Report on the Saudi Interfaith Conference in Madrid

Rabbi David Rosen,
AJC International Director of Interreligious Affairs


When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced his intention some three months ago to reach out to the leaders of the main religions of the world to convene an interfaith dialogue and to work together to address major global challenges, there was understandably no shortage of skepticism. Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Islam and arguably the most conservative of Muslim countries. Freedom of worship is not granted to other religions in Saudi Arabia, where the dominant brand of Islam is Wahhabism (or, more precisely, Salafism), which has a far more insular approach than other forms of Islam.

However, there appeared to be some obvious reasons why the king would want to take such an initiative. Aside from the need to improve the image of Islam in the West and that of his country in particular, there are the regional strategic factors at stake. The instability caused by the ongoing conflict in Iraq; the increased power and influence of Iran; the dangers posed to Sunni Islam and Saudi interests by a “Shiite crescent”—all contribute to Saudi Arabia’s sense that it needs to assert what it sees as its leadership role in the Muslim world.

In pursuit of this initiative, King Abdullah enlisted the World Muslim League (WML). While the king claims the title of guardian of the two holiest shrines of Islam, his position is, in fact, not one of religious authority. While the WML is an arm of the Saudi regime, it nevertheless has the religious standing in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world to give the “cover” that the king needed for his initiative.

In typically cautious fashion, Abdullah first convened a pan-Islamic conference to discuss this venture, and while there were criticisms, he received widespread backing. However, there were those who did not attend the conference who expressed strong opposition to the whole idea of interfaith dialogue and especially to inviting members of other faiths to Saudi Arabia.

Probably for this reason, or at least in order to proceed in as much of a tactically secure fashion as possible, the decision was taken to hold the multifaith gathering in Spain, while indicating that this was the first such conference and hinting at future gatherings in Saudi Arabia itself.

There were important arguments against cooperating with this Saudi initiative. Why be party to advancing the public relations of a regime that is hardly an exemplar of religious toleration? Why cooperate with WML, which promotes a brand of Islam that does not by any means serve the interests of Muslim integration into Western democracy and pluralism? Moreover, a number of the names that appeared on an initial list of invitees were problematic, and even the secretary-general of the WML himself was implicated in supporting organizations that had served nefarious elements working abroad.

The counterargument was that a Jewish rejection of this invitation would not, in fact, serve the interests of Jewry, Israel, and the Free World—on the contrary. This was an opportunity to begin to break through barriers of hostility and bigotry, and perhaps this move (for whatever reasons of self-interest) would herald an opening up in the Muslim world to greater understanding of and even cooperation with others. In addition to the welcome AJC gave to this initiative, this was also the position taken by Israel’s political and diplomatic leadership.

However, it became patently clear that for the WML, these were uncharted waters. The preparations, list of invitees, invitations, and even the program itself all betrayed the lack of familiarity with the interfaith territory at large and with specific religious communities in particular.

The invitation I received as one of the few initial Jewish invitees was sent deliberately to AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Building in New York. Indeed, even though the list of invitees on the website set up for the conference included many names who never received invitations as well as others who had immediately declined, it was clear that the hosts had decided to deliberately avoid inviting any official Israeli or Palestinian representatives.

Nevertheless, the fact that I am an Israeli was widely covered in the media. Moreover, I emphasized that without official Israeli religious representation, this could not be considered a real dialogue with Jewry. It was further reported that this had greatly ruffled the organizers’ feathers.

Further invitations went out, and a conference program appeared on the website. At the conference in Madrid, a Saudi journalist told me that I had been on the original program as a preliminary speaker, but was removed as a result of this publicity.

Most disturbing was the fact that when the tentative program (subsequently changed half a dozen times) appeared on the conference website, the name of Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta was listed on the opening plenary! Had Weiss in fact remained in this representative role, we would have withdrawn from the conference in protest—and this was very much the position that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs had recommended as well. However, together with other Jewish figures who had accepted invitations to attend, an effective campaign was launched on our part enlisting various religious and political contacts in the U.S. and around the world. The result was that Weiss was taken off the program and did not attend at all.

The opening session on March 16 was hosted by King Juan Carlos in the Spanish Royal El Prado Palace. There was an impressive array of Arab princes (including most of the Saudi government) and Muslim clerics, together with representatives of the world’s major faiths—not least among these Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican prelate responsible for relations with other faiths.

