The king and I: An interfaith opening in Madrid

by Rabbi Alan Brill *
New Jersey Jewish News, July 31, 2008

Participants at last week’s interfaith conference initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have called the gathering of 300 clergy in Madrid a hopeful opening, a perestroika moment, a decisive breakthrough, or just an easing of hostilities. I entered skeptical of any prospects of Saudi religious tolerance and walked out thinking of the long road needed for countries to attain modern tolerance, especially since the conference ended without any calls for either a standing committee or any proposed future projects.

The approximately 25 Jewish representatives spent three days amid a multicolored sea of imams, sheikhs, Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, Hindu holy men, and American politicians. We were able to get to know religious leaders and exchange business cards, and now follow-up e-mails, with clergy from countries with whom we’ve had little dialogue in the past.

I had to explain that ‘Rabbi’ is my title, not my first name.

My week started with a live interview on Saudi TV. The goal of the Saudi television teams was to open up their audience to affirmative, rather than negative, images of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. So rare was the opportunity that I had to explain to the interviewer that “Rabbi” was not my first name but the title of a Jewish cleric.

My skepticism started to melt after speaking to the Saudi minister of dialogue, who proclaimed a need for Saudi culture to learn to be open to other religions, cultures, and civilizations. Such change, he said, must come from within, and meet the country’s own needs for globalization. His goal was to bring this openness not only to the elites but also to local imams and textbooks. (I subsequently found out that they actually are changing textbooks to remove language against infidels, quieting radical preachers, and have planned judicial reform.)

The minister said that Dubai was open to the world but it did not develop this openness using Islamic ideas; for him Morocco is a better model because it preserved an Islamic core. The minister complained about the struggles among his country’s Wahabi clergy, many of whom reject the entire premise of dialogue and openness. Theirs was the only truth, according to which even Shi’ites and Sufis are deviants.

King Abdullah, however, not wanting to be left behind by globalization, is seeking to separate himself from the extreme elements in his own community. The theologically important part of his speech, presented as the opening of the conference, was his presentation of an Islamic ideal of God’s concern for all the children of Adam. No longer does Islam relate only to the Western Abrahamic faiths, the king said, but it has to have a positive teaching about all cultures.

Listening to King Abdullah speak, I was reminded of the king from Anna and the King of Siam, whose attempts to modernize the country were matched by a profound lack of realization of what is involved.

The Saudi speakers did not use the language of human rights, tolerance, or guaranteed freedoms. They spoke of a God-given global ethic. And even though the conference proclaimed “dialogue,” they usually meant by the word any form of communication, anti-defamation, advocacy, and knowledge of cultures other than one’s own — as opposed to respecting other faiths and cultures.

One gets a sense of the huge gap between the openings of this conference and the gusts of liberty that may need to follow. King Abdullah is only three years into his formal reign; he wants to leave a legacy of modernization. He cannot guarantee where this vision will go, but it is inevitable that Saudi Arabia and the Middle East must modernize and is making hasty efforts to do so.

The absolute monarchs of the 18th century who sought to modernize their countries took various torturous routes. Some only modernized their capital districts, leaving the hinterland alone. Even France did not fully succeed in bringing its peasants into modernity until World War I.

If the Wahabis succeed in modernizing, then they will have pragmatic tolerance: comfortable with its particularism, but still open to engagement with the wider world. Modernity will only be used to the extent that it is needed.

This event was an opening for the Saudis to start down a long road. The Catholic Church moved from teaching contempt to recognizing Judaism as a living faith, but only after the Holocaust. We cannot preclude giving Wahabi Islam the chance to change and slowly learn tolerance and respect, especially since it serves their own needs for entering a global economy.

We recognize the Saudis’ current lack of religious freedom, funding of hateful literature, negative portrayal of Judaism, and lack of recognition of the State of Israel. We must remember heroic figures from the 1950s, such as Sister Rose Thering, who confronted her own church with the anti-Semitism being taught in its textbooks and helped bring about an interfaith revolution. We need a similar Islamic activist to challenge Saudi textbooks, religious teachings, and the Arabic press.

In the interim, we need to give these modernizing elements support. We must not look to the past and use that to dissuade us from working with our counterparts now and in the future. But we can look to the past to see how long it took most Western countries to achieve the liberties of the modern world, and know that it will also take the Saudis time to achieve this openness.

* Rabbi Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University.

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