Saudi-backed center for religious tolerance signed into being, sparking hopes and concerns
From the ignorant Washington Post: Saudi Arabia inaugurated an interfaith center in Vienna Thursday and its foreign minister said he hoped the spirit of tolerance embodied by the new institution will help change his conservative Muslim country, which prohibits any religion except Islam.
The statement by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was an unusually clear declaration of intent by Saudi Arabia’s rulers to work for religious and societal reforms from abroad in the face of domestic opposition to rapid change.
The center has ignited debate. Backers hope it will promote increased tolerance in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that now prohibits any religion outside of Islam. Detractors, including Austria’s Green party and moderate Muslim groups in Austria say the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting initiatives on religious coexistence.
Ahead of Thursday’s inauguration ceremonies, the daily Der Standard cited Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee as criticizing Saudi plans to exercise initial leadership oversight of the institution, saying it had to be “totally independent.”
Wahhabism — the strain of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia — is considered one of the religion’s most conservative. Some of its tenets were hijacked by Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to justify their acts.
Strict interpretations of the faith have left Saudi women without the right to drive or to go out without permission from a male relative. They have also have tattered ties with Islam’s other major branch, Shiism, that have exposed deep rivalries between Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shiite Iran.
In Vienna to launch the interfaith center, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s comments focused on the “King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue” — and he appeared keen to dispel skepticism about his country’s commitment to make it a focal point of interfaith dialogue and tolerance.
In an unsually fortright statement reflecting the Saudi leadership’s push for change, the minister said he hoped “the center will take the lead” in making Saudi Arabia a more tolerant society. “Saudi Arabia is willing to financially participate in this project, and to place all its moral and political resources behind such a center, without infringing … on its autonomy or independence from any political interference,” he told officials and reporters.
And he warned against “extremist minorities within every religious and cultural community … seeking … to propagate notions of intolerance, exclusion, racism and hatred. “These tiny minorities,” he said, “are trying to hijack and disrupt the legitimate identities and aspirations of people of all cultures and faiths.”
He wants to make Saudi Arabia a more tolerant society? If he wanted to help change his conservative Muslim country, then why not open the interfaith center in say, Saudi Arabia? Oh yeah, we know why. What a crock.