Moderation and the House of Saud? An oxymoron, many would say. Now whether by design or circumstance, there are signs emerging from a country where women are not seen or heard and other faiths are taboo that are surprisingly accommodative. And credit for this must go to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz who has gone where most other Islamic rulers fear to tread. He has uttered the D word — dialogue with other monotheistic religions, including the routinely reviled Jewish faith.
In a region weary of endless violence, the king’s words have been seized with a frenetic desperation. Foremost among those who have done so being chief Azkhenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi David Rosen, international director for inter-religious affairs of the American Jewish Committee. With this, King Abdullah is signalling that dialogue is possible with the Jews without the baggage of Palestine. And he has done this even as a controversy is brewing over the ‘Danish cartoons’. An immediate dialogue between Jews from Israel and the Saudis may not be on the cards. But this suggests that resistance to Israel’s very existence is all but gone from among the significant Arab players in the region.
The monarch has shown that he is willing to grasp the nettle that so many others have shied away from. He did the unthinkable when he met Pope Benedict in 2006, the first Saudi monarch to do so. This, despite the pugnacious Pope’s critical remarks about Islam that set off rumblings in the Muslim world. Interestingly, the pontiff’s subsequent words of contrition were not met with demands for a jihad. Instead, several hundred Muslim scholars sought to engage in a dialogue with him.
While this is not to suggest that Osama bin Laden and his ilk have come around to the fact that religions can co-exist peacefully, words of conciliation from someone as powerful and respected as King Abdullah cannot be taken lightly. This also sounds a warning bell to those in Saudi Arabia whose funds are keeping the wheels of jihad well-oiled in distant lands, notably our neighbour Pakistan. The king has been tough on those preaching terrorism within his country and if he can push the envelope further, the jihad movement could take a serious blow. Efforts by detractors to show the House of Saud as a conglomeration of playboy princes whose stomping fields are Monte Carlo and St Moritz and Abdullah as nothing more than a first among equals have taken a beating after leading Wahhabi clerics have thrown their weight behind Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia, as custodian to Islam’s holiest shrines, may be a close ally of the US. But it is also a weather vane to sentiment in the Muslim world. The king’s remarks were not made off-the-cuff but clearly the result of deliberation and consensus. By opening up Saudi society, albeit in dribs and drabs, he has also been able to deflect potential public anger away from his efforts at dialogue and reconciliation.
For many Muslims across the world, the demonisation of Islam post-9/11 has proved a grave threat to their personal freedoms. They have seen that apart from a message of hate, the bin Laden school of thought has pulled them deeper into a quagmire from which they are finding it difficult to emerge. Like Archie Bunker, the former TV show character who hates everybody, bin Laden has denounced just about everyone from the Saudi royalty to Western infidels to Jewish Zionists. Of course, he has many takers. But this could well be because they have not been offered an alternative by a figure who is powerful and revered enough. It is not as though the king is playing to foreign galleries. Over the last three years, he has encouraged a dialogue among the Sunni majority and the Shias and other minorities in his own country.
In Pakistan, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the people have clearly turned their back on extremism and are trying to give democracy a chance. Its new leaders seem to want to emulate India with its growing economy and democracy rather than become some sort of Wahhabi paradise. The difference can be seen in that an Asif Zardari, warts and all, is not fearful of talking about friendship with India and the West quite openly, even though this may attract violence from the jihadists. The army, too, once thought to be the fountainhead of extremism, seems to be reinventing itself under its new chief. Is it time to open the bubbly? Not quite. But there is every sign that the tide is turning. And for the better.
If we take all these portents together with the willingness of the Jewish orthodoxy and the Vatican to walk that extra mile, it is clear that a formidable force can be built up to challenge the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory that has been the oxygen for fundamentalists on all sides. Following Abdullah’s remarks, there were several naysayers on the internet predicting that this was a carefully laid-out trap and that the monarch shouldn’t be trusted. Many have asked whether they can bring Bibles into Saudi Arabia and build churches there. Perhaps not. But then again, you’re not likely to see a mosque spring up in the middle of Vatican City.
The most unlikely people have been known to bring about the most dramatic changes. Remember that had it not been for Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the iron-fist policy against the Palestinians, reaching across a historic divide to Yasser Arafat on the White House lawns, the West Asia peace process would never have been even given a chance. So it might just be King Abdullah who will bridge a ‘civilisational divide’ and take up the banner in the battle against prejudice, bigotry and ignorance.