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Saudi King Promotes 'Theological Diplomacy' At UN Forum

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the forum on November 12.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the forum on November 12.

Seven years ago, a group of mostly Saudi terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Now, Saudi King Abdullah has flown to New York to urge world leaders at the UN to find ways of bridging the divide between Islam and the West.

The two-day "Culture of Peace" forum, which concludes on November 13 at the United Nations in New York, is part of a series of efforts by Abdullah aimed not only at improving the Saudi image after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but at tackling conflict and mistrust formed between Muslims and West since then.

U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and leaders from more than 60 other countries are attending the gathering. "It's quite unique when you expect that President [Shimon] Peres of Israel and the king of Saudi Arabia and many kings and leaders from the Arab world are sitting down together and having dinner," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. "This is quite encouraging and positive."

Speaking before the General Assembly on October 12, Abdullah delivered what some forum participants said were significant remarks from a king of Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the Muslim world's most important sites as well as of terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden.

"We state with a unified voice that religions through which Almighty God sought to bring happiness to mankind should not be turned into instruments to cause misery," Abdullah said. "Terrorism and criminality are the enemies of every religion and every civilization. They would not have emerged except for the absence of the principle of tolerance."

Critics have seized on the irony if not hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia, which bars the public practice of any religion besides Islam, hosting a global forum on religious tolerance. But others such as Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, say Abdullah is taking courageous steps seemingly not endorsed by Saudi religious leaders, who have been absent from his initiatives, including an interreligious forum in Madrid last summer.

While Israel has no formal relations with Riyadh, Peres praised Abdullah's efforts. "Your majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message," Peres told the General Assembly. "I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It's right, it's needed, it's promising." Peres also called some of the language in an Arab peace proposal based on a Saudi initiative "inspirational and promising -- a serious opening for real progress."

Saudi Arabia is also involved in seeking to forge peace talks between the Afghan government and members of the Taliban. In September, Abdullah hosted representatives of both sides at an initial encounter in Mecca.

South Asian Diplomacy

On the sidelines of the forum, Abdullah met privately with Zardari and Karzai. The Pakistani president also reportedly held 20 minutes of talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"For the world to rectify the failings of the past and reverse the threats against peace and coexistence -- dialogue, understanding, and mutual acceptance is the way forward," Karzai told the forum. "At the same time, we must also counter the few discordant voices that preach hatred and division and misuse the name of religion to mask their pursuit of rather political goals. We must ensure that the voice of peace and tolerance prevails."

The Saudi initiative comes amid a flurry of activity in Muslim religious circles aimed at underscoring Islam's peaceful nature. In mid-October, an important group of Pakistani clerics issued a fatwa rejecting suicide bombing. That echoed a statement issued in May by India's influential Deobandi madrasah, whose curriculum dominates most Pakistani madrasahs. That statement, which denounced violence and terrorism as un-Islamic, could influence some Taliban leaders trained in Deobandi schools, some experts say.

As the world seeks peace from Palestine to Pakistan, it seems that theology -- how religious truth is understood -- is becoming a key part of diplomacy.

with agency reports