Many see Saudi Arabia as a closed society, with little religious diversity. In recent years, however, King Abdullah's immense interfaith dialogue efforts have begun to change this view. His three interfaith initiatives last year – the Mecca Appeal for Interfaith Dialogue, the Madrid World Conference on Dialogue and the Interfaith Conference at the United Nations in New York – set a strong precedent for the country internationally as well as domestically.
Over 500 scholars and religious leaders from all over the Muslim world, including the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Aal al-Shaikh, and Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, Abdullah al-Turki, participated in the Mecca conference and demonstrated strong support for King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue efforts.
In July of the same year, King Abdullah commenced the Interfaith Dialogue Conference in Madrid. Along with his host, King Juan Carlos of Spain, he called on people of faith around the world to defeat extremist viewpoints, find common ground and foster a spirit of peace.
At the New York Interfaith Conference, the participants differed slightly from the previous two events – the majority were political, rather than religious, leaders. Such dialogue is necessary to solve conflicts, particularly when treaties and agreements need to be signed between nations. While there has been immense focus on inter-religious dialogue recently, we should not assume that it alone could solve conflicts; we also need political solutions.
Many point a warning finger toward unresolved conflicts in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia and other regions, places where the role of religious and political leaders have often overlapped and the conflicts continue to be mired in tension and violence. One opinion is that dialogue in such cases must follow two tracks: one aiming to create an environment of understanding through religious harmony, and the other to resolve these issues at the political level.
Saudi Arabia has had success so far in focusing more specifically on religious dialogue.
Many Muslim religious leaders are optimistic about King Abdullah's initiatives, which are designed to find common values across religious lines. However, the project also has its critics who believe such efforts may undermine the religious character of the country.
Saudi Arabia faces its share of challenges to pluralism. The country is composed primarily of Sunni Muslims, most of whom follow the conservative Salafi tradition. There are also significant Shi’a, Sufi, and Ismaili minorities. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s large expatriate community consists of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others. Regardless of their faith, Saudi citizens are expected to adhere to laws based on Salafi Sunni principles.
The government has taken some steps to address this challenge. Under the patronage of King Abdullah, an accredited training of trainers called the “Promotion of a Culture of Dialogue” took place in July 2009.
The 1,200 trainers – including 500 females, along with the Grand Mufti, the Speaker of the Shura Council (Parliament), ministers and government officials – discussed how to improve dialogue in Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Minister of Culture and Information proposed the development of a new television channel specialising in dialogue.
And in 2003, The King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue was established, by then-crown-prince Abdullah, to enhance unofficial dialogue between the different religious sects in Saudi Arabia and to ensure the rights of religious minorities. Since the King Abdulaziz Centre was established, it has trained over 150,000 Saudis from different regions.
These initiatives have been a step in the right direction in building religious harmony. However, because religious and political issues are often intertwined, some religious figures end up dabbling in politics – and politicians in religion – without appropriate training or experience.
Building on existing initiatives, Saudi dialogue must take two parallel paths: one for religious leaders to discuss religious matters, without the interests and power-play involved in political tracks, and another for politicians to focus on legal and diplomatic aspects.
By empowering religious and political leaders in their unique roles, we can further King Abdullah’s quest for common values and respect for differences, and foster pluralism both inside Saudi Arabia and around the world.
* Fahad Alhomoudi is the vice-dean of academic research at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, as well as a Fulbright scholar and professor of Islamic law and prophetic tradition. This article is part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)