One common characteristic among extremists from all religions is their belief in one true “path” while condemning and despising all others. Regardless of their claim that they “hate the sin not the sinner,” this attitude would most likely affect how they interact with people who hold different beliefs and values and could help in planting seeds of extremism in any society that may lead to terrorism.
Religious extremism has been recognized as a serious issue in Saudi society when terrorist attacks started occurring on Saudi soil and abroad, highlighted by the tragedy of 9/11. As a result, Saudi government contemplated several initiatives in order to eradicate extremism and promote moderation in understanding Islam, which included establishing National Society for Human Rights in 2004, a public awareness campaign to promote moderate Islamic values, and reforming religious education as well as training teachers and imams. In addition to that, Custodian of the two Holy Mosques King Abdullah conducted an initiative to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue in 2008, which was followed by building “The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue” (KAICIID) in Vienna in 2011.
Although these efforts could contribute to changing Saudis’ attitudes, much more still needs to be done in order to uproot extremist views, which we still find in our society. For example, some people still believe that non-Muslims should not be greeted in their holidays or even given charity when in need, as if their lives have lost its value in our eyes when they followed another religion. Furthermore, many people do not know how to conduct a respectful dialogue with people from different religious backgrounds and refuse to accept the idea of learning about their religions in an informative way because they consider such actions to be corrupting their own faith and contradict their belief in the “truth” of their own religion.
One of the problems that are hindering the process of spreading tolerance is the absence of a legal foundation, which would reflect and enforce these initiatives, such as laws to protect freedom of religion and anti-discrimination laws. In addition, the concept of “shared values,” which celebrates diversity and is based on human rights and religious freedom, is a relatively new concept that many have not grasped yet. In Saudi Arabia, the recognized “shared values” are the ones that celebrate conformity rather than diversity because they are understood as specific Islamic values, which everybody is supposed to adhere to. Raising awareness of universal “shared values,” such as tolerance, acceptance, and respect of human dignity, would build a strong foundation for eradicating extremism and conducting a true interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Starting with children at schools is especially necessary for this concept to evolve and grow with a new Saudi generation, which could lead to a slow albeit effective change in Saudi society.
After the previous steps have taken place, interfaith dialogue should also be encouraged at the grassroots level. Creating local forums where Saudis and non-Muslim residents can discuss and learn about each other’s religious traditions, such as their rituals, ceremonies, and the reasons behind them could increase mutual understanding and tolerance not only to Saudis but also to the expatriates who live in Saudi Arabia and some of them in turn have their own misconceptions about Islam and Saudi culture. This could lead to increasing communal cohesion and peaceful coexistence in Saudi society in addition to facilitating better integration with the expatriates as well as with rest of the world. This does not contradict believing in the “truth” of one’s own beliefs, but it rather aims to acknowledge and appreciate other people’s beliefs and different ways of life.
Religion is supposed to contribute positively to a person’s spiritual well-being and to bring peace, justice, and morality to the world. However, one cannot underestimate the power of religion, which if manipulated can be used for destruction. The Crusades lasted for seven centuries killing thousands of people after Pope Urban II famously said, “Deus vult!” which is Latin for “God wills it!”
In that case, religion was used to claim a “holy war” by the Christian “believers” against the Muslim. Nowadays, thousands are dying as well as a result of another so-called “holy war.”
We cannot teach our children that believing in all prophets of the past is essential to their belief in God while we warn them about loving their followers who share the world we live in because it will corrupt their faith.
All religions have commonalities, which should be acknowledged and differences that should be appreciated. More importantly, our humanity unites all of us and religion constitutes only one aspect of our human lives, which should help us live in peace instead of being an obstacle.