Saudis In Move To Improve Image Of Islam

Saudi Arabia is sponsoring a two-day United Nations conference in New York to promote interfaith dialogue to improve the image of Islam as a religion that favours dialogue over violence.

The conference, which begins on Wednesday, is seen as part of the Saudi monarch’s efforts to promote a more moderate brand of Islam in a kingdom that has been accused of breeding extremism since the September 11 attacks in 2001. By sponsoring interfaith events, King Abdullah may also be hoping to advance the debate over radicalism within the kingdom.

George W. Bush, US president, and Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, are among those listed to speak. Shimon Peres, Israeli president, and Tzipi Livni, foreign minister, will also attend.

“The dialogue comes at a time when the world is criticising Islam,” the Saudi monarch told local media. “It is regrettable that some of our sons have been tempted by Satan or the brothers of Satan.’’

Last year the king met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican; earlier this year, he arranged a conference of Muslim sects at the holy city of Mecca and, in July, he presided over a gathering of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists hosted by Spain.

The Vatican, however, is sceptical about the merit of the New York summit and concerned that the issue of religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which permits no churches, will be pushed aside.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who will represent Pope Benedict at the UN and heads the Vatican’s interfaith efforts, said in a recent Reuters interview that “too many” Christian-Muslim initiatives were sowing “a bit of confusion”. However, he also praised King Abdullah for his courage in acting in spite of opposition from fundamentalist religious leaders in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, adheres to the puritanical Wahabi Islam and fares poorly in international reports on religious freedom because it does not permit the open practice of other faiths and restricts or brands heretical other Muslim sects, including Shia, Sufi and Ismaili.

Some Saudis remain sceptical as to the local benefits of such a dialogue, however, particularly for the estimated 1.5m to 2m Shia living in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia activist, says: “They fulfil the purpose of improving the image abroad, but locally, we need an internal dialogue with a clear mandate to eliminate sectarian discrimination.”

Human Rights Watch urged world leaders in a statement on Tuesday to pressure King Abdullah to end discrimination against religious monitories in the kingdom. “There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,’’ says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at the rights watchdog. “The dialogue should be about where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia.”

Additional reporting by Harvey Morris in New York and Guy Dinmore in Rome