Saudi Interfaith Dialogue: Genuine or Duplicitous Maneuver?

What message do Saudi authorities send to the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world:  a message of “peaceful coexistence” or preparation for “a clash of civilizations?”

saudi interfaith

Credit: The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

During the opening of the Saudi-financed King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna on November 26, Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, the Saudi head of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, is reported to have said that the Center “…would promote human values, tolerance and peaceful coexistence among people of different religious faiths and cultures.”

His misleading speech was amplified by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal who said that “the sectarian differences are to be elements for understanding and not elements for collision.”
These two men are not known for spiritual reconciliation within their own religiously divided country. In fact, neither of them has ever condemned discrimination against their own religious minorities nor have they deplored their country’s intolerance toward non-Muslims in or out of Saudi Arabia.

For those unacquainted with Saudi Arabia, its absolute monarchy, its oppressed population (especially women and minorities), and the state’s lethal doctrine which advocates hate and intolerance of other beliefs, the two Saudi officials’ words in Vienna may sound meritorious and honorable. However, the reality on the ground in Saudi Arabia contradicts the Saudi officials’ statements during international interfaith gatherings.

According to scholars at Al-Azhar University in Egypt – the oldest and most prestigious Islamic institution – Saudi doctrine and its promulgators are dangerous to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and “must be fought by all lawful means available.” Dr. Abdulrahman Wahid, the former president of the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, said that “Muslims and non-Muslims must unite to defeat the Wahhabi ideology.”

It has been abundantly documented that Saudi Arabia ranks at the top of any list of religious intolerance. Nothing can be more intolerant of other faiths than rejecting their validity and advocating the destruction of their religious sanctuaries in all of the vast land of the Arabian Peninsula, as called for by the Saudi Mufti, the highest religious authority and trusted friend of King Abdullah after whom the Vienna-based and Saudi financed Center is named.

Having been misled by overt Saudi assurances on many previous occasions, the representatives of Judaism and Christianity, the other two major faiths the Center is ostensibly designed to engage, must ask why they cannot practice their beliefs in Saudi Arabia. They must also ask why neither Judaism nor Christianity is taught in Saudi schools as legitimate beliefs, as Islam is treated in the West and in Israel.

How can there be “peaceful coexistence” and how can sectarian differences “be elements for understanding and not elements for collision” if the Saudi state considers Christianity and Judaism incomplete and unfulfilling? Why are there no study centers for Judaism and Christianity in Saudi universities so the Saudi people and other Muslims can learn about these beliefs, their histories, philosophies and tremendous contributions to past and present civilizations?

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While King Abdullah, Dr. Al-Sudais and Saud Al-Faisal go around the world to promote religious understanding through dialogue, at home they perpetuate endemic discrimination against their own religious minorities. Are Saudi officials and their champions in the West promoting genuine interfaith dialogue or are they primarily interested in spreading their lethal ideology which feeds extremism and terrorism?

Is the West succumbing to Saudi demands to accommodate their intolerant brand of Islam and to pass international laws to criminalize criticism of Islam because of Saudi economic and religious influence or is it due to the Saudi threat of terrorism, as was applied against Great Britain during the BAE arms deal corruption inquiry? Did the Saudis apply similar threats to the US Department of Justice, which also caved in to Saudi demands not to pursue legal action against members of the Saudi royal family for their involvement in financing the 9/11 terrorists?

Given this evidence, how can international religious dialogue eliminate the threat of terrorism posed by the Saudi/Wahhabi ideology?

The Saudi regime’s call for religious dialogue among the adherents of the major faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is deceitful at best. On the one hand, the Saudi establishment organizes interfaith conferences and finances religious centers in Europe and in the United States where religious freedom for all people is guaranteed by national and international constitutions and international declarations on human rights.

On the other, the Saudis are openly exporting and financing anti-Jewish and anti-Christian hate literature as well as financing Sunni terrorists worldwide. In addition, the Saudis finance extremist Muslims, namely the Salafis, who are currently waging a war against pro-democracy and anti-religious bigotry movements throughout the Arab world.

Worse yet, Saudi public schools and mosques promote intolerance of non-Muslim beliefs because they consider them irrelevant. The question that must be asked is how calls for harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims can be taken seriously when they are championed by a regime that fosters terrorism and whose highest religious authority demands the destruction of non-Muslim houses of worship and considers religions of other faiths to be of the gutters?

Given these facts, what message do Saudi authorities send to the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world:  a message of “peaceful coexistence” or preparation for “a clash of civilizations?”

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.