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    Middle East
     Jul 22, 2008

A leap of faith for Saudi king
By Sreeram Chaulia

On July 16, a unique conclave of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs was inaugurated in Madrid by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Its aim was to bridge widening religious chasms that breed violence. The agenda was relevant since religion has become one of the main sources of conflicts of late.

The Madrid meeting was meant to reify "inter-faith dialogue", the nostrum of our times for festering religious prejudices. King Abdullah termed the event "historical" and, indeed, it had a few firsts to its credit. The fact that Jewish thinkers were invited by a Saudi monarch suggests that some ice has melted. Abdullah had earlier courted Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in November 2007, the first-ever meeting between a Christian pontiff and a reigning member of the House of Saud. The idea of sustained inter-religious dialogue emerged from a convergence of minds between Benedict and Abdullah.

In the wake of Osama bin Laden's declaration of a frontal war on "Judeo-Christian civilization" and the tumult over cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, the Saudi king's initiative in Madrid did counter the trend of inter-religious recriminations and rancor. The custodian of Islam's holiest sites took a step that might help assuage enraged persons who see ongoing armed conflicts in different parts of the world as subsets of a "clash of civilizations".

However, the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic taboos that plague Muslim and Jewish societies could not be completely erased at the Madrid conference. Not a single Israeli Jewish leader was on the invitees list of 288 religious and cultural figures attending the event. The absolute horror which association with Israelis evokes in conservative Muslim countries of the Middle East was thus not dissolved.

It bears reminder that the recent candidature of Egyptian Minister of Culture, Faruq Hosni, as the next head of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) brought to the surface the worst forms of inter-religious biases clouding the region. Tel Aviv lodged a formal protest that Hosni was unacceptable because of his vow that "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt".

Hosni defended himself by contextualizing his controversial statement and offering to pay a visit to the forbidden land itself, Israel. Dozens of Islamist Egyptian intellectuals reacted by slamming Hosni for making a "humiliating surrender to Israeli demands for the sake of personal gain". Caught between the extremes, Hosni's strong candidature for the UN job hangs by a thread.

Saudi Arabia's convening of an inter-faith parliament should raise eyebrows due to its long tradition of lending moral, financial, diplomatic and military support to extremist Islamist groups. The Saudi government's promotion of hateful Wahhabi Islamic doctrines has done more damage to inter-religious harmony than any other theological force. The other major source of intolerant Islam is the Deobandi School, which inspires the Taliban and allied jihadis in South Asia. Interestingly, in June this year, the Darul Uloom Deoband in northern India issued a fatwa (binding religious ruling) that declared terrorism and unjust violence as un-Islamic. King Abdullah's Madrid gathering may have had a similar purpose of demonstrating that the citadel of Wahhabism is turning a new leaf.

The worth of symbolic showpiece events like the Madrid conference should ultimately be judged by whether Saudi Arabia has changed its actual foreign policy of coddling extremists. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was Western pressure on King Fahd, Abdullah's late father, to democratize his kingdom and forswear fundamentalism. Fahd was considered a master at outsourcing terrorism, wherein he convinced disgruntled Saudi Islamists not to cause trouble at home but to feel free to carry out nefarious activities outside the country's borders. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, gave out as much when he said, "We have never worried about the effect of these organizations [like al-Qaeda] on our country."

The deep reverence and awe in which Saudi wealth is held in Sunni Muslim communities from Morocco to Indonesia gave easy access to its missionary Islamists to penetrate the farthest corners. They built mosques and trained local imams but also seeded clandestine local militant movements. Gradually, a virtual Saudi empire of jihad was constructed with predictable fallouts for inter-religious harmony and political stability.

For the word "Islam" to have acquired negative connotations in many regions, Saudi Arabia has to bear the blame. The Madrid conference is not enough expiation unless King Abdullah also walks the talk and distances his regime and its oil oligarchs from the schools and havens of Islamist extremism.

The geopolitical problem for Riyadh that stays its hand from complete reformation is competition with Shi'ite Iran, whose own funding of radical Islamist causes has been burgeoning. Iran's ability to break the sectarian barrier and finance Sunni terrorist outfits like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a worrisome sight for the Saudis, as it implies loss of traction over its former turf. Riyadh has not managed to reach out to Shi'ite fundamentalists with the same revolutionary flexibility as Tehran.

During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the Saudi government displayed frustration over its marginalization and blamed "elements inside Lebanon and those behind them [Hezbollah and Iran]" for not "consulting and coordinating with Arab nations". As long as the Saudi-Iran shadowboxing is a factor, it would be suicidal from Riydah's point of view to give up patronage of Islamist zealotry. It is therefore apt to conclude that the Madrid splash is much ado about nothing.

The scale of dialogue of jamborees like the one that King Abdullah is presiding over in Spain should also provoke skepticism. A few hundred religious leaders and elites gathering in a mountainous royal palace west of Madrid can hardly translate into genuine understanding at the level of communities and localities in war zones and fraught societies.

For ordinary Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists to coexist, there need to be grassroots-based mixed peace committees and citizen's volunteer corps that can de-escalate tensions and reduce the intensity of clashes and riots. Prevention or containment at the lowest possible level through determined collective action is sorely lacking in many flashpoints.

Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney has proved that the presence of Gandhian multi-faith voluntary institutions like unions, business associations, reading clubs, professional bodies, non-governmental organizations, etc, saved some Indian cities from Hindu-Muslim riots and pogroms. Those Indian cities which lacked such civic institutions at the community level could not avoid iterated bouts of horrible bloodshed in the name of God.

Modern-day communications and movements of people have ensured that practically every society in the world is multicultural. Even classic European nation-states that were originally carved out on the image of monocultures have sizeable minorities of different faiths now.

Isolation being ruled out, the only solution to cohabitation of world religions in such a fish bowl-like landscape is patient nurturing of syncretic institutions at the bottom of the pyramid. The Saudis are quite adept at building Islamic charities and religious institutions in the remotest backwaters of many countries. Sadly, Madrid or no Madrid, these interventions fuel divisions instead of healing them.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

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