Thomas L Friedman, the New York Times columnist and author, is one of those writers who inspire admiration and indignation in equal measure. You may not always agree with him but you can’t put him down either.
Commenting on a Saudi initiative for peace with Israel, also known as Arab Peace Plan, Friedman wrote last year: “What the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks need most today is an emotional breakthrough.
Another Arab declaration, just reaffirming the Abdullah initiative, won’t cut it. If King Abdullah wants to lead – and he has the integrity and credibility to do so – he needs to fly from the Riyadh summit to Jerusalem and deliver the offer personally to the Israeli people. If King Abdullah did the same, he could end this conflict once and for all.”
Watching Abdullah unveil a landmark interfaith initiative at the United Nations this past week, one couldn’t help recall Friedman’s challenge asking the Saudi King to march to Jerusalem for peace.
Well, King Abdullah who takes pride in his position as the Custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Makkah and Madina, may not have undertaken the journey to Jerusalem, the third city sacred to Muslims as well as Christians and Jews.
But he has done what not long ago would have been equally unthinkable. The erudite king traveled to Vatican last year and met the Pope offering him peace and friendship on behalf of the Muslim world. Given the long history of the Crusades and bitter relations between the followers of Islam and Christianity, that gesture by Abdullah marked a watershed. But then this King has always been unconventional in many ways. Notwithstanding his advanced years, he has repeatedly gone out of his way to reach out to the world demolishing stereotypes in the West about the Saudis and Arabs in general.
His meeting with the Pope took place at a time when there was great anger and frustration in the Muslim world over the US and Western policies in the Middle East. Memories of the Danish cartoon slur and Pope Benedict’s own controversial remarks about Islam and its Prophet were still fresh and raw.
At a time like this, it demanded great courage and integrity on the part of a Saudi King to visit Vatican and exchange gifts with the Pope. But it was worth it. The visit heralded a new era in the relations of two Abrahamic faiths that have so much in common yet have seldom been at peace with each other.
Abdullah’s mission to Vatican was perhaps the strongest message of peace and goodwill to emanate from Arabia since the dawn of Islam in Makkah.
And that was no chance encounter. It wasn’t even an attempt to score diplomatic brownie points, as Friedman suggests.
The Saudis are too serious a people to indulge themselves in pointless diplomatic shenanigans or do something when their heart is not in it.
Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is indeed dead serious in reaching out to the larger world.
As the leader of the Muslim world, the country is keen to mend its fences with the world.
Why do I think so? Because since that historic encounter with the Pope last year, the Saudis have unveiled numerous such initiatives to build bridges with the world.
Earlier this year in June, Abdullah hosted hundreds of scholars in the holy city of Makkah to discuss ways of promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
The King followed it up with another high profile event that he hosted in Madrid, Spain. It was attended by representatives from Vatican, Anglican Church, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths. And now he has taken his battle of hearts and minds to the global centre-stage at the UN.
Now that is remarkable for a country that has been endlessly demonized in the world media as the breeding ground of “extremist Islam” and for its alleged “links” to September 11 attacks.
These initiatives are highly significant considering the reclusive nature of the kingdom and its traditional unwillingness to throw its weight around despite its standing in the Muslim world and its clout as the largest oil producer in the world.
Which is perhaps why global movers and shakers, from President Bush to Prime Minister Brown and from Arab and Muslim heads of states to religious leaders, everyone turned up to join Abdullah’s initiative to improve relations between faiths, especially between Islam and the West, and present the real, humane face of the faith practiced by 1.6 billion people. It’s such a shame therefore that the Saudi initiative has failed to receive the attention it really deserves. This exercise to illuminate Islam’s liberating teachings couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
For far too long, especially after 9/11, Muslims have watched with increasing concern and helplessness as extremists on both sides try to paint their great faith as some sort of extremist cult. While the militants have consciously or unconsciously exploited the religion to push their agenda, the Western media and neocons have conveniently used individual acts of violence to justify their crusade against Islam and its followers.
This is time to rediscover and reinvent the faith that has given the world nothing but peace, equality, justice and universal brotherhood. This is what it teaches and preaches. And this is why all of us believe in it. Its universal teachings have enriched the world civilization including the West.
This is why when this humane and most reasonable faith is coupled with extremism, it hurts.
And every time innocents are killed in its name and an atrocity is dumped in its account, Muslims the world over ask themselves: “Where are our leaders? Why don’t they speak out against this mindless violence in the name of our religion? Why don’t they say: ‘Not in our name!” For this is not the faith we know and practice.
Unfortunately, nothing but a deafening silence greeted their anguished pleas.
Thank God that deafening silence has finally been broken. At last, someone is prepared to say: “Not in our name!” But one voice is not enough. What Saudi Arabia under Abdullah is doing is very noble. It’s indeed need of the hour. But it must be backed and boosted by such initiatives across the globe. Let’s make some real noise wherever we are. Let’s say loud and clear: Not in our name! For God’s sake, no!