Report on MWL interfaith conference calls it "The Saudi Monologue" UAE official attacks Zionism
July 21, 2008
The Saudi Monologue
Editorial of The New York Sun
The Saudi religious dialogue conference that concluded over the weekend at Madrid was one of which we were skeptical at the outset, and our views were only confirmed by what transpired there, as reported by our Joseph Goldstein, one of the few Western reporters to make it inside the conference sessions. The Saudi king gave a speech calling for tolerance and moderation. Then, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists.
"We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism," the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who was listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. "Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion." A U.A.E.-owned English-language paper later issued an editorial criticizing a New York rabbi who found the statement anti-Semitic.
At the conference, one of Saudi Arabia's most senior religious figures, an imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saleh bin Humaid, defended his country's ban on churches and synagogues. "From a religious point of view, they can't build a synagogue or a church because it's a sacred place for Muslims," Sheik bin Humaid told our Mr. Goldstein, referring to the entire country of Saudi Arabia.
Our Eli Lake reported from Washington as the conference was in session that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that Saudi Arabia had broken its promise to the State Department to revise its school textbooks. "For example, a textbook for 10th graders on Islamic jurisprudence not only says it is permissible in Islam to murder a homosexual, but recommends the methods for doing so: burning alive, stoning, or throwing one off a high building," Mr. Lake reported.
Finally, Mr. Goldstein reported that the conference ended on a sour note as Christian and Jewish participants complained that the organizers, the Muslim World League, had too much control over the conference's closing communiqué. The document appeared to have been revised without the consent of members of a drafting committee. And the vast majority of participants never had a chance to review any version of the statement before Abdul Rahman Al-Zaid of the Muslim World League read it aloud. "For us as participants from other religions this is not an acceptable procedure for adopting documents," a Russian Orthodox priest participating in the conference, George Ryabykh, said.
Even Rabbi Michael Lerner, who was positive about the conference overall, conceded in an e-mail that "The Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who were in attendance here were props" and that though there were some women in attendance, they were essentially excluded from the dialogue. For all the oil money the Saudis have, the Madrid conference underscores the difficulty they will have in buying legitimacy in America or among the other world religions.
U.A.E. Official Attacks Zionism at Saudi Conference
. Abdullah left Spain after opening the conference and is currently in Morocco. In an apparent effort to keep the Israel-Palestine issue from taking center stage, the Saudis did not include a single Palestinian Arab Muslim leader among the approximately 200 religious figures in attendance, conference participants say. And the one Israeli rabbi in attendance is listed on the program material as an American. But after a day's worth of speeches by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, in the middle of the fourth two-hour conference session, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists. "We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism," the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who is listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. "Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion." He continued: "I can speak to pacifists but not bellicists, who are in favor of war." Mr. Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar of Christianity who said he has met with three popes in the interests of Christian-Muslim relations, then continued: "I have only one minute left," referring to the amount of speaking time allotted to him, and finished off his statements with a broad appeal to begin a "Judaic and Islamic dialogue." "I believe it has to start," Mr. Ibrahim said, referring to such a dialogue.
A New York rabbi, Marc Schneier, then took the lectern but did not directly respond to Mr. Ibrahim's statements about Zionism. He spoke of outreach efforts in North America between imams and rabbis. In an interview outside the conference room, however, another New York rabbi denounced Mr. Ibrahim's remarks "as the same old rhetoric that has led to more hatred and the building of a wall between the Jews and the Muslims for the last 60 years." "Being anti-Zionist is the new canard for being an anti-Semite," the rabbi, Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, N.Y., said.
Despite the monarch's efforts to foster discussion between Muslim clerics and religious leaders of other faiths, Saudi Arabia does not appear likely to embrace religious pluralism on its own soil. Christians and Jews are forbidden from building houses of worship and from praying in public within Saudi Arabia. One of Saudi Arabia's most senior religious figures, an imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saleh bin Humaid, told The New York Sun that there would be no such change in that policy. "In the privacy of their home they can worship their God and perform their ritual freely," the imam said through his translator. "Nobody will be harassed." "From a religious point of view, they can't build a synagogue or a church because it's a sacred place for Muslims," Sheik bin Humaid said, referring to the entire country of Saudi Arabia. In defending the policy, Sheik bin Humaid, who is also speaker of the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia, drew a comparison: "We can't imagine having a mosque in the Vatican," he said.