Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The West's skepticism

By Sabria S. Jawhar
Saudi Gazette
WESTERN media have reacted skeptically to King Abdullah’s plans to convene an inter-Faith conference that will include Jews, Christians and Muslims. By contrast international religious leaders have responded warmly, if not cautiously.

The secular Western press seems to believe there are ulterior motives for the King’s plans. There have been articles that the King wants to lull the West into a false sense of security in an effort to protect the Kingdom’s oil production along with other internal issues.

I forgive Westerners for their ignorance and applaud non-Muslim religious leaders for embracing the King’s objectives. Predictably the West is mixing politics and religion. I thought the Western media would hail the King’s plan and not criticize it. I’m troubled that it’s not possible to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt.

Think about it. When the king of a country that has Islam’s two holiest places adored and respected by all the Muslims of the world, doesn’t the call for inter-Faith dialogue from that land deserve exploring, if not adopting and promoting it?

Western media have shown little inkling to understand Saudi society and what it takes to move its people to demonstrate tolerance towards other religions. I am not talking about Islam, because the Qur’an is very clear that Jews and Christians are People of the Book and are our brothers and sisters.

But the Israeli occupation and destruction of Palestine and continuing abuses heaped on Muslims in the form of wars and economic sanctions have many Westerners confusing religion with politics. And the same goes for Muslims in which we view world events through a political prism, forgetting that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

We should focus on the advantage of this call for dialogue for the West and not just for Muslims. Those who claim that this is a move to address the Kingdom’s internal issues are forgetting that Saudi Arabia has already established a program to train Imams to study other religions. Is that some kind of public relations effort? No, we are not talking about NGOs implementing programs to address the issue of tolerance but the head of a state. In contrast, what have Western leaders done?

But Western journalists are forgetting several very important developments that led to the King’s decision to create dialogue. First, and this goes back to 2002, is the Arab Peace Plan to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for establishing Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Second is the King’s surprise visit to the Vatican last year to meet with Pope Benedict. Although we are not privy to the conversations between the Pope and the King, it appears that there was an agreement to pursue plans for an inter-faith dialogue conference.

I don’t deny there are practical concerns as well. Saudi Arabia is now a member of the World Trade Organization and there have been accelerated efforts to attract foreign business to our country, not to mention attempts to become a country that does more than produce oil. We certainly have to move more aggressively in establishing stronger relationships with other religions.

This has been a course charted since 9/11. And it’s a course that Saudis have been following. But the West is so very impatient with its short attention span. The Western media is like a child sucking on a piece of candy. When the candy is gone the child immediately wants another one without thinking about that tummy ache ahead.

The media want quick fixes and when those quick fixes don’t come, it becomes suspicious and skeptical about the fix when it’s finally offered. It’s odd that after all the abuse that has been heaped on Saudi Arabia since 9/11, that Western countries have been so silent about this dramatic announcement by the King. Let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s a major step for Saudi Arabia to invite Christians and Jews to a worldwide conference in which the whole world will be watching. And the road to accomplish that task won’t be easy. Admittedly, we have a conservative segment of our society who will not embrace these efforts, but for some reason the West is not prepared to give the King credit for this courageous step.

It’s kind of like the conservatives in the West demanding every 15 minutes that Muslims condemn terrorism. But when we condemn terrorism every minute of every day, no one pays attention. Our critics demand that Saudi Arabia demonstrate tolerance towards all religions. When we do, no one pays attention.

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