Diario Judío México - On April 25, the American Sephardic Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Jewish American Organizations hosted Dr. Muhammad Al Issa, the head of Mecca-based NGO, the Muslim World League, for a discussion on Holocaust, following Dr. Al Issa’s letter to the US Holocaust Museum, acknowledging the Holocaust and condemning those who deny it. Dr. Al Issa also gave an extensive interview to the Algemeiner, and appeared at an interfaith event in Washington DC, organized by the Religious Ambassador Sam Brownback. That was not the first meeting with Jewish leaders for Dr. Al Issa, who  presiding over the International Conference on Civilization Communication between the United States and the Muslim World in September 2017, committed the Muslim World League to a series of steps aimed a culture of coexistence and understanding in Islamic and Western societies, also included Malcolm Hoenlein in his visit, focusing on strengthening interfaith ties and countering hate.

Dr. Al Issa’s latest appearance took place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where he engaged in conversation with Robert Satloff from the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.  In his introductory remarks, Dr. Al Issa stated (all translations are courtesy of Ali El Oufir, as the official translator failed to convey the substance of most comments and questions):

The purpose of our visit is to cultivate our friendship and expand our communication with our guests, and also collaborate further toward our common goals.

  • These meetings are very important to promote understanding and cooperation toward our humane goals, to be together, to face the extremist thoughts and hate thoughts, and also, to correct some concepts that may have been adopted by some theories and also adopted by some historical chapters.     
  • Obviously there are a lot of imaginary obstacles that were placed by some historical archives that forged the true history. The history of the religions is full of mercy, full of humane qualities, full of love, but there are some historical archives maybe for political, or financial reasons, or some hateful history documenters, or even to adapt to some specific era. In reality, if there were extremism or terrorism, we can say functional or active, then there were extremism and terrorism made by the funders of some writers and history writers specifically.
  • These are the meetings, meetings of love, meetings of understanding, meetings of cooperation, that translate the reality of the religions, that translate the human love, that translate the human instinct that our creator wanted for us. Contrariety is a universal truth, but we have to understand this universal truth, and we have to be wise with this universal truth, understand all its dimensions. The deep understanding of this universal truth makes us meet, makes us dialogue, makes us collaborate toward our common goals, toward human harmony, spreading peace, to give everybody the truth of the religions.
  • We think that these meetings are very important, they help the humanity, and they enable human harmony, and give a very important platform to spread peace in our world.
  • These meetings and similar ones.

Dr. Satloff then asked Dr. Al Issa to comment about the letter to the US Holocaust museum. Dr. Al Issa’s response was as follows (also responding to the frequent question as to whether that letter was ever published in Arabic)

  • What made me write the letter is to tell the world the truth Vis-a-Vis to this historical human tragedy that never happened before, and perhaps some people remained silent for pure hate reasons. And we understand the truth of our Islamic religion that apply justice and also look at the matters with a complete just mind. This human tragedy is a historical truth, it was proved by historical documents, and was made by the criminal Nazis.  And we, in the name of the Arab civilizations, who are under the Muslim World League, strongly condemn this tragedy, and we also condemn people who deny this tragedy, and we also condemn people who underestimate this criminal Nazi tragedy that shacked the human entity and the world’s conscience, and was recorded with big sorrow in history.
  • And I would love to add that the Muslim World League, when issued this statement, and as I mentioned earlier, that is a moral duty, and justice duty, and the duty of history, and the duty of truth; and that, when we issued this statement, I will not hide from you that I received many thank you speeches/letters and phone calls, from prominent Islamic leaders around the world that supported our statement in this matter.       
  • And we proudly published this statement in the Muslim World League website, and also the social media league accounts.

Dr. Satloff also asked Dr. Al Issa about the role of religious leadership, remarking on the religious leaders who saved Jewish lives 70 years ago. He asked Dr. Al Issa to comment on the lessons from these leaders for the leadership today. Dr. Al Issa responded:

  • We learn from this, that the humanity is still good, and that the good human instinct has to communicate, and doesn’t have to disappear. This loving, great, and convergent spirit, who feels this human duty and this moral duty against the criminal methods, and against the bloody catastrophe; has to cooperate and continue; and we have to surpass the fabricated mental obstacles that have been invented by the extremists and also people who didn’t understand the point of the Holy and the Glorious Creator in diversity, differences, and multitudes. We have to learn from these lessons to continue, and also be the fruit of this human seed that our ancestors practiced, to offer to the world these moral values and this noble human feeling. Our world can’t live in peace without these great values.

 

Dr. Satloff remarked that given that all of Dr. Al Issa’s degrees were in disciplines that were not history, it would be interesting to know how Dr. Al Issa came to his current views, and what inspired him to learn and to talk about the Holocaust. Dr. Al Issa responded:

  • Because I studied justice, and understood it in its entirety without ever having any sort of hate. And when I implement the meaning of justice that I have studied, I had to issue this kind of statement, because nothing cant prevent me from this justice, but hate, or falsified historical contexts or unintentional mistakes within historical documents. When we read with impartiality, examination and conscience, and we understand the texts with impartiality and conscience and we understand the entirety and the general meaning of justice, we tell the word of truth…the truth.

Dr. Satloff concluded the discussion by asking Dr. Al Issa about the prospects for the future relationship. Dr. Al Issa responded, stating that he sees this event as the beginning of continuous cooperation:

  • I think that we have to continue our cooperation, and achieve through that our common goals, and our common goals are empowering our goals, because our goals are noble, the love of humanity, the love of peace, the love of harmony, the love of understanding, and the love of communication, also we have to not pay attention and listen to any voice of hatred and surpass the negative understandings, and also read history and read the texts with conscience; and not to be slaves of any negative understandings; and not to stop and not to get afraid of any hate and non-just reaction.  

