Few things offer surreal experiences as when Islam and the West interact—when 7th century primordialism encounters 21st century relativism. Consider the issue of "interfaith dialogue." In principle, it is a decent thing: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others trying to reach a common ground and professing mutual respect. But what does one make of the gross contradictions that emerge when a human-rights violating nation calls for "dialogue," even as it enforces religious intolerance on its own turf?
Enter Saudi Arabia. Birthplace of Islam, the Arabian kingdom is also the one Muslim nation that regularly sponsors interfaith initiatives in the West—even as its official policy back home is to demonize and persecute the very faiths it claims to want to have an interfaith dialogue with.
Back in 2008, for example, in what was deemed an unprecedented move, Saudi King Abdullah "made an impassioned plea for dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews," going so far as to refer to the latter two as "our brothers." His stated goal was to develop "respect among religions."
The Saudi monarch's most recent initiative reached fruition on November 26 2012, when the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue was launched in the Austrian capital, Vienna. According to its own website, the center "was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world." Lending international legitimacy to this Saudi gesture of goodwill, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among those who attended the opening.
While all this ostensibly sounds well and good, consider the many incongruities, the many absurdities—initially demonstrated by the simple fact that Saudi Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, who was quoted praising the Austrian-based center as proof that "Islam is a religion of dialogue and understanding and not a religion of enmity, fanaticism, and violence," is also on record calling Jews "monkeys and pigs" and Christians "cross worshippers."
Nor is he just a run-of-the-mill sheikh: he is the government-appointed imam of Saudi Arabia's Grand Mosque in Mecca—Islam's holiest site, where Christians, Jews, and others are routinely condemned and cursed during the prayers of the faithful.
But this is not surprising. Even the State Department's most recent internal religious freedom report on Saudi Arabia notes that "Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion."
And this is the key point: Saudi Arabia's brand of religious intolerance is not a product of the "Arab street," terrorists, or mob violence. It is institutionalized; it is enforced by the state itself. In other words, religious intolerance is being implemented by the very people who claim to want to have dialogue with Christians and Jews under the umbrella of "tolerance" and "mutual respect."
In this context, what, exactly, do they wish to talk about?
Do they wish to talk about how the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia—yet another top ranked Saudi religious official—declared that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region," basing his verdict on the commands of Muslim prophet Muhammad?
Do they wish to talk about how, despite promising to reform their school textbooks, the Saudi education system continues to indoctrinate Muslim children with hatred and incitement, teaching that "Christians are the enemies of the Believers" and that the "the Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians"? Little wonder the imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque uses such monikers—even as he gushes about the Saudi-sponsored Vienna-based initiative for "dialogue."
Maybe they wish to talk about the 28-year-old Saudi woman, Maryan, who, after converting to Christianity, had to flee the nation, and is reportedly currently hiding in Sweden, even as authorities try to extradite her back to Saudi Arabia to face the crime of apostasy, which calls for the death penalty? Earlier Maryam had said that, though she "was raised to hate Judaism and Christianity she has come to love those religions since finding peace in Christianity."
Do they wish to talk about how 35 Christian Ethiopians were arrested and abused for almost a year, simply for holding a private house prayer? Upon release, one of the Christians observed that "The Saudi officials do not tolerate any religions other than Islam. They consider non-Muslims unbelievers. They are full of hatred towards non-Muslims."
Or do they wish to talk about how just last December 2012, Saudi "religious police" stormed a house in the province of al-Jouf, detaining more than 41 guests for, in the words of the police statement, "plotting to celebrate Christmas"?
Of course, the Vienna-based King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue does not wish to talk about any of these instances of state-enforced religious intolerance. Instead, the purpose of the center's existence is to deflect criticism from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, and direct it onto the West. This was amply demonstrated during the center's inaugural symposium, when Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, urged Western governments to enact laws countering "Islamophobia," because it "leads to hate crimes and as such, it generates fear, feelings of stigmatization, marginalization, alienation and rejection."
In other words, Saudi-sponsored "interfaith dialogue" is about one-way tolerance, that is, pressuring the West to show "tolerance" to Muslims by not criticizing them for persecuting others, which would be portrayed as "Islamophobia."
It still remains to determine which is more surreal, more unbelievable: that Saudi Arabia, which tops the charts of state-enforced religious intolerance, is sponsoring "religious dialogue," or that the West, including leaders of those religions whose adherents are daily persecuted by Saudi and Muslim intolerance, are going along with the gag—and all of them with a straight face.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.