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Religion and Society

Analysis of a Historic Day and its Unpredicable Developments

On 6 November 2007, the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdallah II Ben Abdelaziz ben Abd al-Rahman Aal Saoud, paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican. This was the first visit of a Saudi monarch to a Pope and this was interpreted by the whole world as a historic event. Even more because the Saudi kingdom does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, does not authorise the building of churches or chapels in its immense territory in which there are more than a million Christians, and prohibits the smallest sign of Christianity such as a small cross or a Bible.

 

It is certainly the case that Abdallah had met John Paul II in the Vatican in May 1999 but this was as Vice-Minister of Defence. In the same way the Saudi Minister for Foreign Affairs, Said Aal Faisal, had been received three times by John Paul II and had also met Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo on 6 September 2007. But a King of Saudi Arabia had never taken a step such as this.

 

Why did Abdallah II take this initiative? There can be no doubt that he wanted to open his country to the world both at a cultural level and at a religious level, and to withdraw it from the influence of terrorism. The Saudi agency Arab News wrote that day: ‘We hope that the conversation centred around the relationship between Muslims and Christians and on the need for believers of each religion to work together for peace’.

 

Peace is certainly one of the priorities of King Abdallah. Beginning with peace in the region between Israelis and Palestinians and between Shiites and Sunnites in Iraq. Saudi Arabia supports a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based upon the principle of the withdrawal by Israel from the Palestinian territories which have been occupied for forty years in exchange for a lasting peace and a solution to the problem of Jerusalem and the refugees. The positions of the Saudi kingdom and the Vatican and not very distant from each other.

 

At the end of the meeting, which lasted twenty minutes, the following communiqué was published which in its concision was rich and dense: ‘The conversations took place in a climate of cordiality and allowed subjects to be touched upon which are dear to the interlocutors. In particular, the commitment to intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, directed towards peaceful and fruitful co-existence between men and peoples, and the value of cooperation between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, in particular in support of the family, were emphasised’.

 

The text went on: ‘In the hope for prosperity for all the inhabitants of the country of the Vatican authorities, mention was made of the positive and hard working presence of Christians. Lastly, there did not fail to be an exchange of ideas about the Middle East and the need to find a just solution to the conflicts which trouble the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.

 

Four points in this brief communiqué deserve comment here. I will present them in the order in which they appear in the communiqué.

 

1. ‘Commitment to intercultural and interreligious dialogue’. As in all meetings with Muslims, dialogue is always a ‘dialogue of cultures and religions’. It is impossible to separate religion and culture just as it is impossible to separate religion, politics and society.

 

This is the point which almost everywhere makes the integration of Muslims in Western societies more difficult that that of other religious groups. This is because of the identification of culture and religion. Indeed, what in the West and the Christian world belongs to the category of culture (such as food, clothing, language, rites of purification and many other religious practices), is a part, for many Muslims, of the essence of religion, such as the veil for women, halâl food, the use of Arabic for the salât, ablutions etc.

 

It is for this reason I believe, that Pope Benedict XVI united the two Pontifical Councils, for inter-religious dialogue and for culture, before separating them again for practical reasons.

 

2. ‘Fostering a peaceful and fruitful co-existence between men and peoples’. This is an allusion to the recent but persistent phenomenon of violence in the name of religion (or culture or ideology). Saudi Arabia, like most Muslim governments, is opposed to terrorism for various reasons. It does not surprise us, therefore, to see that the Saudi daily newspaper Arab News wrote ‘The King and the Pope emphasised that violence and terrorism have nothing to do with religion or homeland’.

 

However the problem remains. This is a dual problem. On the one hand Muslim countries easily justify violence when this is a matter of ‘defending Islam’, as in the case of the fatwas against ‘the enemies of Islam’ Salman Rushdi, Ayaan Hirsi, Geert Wilmers and the Danish cartoonists. On the other, they do not seem to see the close link that binds radical religious ideology (and such is the Wahabite religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia) and violence or even terrorism.

