Before commenting on Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi’s visit to Riyadh, and his historic meeting with King Salman, it is important to take a step back. We should also learn about the new Saudi leadership project, which is determined to fight fanaticism and enhancing religious and sectarian rapprochement. Rahi’s visit adds another chapter to it.
In fact, expressions such as “war on extremism” or “promoting the culture of tolerance” have echoed so much that they have lost their meaning. This is because they often ignore the substance and turn into propaganda to silence Western governments and international organizations that place Arab and Muslim countries at the bottom of the list on religious freedom and anti-extremism efforts.
As a result, we have heard a lot about the need for religious and cultural reform as the number of instigators and teenage suicide bombers grows. Therefore, the correct and honest beginning to deal with extremism starts from within and not without.
This is exactly what the new Saudi Arabia has done – adopting the same approach both at home and abroad in one clear and unambiguous language. Those who have been observing the Saudi situation during the past two years will notice the diminishing voices of extremism after decades of contagious activities.
Although the Saudi government has spent huge sums of money to develop public and university education, and while officials have consistently spoken about the importance of the values of moderation, tolerance and patriotism, organized groups of Sahwa activists and the Brotherhood have sought to destroy these values necessary for the stability of any society.
This is a new Saudi Arabia that holds no room for oppressors of women and demonstrates a culture that, some believed, had faded awayMamdouh AlMuhaini
They have spread fanaticism, accused tolerant scholars of diluting the Islamic faith and labelled patriotism as contradictory to the spirit of Islam. Moreover, they maintain that it is a western concept without natural roots in our societies.
A dogmatic message completely contradicts the discourse of a state, which is linked to world powers, with the best relations. The repercussions were not only limited at the domestic front through safeguarding of an authentic Saudi culture characterized by the spirit of moderation and co-existence prevailing before 1979. However, it also led to a negative propaganda used by opponents of Saudi Arabia.
But all of this has become part of the recent past. So, those who follow news bulletins and social media around the world is introduced to a new, dynamic and open Saudi Arabia that practices moderation through work, not by words. This is a new Saudi Arabia that holds no room for oppressors of women and demonstrates a culture that, some believed, had faded away. However, it has returned to life quickly and amazingly.
The dilemma many governments face is that its rhetoric looks pretty but it is not accompanied by effective action, unlike the firm Saudi leadership that at times precedes acts and words. Thus, when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “we will destroy them today and immediately,” Saudi observers noted that the rhetoric of extremism had been strangled before his words.
The cultural image
The Saudi project in its war on extremism and enhancing tolerance began internally and expanded with clear cultural and political images. The most prominent cultural image is the opening of King Salman’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (ETIDAL), in the presence of US President Donald Trump. The center is described the most critical step toward combating extremism.
Similarly, Saudi Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, visited many Western and Islamic countries and delivered many speeches reflecting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to besiege the culture of extremism and promote the most tolerant thought on a wide scale.
Al-Issa also met with the Vatican Pope in Rome, where a picture of the two shaking hands was widely circulated. It is a symbolic image, which does not require an explanation. It is true that religious leaders meeting remain protocol that journalists like and then they quickly disappear from memory. However, this meeting was different given the dimension of change in and outside Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi project to fight extremism and promote a culture of tolerance was the main motive behind boycotting Doha, which became a dumping ground for terrorist leaders. It turned into a forum for the proponents of a culture of violence and an open hub for violent groups and militias to cause mayhem.
The same applies to the Iranian side, which supported Shiite terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. To summarize the picture without complicating things, the new Saudi Arabia is leading a project for coexistence, tolerance, growth and investment in life and the future.
It seeks to change the face of the region with large projects such as NEOM, but it clashes openly with the Iranian-Qatari project, which supports a culture of intolerance and support for Sunni and Shiite terrorism. Such an approach has consequently led the region into successive crises, failed its countries, exhausted its communities and made them loose hope.
This is an open war between good and evil. The best region is one that is socially stable, economically prosperous and one in which religions and sects coexist peacefully. It is where the evil of suicide operations, failed and disintegrated states, and the waves of migrants choose to drown in oceans.
This analysis outlines some features of Saudi Arabia’s religious, economic and political project. Now, in this context, we can answer the following question: Why did al-Rahi visit Riyadh for the first time and at this particular time?
This article is also available in Arabic.
Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.