Following the discussion, Malcolm Hoenlein honored Dr. Al Issa, who was also presented with the first ever original Arabic language educational Holocaust curriculum “by the Muslims for the Muslims” by Laziza Dalil of Morocco’s Mimouna Association. This young professionals and student group has been working for over ten years to introduce Moroccan Muslim students to Jewish culture, and have also been cooperating with the US Holocaust Museum to introduce Holocaust education to Moroccan discourse and educational system. The exchange was also seen as a significant bridge-building step between the two monarchies, which are leading their respective region in modernizing reforms.

This event was not the first or the last step in implementing Saudi Arabia’s stated commitment to interfaith dialogue and promotion of diversity.

In a historic March 2017 visit to Indonesia, King Salman had discussed a variety of issues, including education, engagement with women and non-Muslim, and religious affairs.  Although some of the changes discussed during the visit have been ongoing under King Abdullah, they have accelerated under King Salman, who has likewise been meeting leaders from other religious traditions. The Kingdom, as the discussions during the visit showed, has shifted its position on religious reforms internally as well as externally.  That is manifested in four ways: education, religious affairs, interfaith engagement and women’s emancipation.

All are connected to promoting a more moderate form of Islam. With respect to education, Muslim Brotherhood principals and teachers have been all dismissed from service. Likewise, male and female students now receive generous scholarships to top Western universities. In terms of interfaith work and internal integration, Muslim minorities, such as Shi’ites,  as well as followers of non-Hanbali schools of thoughts, are now allowed to use their own religious texts in schools.  The mainstream religious curriculum has likewise been revised to incorporate other traditions within Sunni Islam.

In September 2017, a group of Saudi delegates visited the Brigham Young University in Utah, and met with the Utah Valley Interfaith Center, in an effort to establish a relationship. Aside from the expected interfaith discussion, the delegates were interested in promoting community service on campus. The same month, Dr. Al Issa met Pope Francis to discuss interfaith coexistence.

Recent reforms aimed at promoting more moderate Islam and interfaith ventures boosted the Kingdom’s Interfaith Center in Austria (King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue), which, under the new leadership, after a rocky start, launched several new programs aimed at promoting interfaith understanding.  Indeed, the new government policy was very publicly implemented within the past two months. When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Egypt in March, he med the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, in Cairo’s largest Coptic Cathedral, in what was widely viewed as an unprecedented visit by a Saudi official.  The appearance by the Crown Prince specifically inside a church was also highly symbolic for Egypt’s Coptic community which suffered from numerous attacks by terrorists in recent years. During the visit, Mohammed bin Salman affirmed his commitment to building relations with communities of different religious backgrounds and promoting interfaith dialogue.

While visiting the United Kingdom later that month, in the same spirit of strengthening interfaith relations and promoting a more moderate form of Islam, he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He again recommitted to interfaith dialogue, following the Archbishop’s request to treat Christians better, and viewed early texts from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The Crown Prince then invited the Archbishop to visit Saudi Arabia.  During his trip to the United States, Mohammed bin Salman met with Jewish and Christian community leaders, as well as rabbis from diverse denominations.

Following that meeting, the Saudi Embassy issued the following statement: ” The meeting “emphasized the common bond among all people, particularly people of faith, which stresses the importance of tolerance, coexistence, and working together for a better future for all of humanity. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always, and will continue to champion expanding dialogue, building a better understanding among the faiths, and focusing on the shared humanity of all peoples.”

In April, Vatican’s Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran arrived in Saudi Arabia. The Cardinal is the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. This was the first such trip for such a senior Catholic clergyman and the first meeting between King Salman and a Catholic official. During his trip, the Cardinal stated that Christians should not be second class citizens in Saudi Arabia. Cardinal Tauran also met with the Crown Prince, as well as Dr. Al Issa. Importantly, during the course of the visit, Dr. Al Issa, representing the Muslim World League, and the Cardinal allegedly signed an agreement, which committed, for the first time in the country’s history, Vatican and Saudi Arabia to build churches inside the Kingdom for its Christian citizens.

Furthermore, the countries would create a joint committee, to organize future meetings, in the spirit of promoting the important role of religion on countering extremism, violence, terrorism, and bigotry. The march towards building interfaith relationship has been consistent. Additionally, aside from accomodating existing citizens, new Christian communities may be under consideration. Over 1.5 million Christians currently live in Saudi Arabia, but performance of religious services is strictly banned, and these communities have been operating clandestinely. The agreement that may change this status is building on agreement between the Muslim World League and the Vatican, following Dr. Al Issa’s September visit. Contrary to the rumor mill, it comes in the context of the consistent, ongoing, and progressing reforms.

Indeed, the success of Saudi Arabia’s turn towards moderation can already be observed internationally. Bangladesh recently launched a billion dollar project to combat radicalism by building new moderate mosques, partly funded by Saudi Arabia. The Bangaladesh government, observing ongoing radicalization inside the country, has turned to KSA for support given the new direction the country has taken on interfaith efforts.

By all accounts, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go before it becomes known as a leader on pluralism and interfaith and intercultural diversity, as it apparently is striving to be. However, examining the pattern in recent path, it is clear that the government’s commitment to this effort is strong and consistent, that the Kingdom has been making substantial progress in outreach as well as growing internal reforms, and that Dr. Al Issa personally has been open to invitations to participate in interfaith event and has not shied away from tackling previously controversial topics. Such courageous and dedicated work is laudable and hopefully will continue with great success in the future.

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