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The Saudi Inter-faith Initiative

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • July 25, 2008

    The three day International Islamic Conference on Inter-faith Dialogue (also known as World Dialogue Conference) organised by the Saudi Arabia based World Muslim League (WML) was held in Madrid from July 16 to 18, 2008. Touted to be the brainchild of Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the conference was attended by around 300 religious leaders and scholars from across the world representing Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism and other religions. At the end of the three day conference, participants announced the “Madrid Declaration” which appeals to all peoples and countries to spurn violence and promote understanding and cooperation in the world. It called upon the United Nations General Assembly “to make use of the conference’s recommendations in enhancing dialogue among the followers of religions, civilizations and cultures through conducting a special UN session on dialogue.” But beyond the niceties of the conference, issues like its timing, venue and the unstated objective of the Saudi king etc. remain open for observation.

    Saudi Arabia has earned an unsavoury reputation for supporting and funding Islamic terrorism in different parts of the world through the network of charity organizations it has created. Its disrepute reached a pinnacle in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when it was found that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. There was tremendous international pressure on the Kingdom to withdraw support to terrorist organisations and take action against terrorist groups. The Kingdom’s image was tarnished and it needed to act to remove the tag of ‘terrorist funding state’. Along with this, King Abdullah is also trying to discard the “Clash of Civilisations” theory that re-emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. By organising the Inter-faith Dialogue, he seems to be trying to ward off the allegations about Saudi Arabia sponsoring Islamic terrorism throughout the world and to proclaim a new openness and eagerness to cooperate with the international community.

    Abdullah wants to project himself before the West as a moderate face in the turbulent West Asian region. His moderate and accommodative image may bear him results in both the short and longer terms. He may receive extended backing and support of the West and the United States in particular for his initiative. While holding such a conference may work to the advantage of Saudi foreign policy, the idealistic contents of the Madrid Declaration are however unlikely to be implemented or practiced anywhere in the region or in the world for that matter. Neither would it be able to control conflicts.

    At a time when the West Asian region and the Persian Gulf in particular is going through a period of turmoil and uncertainty, on the face of it such a conference involving religious leaders and their appeal for peace through dialogue could not have come at a better time. It can be viewed as a diplomatic edge for Saudi Arabia over its Gulf neighbours especially given the turmoil in Iraq and Iran coming on the radars of Israel and the United States. What Saudi Arabia seems to be doing is project itself as the modest face and the pivotal power in the Gulf.

    Saudi Arabia has also come under tremendous pressure, both internal and external, for adopting strict Islamic laws that regulate people’s lives. Puritanical Sunni Wahhabi Islamic rules govern the daily life of the Saudi citizen. The limited rights given to women, restrictions on the practice of Shi’ite rituals and festivals, and suppression of the dissenting voices in the name of Islam etc. have been some of the features of Saudi rule. The International Religious Freedom Report 2007 published by the United States designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern for systematic violation of religious freedom. The report said that, “There is no legal recognition of, or protection under the law for, freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice.” Thus Abdullah would not have found a better forum to cover up his misdeeds and improve his public relations.

    The conference was organised by the WML, an Islamic non-governmental organization founded in Saudi Arabia in 1962 to spread Wahhabi doctrine. WML has been reported to have funded many Islamic extremist groups around the world. It must be noted that the secretary general of the WML, Abdullah al-Turki, was in the past alleged to have links with the top ranks of al Qaeda.

    Women were sidelined from the main debate of the conference. It has been reported that only 15 women were invited and not a single woman was scheduled to speak formally at the conference. One woman, Makkiah Al-Najjar, a Professor of International Relations at the Universidat Autonoma de Madrid, made an unscheduled speech after some participants raised the issue of restoring the dignity of women. To the question of a delegate “Where are the women?” the chairman of the Saudi Shura Council, Saleh bin Abdullah bin Humaid, replied, “You theologians don’t usually include women in your hierarchy. Include them and then we will invite them.”

    Similarly, another controversy shrouded the conference when it was found that no Israeli religious leaders or scholars were invited. Most of the Jewish delegates invited to the conference were from the United States or Latin America, which reiterates the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognise the state of Israel.

    Madrid was chosen as the venue for the conference. One expects that such a big event would have taken place inside the Kingdom. Saudi ambassador to Spain, Saud bin Naif, justified this decision by saying that “Spain is a natural place of this type of dialogue... Spain has hosted for centuries the three major religions, they coexisted in harmony." But the truth is that such a conference would have met with stiff resistance had it been held within the Kingdom, where the practice of non-Islamic religions is not allowed.

    The interfaith dialogue initiative can be said to be an ideal move. But a gathering of this nature should have been more open and inclusive in its approach. Inviting scholars from Israel and allowing women delegates to speak would have increased the legitimacy of the conference.