When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia calls for interfaith cooperation, the world takes notice. At an interfaith summit in Spain yesterday, the king said, “the world’s religions should not fight, but unite to face common problems,” including crime, drug abuse, racism, and terrorism.
The idea may be laudable, but according to NPR’s Morning Edition, critics are saying that the entire conference is “only meant to make Saudi Arabia look good in the West.” While many are hailing the speech as a step toward religious harmony, some believe that the conference should have been held in Saudi Arabia to address the country’s climate of religious oppression.
“The Saudi Royal family… has a great interest in downplaying the divide between Muslim and Western societies,” Geneive Abdo writes for Foreign Policy (subscription required). Abdo once worked for the Alliance of Civilizations, a United Nations project designed to address religious extremism and the “so-called clash of civilizations.” Shortly after the effort began, Abdo became disillusioned with the UN project and its unwillingness to tackle difficult cultural rifts between Islam and the West, choosing instead to emphasize common ground.
“Interfaith discussion distracts from uncomfortable but necessary questions,” according to Abdo, “and should be considered a hindrance to concrete and effective foreign-policy approaches to counter extremism.” King Abdullah’s speech calling for international cooperation makes people feel good, but it could be a dangerous distraction to the real problems at hand.
UPDATE: Instead of interfaith dialogue, there may be a more effective means of social change: money. An article on the front page of today’s Washington Post reports:
Saudi officials said they are working on easing the lifestyle and visa restrictions that have kept foreigners from investing and living in the kingdom. One side effect of that will probably be an easing of rules that ban men and women from mingling in public unless they are close relatives.
"We're not anymore an isolated island. We realize the challenge today in order for us to be more competitive means more transparency and more gender equality," said Abdullah Hameedadin, head of the Economic Cities Agency at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, the government body overseeing the projects.
(Thanks, FP Passport.)