In diversity there should be unity

Samar Fatany
Samar Fatany
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During the past 10 years the Center has pursued its objective to encourage more tolerance for religious diversity and to rein in the forces of religious extremism in the Kingdom. It has brought together leading religious figures from different sects, and hardline scholars who have persistently refused to accept the other.

King Abdullah has called for all schools of Islamic thought to be officially included in national dialogue. It is hoped that the engagement of different religious sects in dialogue will end divisions and establish a commitment to coexistence between all Saudi citizens as the basis for national unity.

The real challenge of participants in the national dialogue is to promote political and social stability and achieve national unity through acknowledging and accepting differences, rather than denying or suppressing them.

There have been encouraging initiatives lately between the different sects in the Kingdom. The interaction and constructive dialogue between prominent religious leaders, such as Sheikh Hasan Al-Saffar and Sheikh Salman Al-Oudah, is a welcome development toward national unity and social stability. The religious leaders called for mutual respect and dignity and rejected incitement, violence, and ignorance.

There is no denying that sensitivities still remain with respect to sectarian differences, and that other sects are not entirely accepted by a considerable segment of society; however, the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue has been instrumental in achieving great progress toward creating wider acceptance and tolerance of diversity of opinions.

The government has recognized that the religious environment can become very dangerous when unqualified people issue extremist fatwas. Under the current official policy, the issuing of fatwas has been limited to the senior council of Ulema which represents the consensus of officially recognized senior scholars. The impression of consensus is intended to promote a sense of national unity.

In the past there was little effort made to recognize diversity within the Kingdom, but today religious scholars engage in discussions of Islamic discourse rooted in moderation and justice both within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as outside it. The participants in constructive dialogue continue to call for a culture of tolerance and respect for alternative interpretations of Islam.

They reject ultraconservative interpretations that influence ongoing divisions between sects within Islam that are not in keeping with their own interpretation, and they refuse to divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim.

However, some extremist religious scholars in all sects and all faiths remain resistant to interfaith dialogue and insist on maintaining boundaries between different Muslim sects and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

There are still many challenges confronting senior religious scholars who have strongly supported dialogue and have called for the elimination of disunity, extremism, and ignorance. They have publicly opposed the deviant ideology of terrorism and violence in the name of religion.

In November 2007, King Abdullah paid a historic visit to the Vatican in order to address misconceptions about Islam and to promote interfaith dialogue.

A number of other meetings between religious scholars and intellectuals were held to promote the concept of dialogue and greater religious understanding, beginning in Makkah, then in Madrid, the United Nations, Geneva and finally culminating in the establishment of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna.

King Abdullah has often warned of sectarianism, tribal differences and favoring one segment of society over the other as elements that threaten the unity of the country.

The secretary general of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, Faisal Al-Muammar, said that forums have succeeded in establishing a common ground for healthy dialogue between different segments of the Saudi community. He also stressed that “division in its various forms destroys unity and conciliation that builds brotherhood under the umbrella of one nation,” adding that “national unity is the lifeguard of the nation when ideologies and people’s interests are mixed.”

“The National Dialogue has a vision regarding renewing religious speech so that it is in line with modern times, without changing the basics,” he said. “It is essential that religious speech be renewed according to the changing times and changes from one generation to another. In the past, religious speech had its own style. And in our current age it needs another style which is in line with development and people’s needs that suit their culture, understanding, and social and psychological status while maintaining the basics of Shariah law.”

(Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. Fatany is a columnist at the Saudi Gazette, where this article was published on Dec. 15, 2012. She can be reached at [email protected])

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