 

3. ‘The importance of cooperation between Muslims, Christians and Jews’. This reference to the Jews in an Islamic-Christian communiqué is very relevant. Certainly, it will not generate unanimity amongst Muslims. But knowing that the Jews are often compared to monkeys and pigs in the sermons of radical imams, who base themselves in this on the sura of the Table [5:60] (1) one understands the newness of such a statement. For that matter when reporting on the communiqué a number of Arab newspapers omitted the reference to Jews.

 

Although this is not a common event, this openness to Judaism encounters a tendency that is spreading within contemporary Islam in response to the fanaticism of the radicals. King Abdallah II of Saudi Arabia is one of its promoters, as he has demonstrated in his speeches and at the Congress of Madrid of July 2008. Here it is opportune to draw attention to the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace that was promoted by the Swiss foundation Hommes de Parole which has its headquarters in Geneva. The first congress was held in Brussels on 3-6 January 2005 and brought together more than a hundred imams and rabbis. The second was held in Seville on 19-22 March 2006 and brought together more than two hundred Jewish and Muslim personalities. The third will take place in Paris, at UNESCO, on 15-17 December 2008.

 

4. ‘Promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family’. Here is indicated the goal aimed at by the two interlocutors: peace, justice and ethics. The first two make one think of the leitmotif of John Paul II – ‘there is no peace without justice’. For the Arab world this principle is the basis of the debates about Palestine, where injustice is, alas, evident. More interesting is the third objective: ‘the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family’. The criticism that the Islamic world habitually levels at the West – which, alas, it considers Christian, in this way confusing the West and Christianity – is specifically the loss of ‘spiritual and moral values’. The spread of abortion in Europe, of sexual freedom (whether pre-matrimonial or within marriage), of sexual tourism, of homosexuality openly upheld as a right, of de facto couples recognised by numerous examples of legislation, the banalisation of divorce etc., are seen as evident proof of the decadence of this Western civilisation which is in contrast with its undeniable scientific growth and development.

 

A Congress in Madrid

 

 

This observation leads fundamentalist Islam to declare that the West is atheistic, accusing it of being the great Satan, specifically because of its freedom in manners and mores. This is one of the fundamental causes of the fight of Islamists against the West and their zeal to spread Islam by all means possible. For many this is the Islamic formulation of the discourse of recent Popes on the relationship between ‘faith and reason’. Having lost its faith, the West flounders in neo-paganism (jâhiliyya) with all its turpitudes! This is the thinking of one of the fathers of Islamic radicalism who opened the door to certain forms of Islamic terrorism, namely Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who was sentenced to death by Nasser.

 

On Monday 24 March, in Riyadh, a seminar was held on dialogue between the Islamic world and Japan. During the course of this seminar King Abdallah declared that he wanted to bring together at a congress Christian, Muslim and Jewish representatives. He called them his ‘brothers of the other religions, those of the Torah and the Gospel’. It was a matter of saving mankind from disaster, and for this reason the three religions had to unite. And thus the King announced his project: ‘A thought has been troubling me for two years. The world suffers and this crisis has provoked an imbalance in religion, in ethics and in the whole of humanity…We have lost faith in religion and in respect for mankind. The disintegration of the family and the spread of atheism in the world are terrible phenomena which all the religions should take into consideration and defeat…this is why I had the idea of inviting religious authorities to express their views on what is taking place in the world. If God so wants, we will begin to organise meetings with ‘our brothers who belong to the monotheistic religions’, with representatives of the Koran, the Gospel and the Bible’.

 

We rediscover in this speech the great lines of the meeting in the Vatican of 6 November but they are more explicit that in the short communiqué of the Holy See. One could sum them up in four points: 1. the world is in a bad state, it suffers and it is in crisis; all of this is to be observed in particular in the disintegration of the family; 2. the cause of this evil is loss of faith, an absence of ethics, and the spread of atheism; 3. only believers can save the world: it is necessary, therefore, that they meet in order ‘to express their views on what is taking place in the world’; 4. it is necessary to have the monotheistic believers – Muslims, Christians and Jews. In this, the King was in conformity with the theological vision of the Koran which recognises only three ‘celestial religions’, endowed with a revealed texts, which are those that he named.

