A two-day conference organised by the King Abdallah Centre lays the ground for change in Saudi Arabia at a time when Islam is experiencing a spiritual and institutional crisis. The choice of Austria as “neutral’ ground is not accidental. Rediscovering the “transcendental” is important even if it has been expelled from European public life. Young people must be taught the concepts of citizenship and nation.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) held a two-day conference (26-27 February) at the Hilton Hotel in Vienna to discuss ways to overcome Islam’s religious crisis and stop the drift towards fundamentalism in the 21st century. A number of prominent civic and religious leaders took part in the event, including Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Card Bechara al-Rahi, who described as “very positive” the efforts by the KAICIID and Saudi Arabia. The analysis by AsiaNews ‘s correspondent follows.
How to move the Islamic world, its Arab part in particular, into the 21st century with unity in diversity, social cohesion, citizenship, without losing its soul? This is the daunting challenge launched by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), an organisation that would like to be the great minesweeper to smooth the transition of this world towards globalisation.
Whatever one may think of the militant Islam of the Iranian revolution, it must be said that it marked a complex awakening of identity that cannot be swept aside. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, and the related death of the caliphate, sent shock waves across the Islamic world, and launched a challenge that the Brothers Muslims founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, and the Saudi dynasty backed by the Wahhabi doctrine, each in its own way, sought to meet, both spiritually and institutionally, in the early twentieth century.
Egypt’s aborted revolution, Mohammad Morsi’s ouster (2013), and the darkness that fell on the Plain of Nineveh, at the brutal start of the twenty-first century, showed the limits of other alternatives that some had in mind. We are now at the third attempt to awaken Sunni Islam, without plunging Muslims into darkness or tyranny. Although the operation may seem simple to some, it is in fact more complex than it appears.
The answer the KAICIID in Vienna wants to bring to this crisis, and that is what it is, is ambiguous. Admittedly, what is possible in Vienna – where the conference ended yesterday – is not possible in Saudi Arabia. To launch such a reform from the neutral grounds of Austria, and dress it up with an international and interreligious coat is, on the part of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a way to show realism and coherence.
However, it is not clear that the answer from Europe, with its successes and oppositions over the years, is quite what is needed. This response is, in fact, a little too marked by a culture of facts and figures, sustainable development, and reproductive health – a secular, if not secularist culture in which God and the transcendental must not meddle in what does not concern them.
By contrast, like it or not, the current crisis of Islam is also spiritual. For Khaled Abdel Shafi (UNDP), who spoke at the conference, "90 per cent of young Arabs consider themselves religious, or partly religious." Speaking after him, Merete Bilde, policy advisor to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, candidly admitted that "The European Union is not into religion, but it cannot avoid seeing its impact and must look at things realistically."
To fight radicalisation – to fight what continues to fascinate some young Muslims, or what appeals to something deep in them, and sometimes radicalises them – requires something other than social engineering and action programmes focused on social media. What is needed is what the West has removed from public life once and for all, namely a reference to the transcendental. Thus, the answer to the crisis of the Islamic world that is emerging in Vienna, whilst essential, is insufficient on its own. Instead, it must be complemented by a legitimate and recognised historical reflection that would allow Islam to free itself from the impasse in which the codification of the interpretation of the Qurʾān has locked it in since the twelfth century.
Many observers agree that this enterprise, which must go hand in hand with the modernisation of the governance structures of the Arab States, can only be accomplished by Muslims. In this respect, Egypt’s al-Azhar seems to have done the most advanced work – about which its number 2, Sheikh Abbas Shuman, spoke in detail yesterday – such as promoting the concept of citizenship, and recognising the legitimacy of religious diversity, as well as freedom of belief and worship, albeit with reservations about the Christian mission and conversions to Christianity of Muslims (see al-Azhar's statement on 6 March 2017 on diversity and complementarity).
Alongside these advances, the conference emphasised the vital importance of education about diversity and citizenship, a long-term policy that is beginning to take shape in some countries thanks to the work of private associations like the Adyan Foundation, or through official efforts. For example, Saudi Arabia’s influential Minister for Islamic Affairs Tawfiq ben Abdelaziz al-Sadiri spoke yesterday of his country’s effort to instill in the minds of young Saudis the notion of the state in lieu of that of the Ummah (community of believers).
A good part of the day, yesterday, was devoted to the art of using social media, of creating, thanks to these psychological and social tools, unsuspected bonds of solidarity. In this regard, the audience was treated to the fascinating story of Saudi social media hero Kawther al-Arbash, whose face still shows the signs of pain for her son who died trying to stop an Islamic State suicide bomber at a mosque in Dammam in May 2015. Along with 29 other women, Kawthar el-Arbash was appointed in 2016 to of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, which was changed by royal decree.
The conference ended yesterday with the launch of an action plan for the Arab world inspired by its objectives and programmes, not without last minute changes after some clerics raised questions about an element in the text that provided for initiatives, within the framework of the plan, to be taken "under the auspices" of the Centre rather than "in collaboration" with it.