Monday, July 21, 2008

Is There a Significant Saudi Religious Attitude Change?

I've abbreviated a lengthy report from Rabbi Michael Lerner (TIKKUN)who was part of an Interfaith Conference in Madrid, Spain recently. It was too long for our readers, but I'm publishing an abridged version. Should you wish to read the whole thing, go to TIKKUN's website.
The part I've omitted has to do with his extended conversation with King Abdullah's cabinet and is more specifically about the Israeli/Palestinian situation. There was not enough "new" there for my readers; but it is interesting enough.
What is needed most definitely is a change in religious attitudes by Jews, Muslim and Christians, to live up to the highest traditions of our religions: tolerance, "love" for the stranger, nonviolence, and a willingness to genuinely listen to each other's "faith" journeys with an openness to learn. JRK

My Talk with the Saudis, and What I Learned from Them

By Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor,TIKKUN

I had expected the World Conference on Dialogue convened by the King of Saudi Arabia July 16-18 [2008] in Madrid, [Spain] to be little more than a photo op for the King, a cheap way to buy good public relations for a regime that has refused to increase production of oil as a way to reduce the current surge in the price, provided haven and support for the Wahabist stream of Islam that has fostered extremists like Saudi-born and raised Osama bin Laden and many other, and has done far too little with its wealth to alleviate the poverty and suffering of many in the Middle East.

For that reason, when the Embassy called me to invite me I at first declined the invitation, and only changed my mind a few days before the event when it became clear that many establishment Jewish leaders were planning to attend, so my presence there would not be giving legitimacy that these other leaders had not already given.

Imagine my surprise, then, to hear the Saudi King not only affirm the centrality of tolerance and dialogue, but speak in a language that, as one Muslim observer pointed out to me, sounded more like the New Bottom Line of the Network of Spiritual Progressives than it did like a speech of a self-absorbed monarch. [He is certainly also that, and my praise for his actions in starting what may be a process of Glasnost and Perestroika is the Muslim world does not mitigate against the strong ethical revulsion I have at a society that does not allow the practice of any other religion besides Islam, for decades prevented Jews from even entering the country, even when they were members of the US Armed Services, systematically subordinates and oppresses women, and beheads people for "crimes" like adultery].

King Abdullah started with a strong affirmation of the goal of a new kind of tolerance between religions. Religions have not caused wars, said the King, but rather extremists who have misused religion in a hurtful and harmful way. A truly religious person would not resort to war, the King reminded us. But why do people respond to the extremists? Because there is a deep spiritual crisis in the world, and it is that crisis which creates the conditions in which exploitation, crime, drugs, family breakdown and extremism flourish.

The King went on to explain that it should be the task of the various religious communities of the world to work together to overcome that spiritual crisis. But that will require religious cooperation which must begin with mutual respect and tolerance. We need to emphasize what all religions have in common--the ethical message that permeates every major religion. That message is that hatred can be overcome through love. We in the religious world need to choose love to overcome hatred, justice over oppression, peace over wars, universal brotherhood over racism.

To me, this didn't sound like the King I had come to expect from Western media. This was obviously a new direction being articulated by the King of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it was not just being articulated for a Western audience. The King had convened a similar meeting of Islamic scholars and thinkers in Saudi Arabia six weeks before, and there had championed this new approach for Islam as the one most authentically rooted in traditional Islam (an argument made previously by many Western Islamists-but when they were making that argument, the Saudis seemed to be aligned with the other side, the more reactionary and anti-tolerance forces). . . .

It remains to be seen whether the King can impose his new tolerance over a Saudi society which has not done much yet to embrace this new tolerance. But if the Saudis do in fact allow other religions to teach their ideas and practice their religions in Saudi Arabia, and if they can make other changes in law that embody a new spirit of respect for human rights, that could have a huge impact throughout the Islamic world. Moreover, even if none of this happens very soon, we should understand that in changing ideologies, statements of a new worldview are themselves acts of importance-sometimes writing or saying things (e.g. writing the Declaration of Independence or giving a speech about the failure of Stalinism or writing a book about the way that Israelis kicked Palestinian non-combatants out of their homes and into refugee camps) can be just as important an action as any other. . . .

The Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who were
in attendance here were props for this discussion, but what the King of Saudi Arabia was doing was nevertheless of historic significance. In a previous meeting in Mecca with Islamic religious leaders, he faced considerable opposition to his proposal for an interfaith conference around dialogue and mutual understanding. He had used his power and authority as the Guardian of the Sacred Mosques of Mecca and Medina to override opposition and go forward with this conference. Precisely because Saudi forms of Islam are perceived as the most conservative, taking this step is certain to reverberate for decades through the Islamic world and to be an historical marker in the process of modernization in Islam. For Islam, this gathering and the one before it in Saudi Arabia were roughly equivalent in significance to that of Gorbachev announcing the beginning of a new openness and tolerance toward the West that was the first step toward the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And there is also another dimension. The Saudis are implicitly taking religious leadership in the struggle with a reactionary version of Islam that has emerged in Iran. Though Iran was never mentioned, this gathering, plus the actions of the Prince of Jordan in calling for an Islam that works in cooperation with the Western world and with other religious communities, renouncing the "conflict of civilizations," appears to be a major challenge to the growing appeal of Iranian forms of Islam among young Muslims who are filled with righteous indignation against the West in light of the devastation brought to Iraq by the US and the UK. . . .

I am not an advocate for the Saudi regime, but I now see that there are elements in it with a true and deep humanity. I see the fundamental decency of some who are engaged in an effort to "reform from within," and am reminded once again of how ridiculous it is to talk about a whole society as though it represented a single perspective or shared a single worldview. I also see now the need to work with the most progressive elements, and the need to avoid "Othering the Other. . . .”

Another point about the media: this conference is a front page story in most of the world, but is being largely ignored in the US media who were notably absent from the hundreds of media covering this event. This is a willed ignorance about the world fostered by the US media establishment.

What was also clear to me in this conversation was that these very enlightened Saudis had NEVER met or been in a conversation with Jews who held progressive values and took those values seriously. For them, it was an exciting revelation that there were Jews who were both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, who could hold both narratives as having elements of truth and elements of goodness, just as it was exciting to them to learn about the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives. They too had fallen for the media distortions and for believing that the American elites with whom they have had contact represent the democratic will of the American people, so they were happy to be disabused of that notion.

I came away from this direct time with the Saudis with the distinct impression that I had helped foster more positive notions about who Americans are, who Jews are, and what Israelis are about. I believe that this happened in many other conversations that took place in the hallways between the 20 or so Jews at the conference and the hundreds of Muslims and Christians. While some of those Jews probably conveyed the same stuckness and stubbornness that Israel and the American Jewish establishment always conveys, there were fresh thinkers like Rabbi Michael Paley, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Marc Gopin, Rabbi Scott Sperling and Rabbi David Rosen who each have creative and exciting ideas on how to continue this dialogue. For that, as for many other aspects of this set of conversations, I give thanks to God for the opportunity that I have had to serve the causes of peace and reconciliation!

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