Training imams in Saudi Arabia to counter extremism
There should be a united effort to build a cohesive society that can overcome religious differences
A new 10-year strategy for the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue will soon be launched according to the Center’s Secretary General Faisal Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Muammar as reported in the local press. At a press conference held on the sidelines of the “Messages in Dialogue” project, the secretary general highlighted three important initiatives to revamp the role of the Center, namely, reviewing cooperation with institutions that have not adhered to the Center’s objectives, providing more professional training in dialogue to build bridges of understanding with other cultures and training imams to deliver Friday sermons that are in tune with modern times.
This strategy could be a major development which could influence change and put an end to the ongoing conflicts between Islamic factions and restore Islamic tolerance among the faithful. Ethnic conflicts are the reasons behind the civil wars that are raging in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Constructive dialogue is very much needed to facilitate reconciliation and control sectarian differences that have destroyed homes and killed innocent Muslims.
Many Saudis were beginning to doubt the role of the Center and its ability to build a constructive dialogue both within the Kingdom and abroad, a dialogue that could influence the use of the correct form of Islamic discourse based on tolerance and moderation. So far the Center has not been able to deal effectively with cultural, political, economic and other national challenges. Our society remains divided on major issues of reform making it very difficult for the country to move forward and prosper.
There should be a united effort to build a cohesive society that can overcome religious differencesSamar Fatany
Having said that, we cannot discredit the role of the Center in its attempt to provide a platform for the discussion of different views and new ideas for the rejection of extremist ideology that continues to influence many in Saudi society today.
Faisal al-Muammar said the Center has launched a three-year program to train a large number of Saudis in dialogue. This initiative could strengthen the channels of communication and intellectual dialogue with organizations and individuals within the Kingdom and abroad.
Over the past several years, many Saudi men and women have engaged in National Dialogue forums, addressing extremism and moderation, national unity, women’s rights, youth issues, the relationship with non-Saudis and non-Muslims, and the education system in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the forums were mainly dominated by hardliners and the few progressive thinkers who attended were unable to influence moderate thought in order to tackle current issues of national and global concern.
More moderate religious scholars, scientists, thinkers and academics should be included as participants in the dialogue between different segments of the Saudi community in order to change the negative mindset and intolerant attitudes.
There should be a united effort to build a cohesive society that can overcome religious differences. It is time that we engage the youth, social media activists, human rights activists, reformers and progressive officials to influence the values of moderation, fairness and social justice. Ultra-conservatives and extremists should not be allowed to dominate and speak for everyone.
Dialogue participants can play an important role in projecting our rich culture and way of life. They can clear up the misconceptions that have created a divide between East and West. It is time we train our dialogue participants to utilize social media networks to counter extremist networks and cultivate trust and understanding with the global community. There is also a crucial need to provide a constructive dialogue with the coalition of educators, writers and book publishers who came together after 9/11 to confront teachings of hatred, contempt and damaging stereotypes that can be found in religious school classrooms.
Hopefully, the new strategy can help contain extremism and sedition within Saudi society. It needs to come up with an innovative program of cultural dialogue to influence change and provide a common ground where moderation and harmony can flourish. The Center should strive to energize the role of inter-sectarian dialogue to encourage rapprochement between Muslim sects and correct the misconceptions that have misguided many Muslims today. More Muslim scholars should be engaged in dialogue to reach beyond the hypothetical rhetoric and attempt to reach the masses in order to address the spread of sectarian violence that is destroying the Muslim world.
Faisal al-Muammar also announced that the Center is planning to provide training for imams who give Friday sermons in collaboration with Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University. Such a plan to train imams to deliver more effective Friday sermons is a step in the right direction. It is about time we renew religious speech to be in line with modern times, without compromising or distorting the principles of our faith. The current style of religious speech does not address the challenges that young Muslims are facing today.
Friday sermons have, unfortunately, failed to connect with people’s needs and concerns. The National Dialogue Center must play a bigger role in training imams to integrate perspectives of traditional Islam with those of contemporary rights. The Center has a responsibility to activate the social debate between ultra-conservatives and moderates to address the current political and traditional controversies that are a threat to our social fabric and undermine the progress of our country.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 1, 2014
Samar Fatany is a Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station. Over the past 28 years, she has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the kingdom. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. She has published three books: “Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions,” “Saudi Women towards a new era” and “Saudi Challenges & Reforms.”