Jewry, Israel and the free world – on the contrary. This was an opportunity to begin to break through barriers of hostility and bigotry, and perhaps this move, for whatever reasons of self-interest, would herald an opening in the Muslim world to greater understanding of and even cooperation with others.
In addition to the welcome given by the American Jewish Committee to this initiative, this was also the position taken by Israel’s political and diplomatic leadership.
However, it became patently clear that for the Saudi organizers, these were uncharted waters. The preparations, list of invitees, invitations and even the program itself all betrayed the lack of familiarity with the interfaith territory at large and with specific religious communities in particular.
It was clear that the hosts had decided to deliberately avoid inviting any official Israeli or Palestinian representatives. Though I reside in Israel, the invitation I received as one of the few initial Jewish invitees was sent deliberately to AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Building in New York.
Most disturbing was the fact that when the tentative program, subsequently changed half a dozen times, appeared on the conference Web site, the name of Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta – the fervently Orthodox group of anti-Zionists that vehemently opposes the existence of the Jewish state – was listed on the opening plenary.
Had Weiss in fact remained in this representative role, we would have withdrawn from the conference in protest – and this was very much the position that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs had recommended as well. However, together with other Jewish figures who had accepted invitations to attend, an effective campaign was launched enlisting various religious and political contacts in the U.S. and around the world. The result was that Weiss was deleted from the program and did not attend the conference.
King Juan Carlos of Spain hosted the opening session on July 16 in the Spanish Royal El Prado Palace. An impressive array of Arab princes, including most of the Saudi government, and Muslim clerics attended with representatives of the world’s major faiths – not least among these Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican prelate responsible for relations with other faiths.
King Abdullah welcomed the attendees, and in his opening speech emphasized his conviction that authentic religion is expressed in a spirit of moderation and tolerance, and requires that concord must replace conflict. He called for cooperation and collaboration between religions to address the global challenges of our time.
At the end of the opening, King Abdullah greeted the guests individually. When my turn came, I introduced myself to him saying in my limited Arabic, “I am Rabbi Rosen from Jerusalem, Israel,” and he replied “Ahalan w’asalan” – welcome – but I could see that those around him almost had heart attacks on the spot.
While the king’s message was hardly earth-shattering in itself, the fact that he had given the green light for encounter, dialogue and collaboration with the other faith communities appeared to open the gates for many who were most curious but might have been wary or even fearful of such encounters.
Members of the Jewish delegation were interviewed incessantly by the Arab media. Several Arab figures came up to us and said they had never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi, and would like to ask us questions.
Many of the questions reflected stunning prejudice, distortions and misconceptions, but the very fact that they could vent them to us – almost innocently – presented opportunities to address the misrepresentations and try to overcome them.
Naturally, as is the case more often than not at conferences, conversations outside of the formal proceedings and especially at mealtimes offered far greater opportunity for meaningful exchange.
At one meal I was sitting next to a prominent Saudi personality who informed us that the gathering was the outcome of the process that King Abdullah had embarked upon since his accession to the throne. The king’s desire, he said, was not only for Saudi Arabia to play a more engaged role with the world at large and with the world’s religions in particular, but also was part of his desire to open up Saudi Arabia itself to the world.
In the highly choreographed format of the proceedings, there was a moment of some passion and heat. It came in the wake of the almost inevitable mantra expressed by a panelist in the penultimate session that while dialogue with Jews was permissible, and perhaps even desirable, dialogue with Israel and those who supported it was not.
When I was given the floor to respond, I pointed out that genuine dialogue is not one in which one side defines the character of the other but rather seeks genuinely to understand others as they see themselves. Judaism has always been inextricably connected to the Land of Israel, and while this should not be used to justify any action or policy that is in conflict with the morality and ethics that are at the foundation of religion, to deny or try to separate this bond is to fail to acknowledge, let alone respect, Jewish self-definition.
While there was a minimal negative reaction, alleging that the irenic discussion had now been politicized, there were also constructive Muslim responses in return.
Arguably most notable of all was the respectful spirit in which the discussion took place.
In a way, the absence of any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict created the feeling that the “elephant in the room” was being ignored. The opportunity to refer to it in the context of respectful debate actually helped clear the air.
While the concluding statement was the anticipated pious declaration, it does nevertheless reflect the expressed Saudi intention to continue the process that has been embarked upon. This is something that should not be underestimated.
The highest authority in the very heartland of Islam has taken a lead in interfaith outreach, whatever his motives might be, with the declared intention of addressing contemporary challenges and resolving conflict. This offers Israel, the Jewish people and the West a significant opportunity that must be seized.
(Rabbi David Rosen is the International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee.)