 

One should emphasise here the formula ‘with our ‘brothers’ who belong to the monotheistic religions’. Coming from the King of Saudi Arabia, where the Wahabite doctrine which easily excommunicates anybody who does not belong to it, including non-fundamentalist Muslims, prevails, the term ‘brother’ is absolutely relevant, above all if applied to Jews!

 

Gestures of Authentic Exchange

 

 

Now the sovereign gave this speech on 24 March, Easter Monday, that is to say the day after the baptism, administered by Benedict XVI during the Easter vigil, of five neophytes, amongst whom was Magdi Cristiano Allam. Magdi is a rather secular Muslim from Cairo, a convert to Christianity and the vice-editor of the Corriere della Sera. For years he has fought Islamic extremism, observing that this tendency finds its inspiration in the Koran itself and in the Tradition of the Prophet of Islam. His writings have brought him death threats and his baptism on world television by the Pope provoked violent reactions against Benedict XVI both by fashionable Catholics and by the so-called ‘ecumenical’ Muslims.

 

Thus one commentator described this act as ‘a gesture carried out the day after the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet, the Muslim Christmas, which runs the risk of generating negative messages and which reveals the political intention of the Vatican to achieve the supremacy of the Catholic Church over other religions’. Another more severe commentator accused the Pope of wanting to repeat through this gesture of baptism the ‘execrable’ address of Ratisborn and of supporting the ‘speeches of hatred’ of Allam against Islam.

 

The King, without making the slightest allusion to Magdi Allam, observed that he himself had presented his project of dialogue to Benedict XVI on the occasion of his historic visit to the Vatican in November 2007, ‘an unforgettable meeting, a man to man meeting’. He also emphasised that his initiative had the support of the ulemaof the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

 

L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Pope, commented as follows on the speech of King Abdallah in its edition of 29 March: ‘Intercultural and inter-religious dialogue; cooperation between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace. These were the subjects addressed on 6 November 2007 on the occasion of the meeting between Benedict XVI and King Abdallah, who was received in audience in the Vatican with his entourage’.

 

It appears strongly evident that the address of Ratisborn and the baptism of Magdi Allam on the night of Easter, broadcast by world television, far from being a rejection of dialogue were gestures of authentic exchange, based upon truth and not upon ambiguity. This is the same wish for dialogue that the Supreme Pontiff had expressed with his silent prayer in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This is also the wish for dialogue expressed by the warm reception given to the King of Saudi Arabia.

 

Some people could think that King Abdallah is satisfied with enunciating fine words and nothing more. In my view, the facts demonstrate that one is dealing with a man with his feet planted firmly on the ground. He is trying, as far as is possible, to promote peace amongst the nations of the Near East and intercultural and inter-religious dialogue at a world level.

 

In 1980 he offered his mediation between Syria and Jordan and in October 1989 he played a decisive role in the Taef accords which ended the civil war in the Lebanon. In May 1999 he received President Mohammed Khatami on an official visit to Saudi Arabia to achieve a drawing closer together of Sunnites and Shiites. Appointed hereditary Prince by his brother King Fahd I in 1983, and raised to the rank of Regent in 1996, Abdallah became King in August 2005, and since then he has worked to draw advantage from the economic power of Saudi Arabia in order to encourage, by all means possible, peace in the region.

 

On 20 December 2007 the King invited Muslims to remember ‘what unites religions, faiths and cultures’. At the beginning of June 2008 he organised a meeting in Mecca between Sunnites and Shiites where he defended his idea of dialogue in front of hundreds of Muslim wise men. This led a little later to the reaction of twenty-one ulema who promulgated a fatwa by which the Shiites were defined as ‘heretics’.

 


 

(1) «... on whom His wrath hath fallen ! Worese is he of whose sort Allah hath turned some to apes and swine...» (5,60); «And ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto them: "Be ye apes, despised and hated!"» (2,65); «So when they took pride in that which they had been forbidden, We said unto them: Be ye apes despised and loathed!» (7,166)». The Sura of the Table is one of the last of the Qur'an and, accoding to the prevalent giuridical theory, it abolishes the preceeding suras.

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