King Abdullah welcomed the attendees, and in his opening speech emphasized his conviction that authentic religion is expressed in a spirit of moderation and tolerance and requires that concord must replace conflict. He called for cooperation and collaboration between the different religions to that end, in order to address the global challenges of our time.

At the end of the opening, he greeted the guests individually. When my turn came, I introduced myself to him saying in (my limited) Arabic, “I am Rabbi Rosen from Jerusalem, Israel,” and he replied “Ahalan w’asalan” (i.e., welcome), but I could see that those around him almost had heart attacks on the spot.

While the king’s message was hardly earth-shattering in itself, the fact that he had given the green light for encounter, dialogue, and collaboration with the other faith communities appeared to open the gates for many who were most curious but might have been wary or even fearful of such encounters beforehand. The Jewish delegation of some fifteen rabbis and scholars was most affected by this “permission.” We were interviewed incessantly by the Arab media, and many Arab figures, in particular, came up to us and said that they had never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi, and would like to ask us questions. Many of these questions reflected stunning prejudice, distortions, and misconceptions, but the very fact that they could vent them to us—almost innocently—presented opportunities to address these misrepresentations and to try to overcome them. The fact that I was not only the representative of a leading American Jewish organization but also an Israeli only increased the media interest, and I must have been interviewed, primarily by Arab media in general, but also by Saudi media in particular (as well as by Western media) some thirty times, on TV, radio, and the press.

Naturally, as is the case more often than not at conferences, conversations outside of the formal proceedings and especially at mealtimes offered far greater opportunity for meaningful exchange. In parenthesis, I might point out that kosher food had been ordered specially by the Muslim organizers for the Jewish participants. The fact that it was quite inedible and that we made do with fresh salads and fruits does not diminish from the consideration and respect shown by our hosts.

At one mealtime I was sitting next to a prominent Saudi personality who informed us that the gathering was the outcome of the process that King Abdullah had embarked upon since his accession to the throne. The king’s desire, he said, was not only for Saudi Arabia to play a more engaged role with the world at large and with the world’s religions in particular, but was also part of his desire to open up Saudi Arabia itself to the world.

Our Saudi interlocutors were also at pains to emphasize the courage of the eighty-five-year-old king in taking this course, evidenced by the strong criticism that had been leveled against him for doing so in his own country.

While one might raise an eyebrow at the claims of exclusively noble motives behind the initiative, enlightened self-interest is probably as good a motive as any.

In the highly choreographed format of the proceedings, there was a moment of some passion and heat. It came in the wake of the almost inevitable mantra expressed by a panelist in the penultimate session that while dialogue with Jews was permissible (and perhaps even desirable), dialogue with Israel and those who supported it was not.

I was given the floor to respond, pointing out that genuine dialogue is not one in which one side defines the character of the other, but rather seeks genuinely to understand others as they see themselves. Judaism has always been inextricably connected to the Land of Israel, and while this should not be used to justify any action or policy that is in conflict with the morality and ethics that are at the foundation of religion, to deny or try to separate this bond is to fail to acknowledge, let alone respect, Jewish self-definition.

While there was a minimal negative reaction, alleging that the irenic discussion had now been politicized, there were also constructive Muslim responses in return.

Arguably most notable of all was the respectful spirit in which the discussion took place. Many noted that it had actually served as something of a release.

As already mentioned, the Saudis had avoided inviting any official Israeli and any Palestinian representatives, assumedly to avoid any possible polemic or potentially disruptive element in the proceedings of this initial foray into the interreligious arena. (This absence might itself paradoxically point to an intention to address specifically the challenges of the conflict in the future.)

However, in a way, the absence of any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict created the feeling that the “elephant in the room” was being ignored. The opportunity to refer to it in the context of respectful debate actually helped clear the air.

While the concluding statement was the anticipated pious declaration, it does nevertheless reflect the expressed Saudi intention to continue the process that has been embarked upon. This is something that should not be underestimated. The highest authority in the very heartland of Islam has taken a lead in interfaith outreach (whatever his motives might be) with the declared intention of addressing contemporary challenges and resolving conflict. This offers us a significant opportunity, and AJC is uniquely positioned to contribute to this process.