Abdullah's interfaith initiative: By Aijaz Zaka Syed

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Watching King Abdullah unveil a landmark interfaith initiative at the United Nations two weeks ago, one couldn’t help but recall his visit to Vatican last year. He was doing something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
The custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines travelled to the Vatican and met Pope Benedict, offering him peace and friendship on behalf of the Muslim world.
Given the long history of the Crusades and bitter relations between the followers of Islam and Christianity, Abdullah’s gesture marked a watershed.
But then this king has always been unconventional in many ways.
Notwithstanding his advanced years, he has repeatedly gone out of his way to reach out to the world, demolishing stereotypes in the West about Saudis, and Arabs in general.
His meeting with the Pope took place at a time when there was great anger and frustration in the Muslim world over the United States and Western policies in the Middle East.
Memories of the Danish cartoon slur and Pope Benedict’s own controversial remarks about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were still fresh and raw.
At a time like this, it demanded great courage and integrity on the part of a Saudi king to visit the Vatican and exchange gifts with the Pope. But it was worth it. The visit heralded a new era in the relations between two Abrahamic faiths that have so much in common, yet have seldom been at peace with each other.
Abdullah’s mission to the Vatican was perhaps the strongest message of peace and goodwill to emanate from Arabia since the dawn of Islam in Mecca.
And that was no chance encounter. It wasn’t even an attempt to score diplomatic brownie points. The Saudis are too serious a people to indulge themselves in pointless diplomatic shenanigans or do something when their heart is not in it.
Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is indeed dead serious about reaching out to the larger world. As the leader of the Muslim world, the country is keen to mend its fences with the world.
Why do I think so? Because since that historic encounter with the Pope last year, the Saudis have unveiled numerous such initiatives to build bridges with the world.
Earlier this year in June, Abdullah hosted hundreds of scholars in the holy city of Mecca to discuss ways of promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The king followed it with another high-profile event that he hosted in Madrid, Spain. It was attended by representatives from the Vatican, Anglican Church, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths.
And now he has taken his battle of hearts and minds to the global centre stage at the UN. Now that is remarkable for a country that has been endlessly demonised in the world media as the breeding ground of “extremist Islam” and for its alleged “links” to the 9/11 attacks.
These initiatives are highly significant considering the reclusive nature of the Kingdom and its traditional unwillingness to throw its weight around despite its standing in the Muslim world and its clout as the largest oil producer in the world.
Which is perhaps why global movers and shakers – from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and from Arab and Muslim heads of state to religious leaders – turned up to join Abdullah’s initiative to improve relations between adherents of different faiths, especially those in the Muslim world and the West, and present the real, human face of a faith practiced by 1.6 billion people.
Of course, It’s such a shame therefore that the Saudi initiative has failed to receive the attention it really deserves. This exercise to illuminate Islam’s liberating teachings couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
For far too long, especially after 9/11, Muslims have watched with increasing concern and helplessness as extremists on both sides try to paint their great faith as some sort of extremist cult.
While the militants have consciously or unconsciously exploited religion to push their agenda, the Western media and neo-conservatives have conveniently used individual acts of violence to justify their campaign against Islam and its followers.
This is the time to rediscover and reinvent the faith that has given the world nothing but peace, equality, justice and universal brotherhood. This is what it teaches and preaches.
And this is why we all believe in it. Its universal teachings have enriched the world's civilisations, including the West.
This is why when this humane and most reasonable faith is coupled with extremism, it hurts. And every time innocents are killed in its name and an atrocity is attributed to Islam, Muslims the world over ask themselves: “Where are our leaders? Why don’t they speak out against this mindless violence in the name of our religion? Why don’t they say: ‘Not in our name!’” For this is not the faith we know and practice.
Unfortunately, nothing but a deafening silence greeted their anguished pleas.
Thank God that the deafening silence has finally been broken. At last, someone is prepared to say: “Not in our name!” But one voice is not enough. What Saudi Arabia under Abdullah is doing is very noble.
It’s indeed the need of the hour. But it must be backed and boosted by similar initiatives across the globe.
Let’s make some real noise wherever we are. Let’s say loud and clear: Not in our name!

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* Aijaz Zaka Syed is the opinion editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Arab News.

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