A Hint of Tolerance

Friday, April 4, 2008

ONE OF Saudi Arabia's senior Muslim clerics, Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Barak, committed a familiar outrage last month. The 75-year-old scholar of Wahhabism, the severe strain of Islam that is Saudi Arabia's official ideology, issued a fatwa saying that two writers should be put to death if they did not renounce articles suggesting that Muslims need not regard adherents of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews, as apostates. This was a shocking but not surprising judgment in a country where non-Muslims are banned from publicly practicing their faiths, where citizens can be sentenced to death for converting to another religion and where al-Qaeda has found fertile ground for its extremist agenda.

What is surprising -- and encouraging -- is what preceded and has followed the sheik's fatwa. The two writers who published the articles, Abdullah bin Bejad al-Otaibi and Yousef Aba al-Khail, are Saudi; their writing appeared in a well-known Saudi newspaper, al-Riyadh, published in the capital. While noting that their murder had been sanctioned by the cleric, the two men did not back down -- one said he would bring a lawsuit against the sheik. And this week the writers were supported by a group of more than 100 Arab rights groups and intellectuals from across the region. In a statement sent to the Reuters news agency, the group -- which included Islamist thinkers such as the Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi and Lebanese scholar Radwan al-Sayyed -- said the fatwa amounted to "intellectual terrorism."

"It is incumbent upon Saudi and Arab intellectuals and those in official and unofficial institutions to stand up" to "clerics of darkness" such as Sheik Barak, the statement went on to say.

In fact the two writers seem to have won some pretty important political cover. Last week, Saudi King Abdullah delivered a little-noticed but potentially momentous statement calling for an interfaith dialogue among Saudi Muslims, Christians and Jews. Saying he had the support of the official Saudi clergy, King Abdullah said "the idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same god." The king didn't offer details; it's not yet clear whether the Saudi invitation will be extended to Jews from Israel or whether it will be followed by long-overdue actions, such as the opening of churches to serve the many Christians living in Saudi Arabia. Still, the implicit recognition of other religions and the message of tolerance was a radical and welcome break from the message of Sheik Barak.

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