October 31, 2010

Saudi Interfaith Initiative at the UN - Who Better (originally published Nov. 14, 2008)

This week’s high-level meeting at the United Nations in New York, devoted to the interfaith dialogue initiated by Saudi King Abdullah, has attracted some skepticism as well as outright rebuke from human rights organizations. Am I the only one who gets bored by the obvious?

News Flash: Saudi Arabia persecutes minorities, subjugates women, and denies most forms of rudimentary democracy. And, like many fellow members of the Islamic Conference, the Kingdom has been pushing for international limits on the defamation of religion, which is code for limiting freedom of expression.

Deep breath, count to ten.

In its six decades, the United Nations has never hosted a gathering where serious leaders with any real power or influence addressed issues of religion and mutual respect head-on. The UN, based in the “separation of Church and State” capital New York and dominated by secular diplomats trained in the post-Enlightenment academies of Western Europe, has been almost pathologically uncomfortable with the physical presence of religion.

From the opposite side, King Abdullah has been openly threatened by Islamic extremists – apparently he’s not quite as extremist as some would like to think – for convening this past summer’s Madrid sessions as well as pulling off this week’s UN debut. The United Nations may never be the same again.

And yet, what right does Saudi Arabia have to stand up and call for mutual respect? Twentieth-century Hejazi history aside, His Majesty is the Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines. He carries unimpeachable theological credibility for Muslims and others. And if such an extremist (I prefer “radical conservative”) is able and willing to not only attend but in fact spearhead such an initiative, I believe some humility and respect may be in order from the rest of us.

A little more – any – religion at the United Nations may be a very good thing. Religion remains either the root or the justification for many intractable conflicts around the world, and is also the main affiliation and inspiration for a large percentage of human beings. If the UN is to develop comprehensive solutions and promote peace, it might help to employ religion in a positive and proactive way. It might also help to not be so absolutist in accusing regimes of being absolutist. Sometimes, progress can be acknowledged and welcomed for what it is.

The declaration issued this week by 80 nations, many including Israel (that’s ISRAEL) represented by their heads of state, decried “serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths.”

For those of us – and there are many – looking to use religion to circumvent political barriers or to make diplomacy safe for believers and non-believers alike, this week’s conference should be a cause for hope and satisfaction. Saudi Arabia should be congratulated. There will be plenty of time to issue the annual reports in their season, but being honest today may also enhance the credibility of those objective critiques tomorrow.

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