"Westerners love this stuff, interfaith summits," Brookings Institution political Islam scholar Shadi Hamid stated at a January 8 Washington, DC event about the 2018 Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS). While political motivations lead states including the FPPMS-sponsor United Arab Emirates (UAE) to support ever more of these dubious gatherings that sanitize Islam, their flaws in peace promotion should not escape critical observers.
Hilf al-Fudul should be developed into a fully-developed joint program that is disseminated both in the Muslim and the larger world. Its value should be taught in schools and its ideals promoted through civil societies and governments.
Firestone clearly indicated the AoV's public relations benefits for Muslims. AoV "is positive and welcoming; it's a Muslim gesture in a time when many non-Muslims are anxious and afraid of Islam." Accordingly, "this gesture can help to break down the negativity of many non-Muslims toward Muslims."
Whether non-Muslims would benefit as much from Islam and the AoV was more debatable. Firestone made the questionable historical assertion that the "remarkable" AoV's "foundation is absolute equality between all parties." Yet the original Hilf al-Fudul seventh-century tribal alliance in Mecca preceded the supposed revelation of Islam's prophet Muhammad, and therefore is subject to subsequent Islamic law's far less equitable provisions for non-Muslims.
In this context, Firestone gave a deceptively positive gloss on Islam's relation to tribalism. "This idea of a transcending tribalism is very important in Islam," he stated, "because it means creating a universal community, the umma, a trans-tribal population of people, who function as a super-tribe." He classified this as a "move to create a universal community of believers and it was beautiful and authorized by the highest authority, God." By contrast, scholars of Islam such as Raymond Ibrahim have analyzed precisely how this Islamic "Super Tribe" transposed Arab tribal culture onto a global religion, with non-Muslims as the new despised outsiders. Firestone merely briefly indicated that Jews, Christians, and others in the seventh century did not want to join the new Islamic community.
The scholar of Islamic antisemitism and jihad Andrew Bostom has previously examined in an interview how Firestone himself had to admit Islamic doctrine's aggressive nature in Firestone's book Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam. In it, Firestone tried "desperately to find an authoritative foundational Muslim textual source (i.e., hadith) for the idea that Jihad really meant an inner or spiritual Jihad, and that this was the 'greater' jihad," Bostom observed. However, Firestone "had to admit to his chagrin that he could not find this motif in any canonical hadith collection."
as violating aspects of sharia. Others criticized it as a Western document that was insensitive to non-Western culture or criticized as Judeo-Christian in its essential nature and thus in conflict with Muslim and other religious traditions and sensibilities.
FPPMS founder Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, with his own background of outrageous pro-jihad/sharia statements, likewise expressed anti-Western sentiments during his address to the 2014 FPPMS. In his one-sided view,
[Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel's intellectual framework shaped modern Europe. This explains why antagonism is the basis of European relationships: women and men are pitted against one another, transgendered persons are against both of them, workers are against employers, and struggle permeates all relationships.
Bin Bayyah instead recommended some supposedly superior Islamic civilizational model, for the "Hegelian model of antagonism and continuous struggle does not reflect Islam nor suit Muslim societies." Rather, "Islamic values and the fiqh of peace are based on reconciliation and forgiveness, not antagonism. The original purpose of the Sharī'ah was to serve peace." Therefore the "concept of modernity must also be reconsidered, for modernity does not mean Westernization and moral decline."
Accordingly, the 2018 FPPMS conference booklet rejects any ideological End of History à la Francis Fukuyama and any conclusive superiority of Western-based modern civilization norms in promoting human wellbeing. Even as many Muslim societies remain a developmental disaster, the booklet criticized an "inability of the contemporary civilizational model, to which humanity as a whole subscribes, in meeting mankind's aspirations of stability and prosperity." While the world continues to make great development strides, the booklet decried "population explosion, civil war, environmental deterioration, and widening disparities between the Global North and South."
Upon this basis the American leftist evangelical and support of "Sister Hillary" Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Deborah Fikes, addressed the 2018 FPPMS in hijab and praised Bin Bayyah's enlightenment efforts. Thereby "Americans are becoming better educated, particularly the conservative evangelical demographic, which is so important. They mobilize their churches, they vote, and they are very influential." She implied that such Americans are particularly backward, for only in the United States do people challenge apocalyptic climate change theories.
A recent example of Bin Bayyah's outreach to American evangelicals came in a January 28 event on Washington, DC's Capitol Hill entitled "Peace Requires Encounter: Evangelical-Muslim Bridge Building." As a promotional film noted, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) gave "generous seed funding and partnership support" for this meeting. KAICIID is a Vienna-based joint Austrian-Saudi-Spanish organization that various Austrian politicians want closed given the Saudi-dominated KAICIID's past lackluster promotion of liberalism.
As the promotion states, this "powerful new initiative to build peace between Muslims and evangelical Christians across America" originated at a Georgetown University conference that expelled this invited author. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), a Muslim-led producer of pro-Islam films, led both the Georgetown and Capitol Hill events and screened UPF's propagandistic Sultan and the Saint. Appearing in the promotion alongside FPPMS colleagues Bob Roberts and Hamza Yusuf, Bin Bayyah cited the Quran to urge Christians and Muslims to "argue amicably," vague words that in an Islamic context can entail censorship.
Simultaneously Saudi Arabia itself also participated in the interfaith game with a January 6-7 Salam (peace) Forum in Riyadh designed to combat official worries about "inaccuracy in disseminating information about Saudi Arabia." The forum promoted "common concepts of co-existence and building bridges of communication between Saudi society and other societies from around the world." The forum intended to "highlight the progress, achievements and the great efforts the kingdom has made for the benefit of mankind and world peace."
KAICIID Secretary General Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar was the forum's general supervisor. Media reported him saying that the "project's title closely reflects the values on which Saudi Arabia was founded. Peace is a great Islamic value that promotes security, love, serenity and tranquility and ensures that security prevails" (Jamal Khashoggi was not available for comment). The forum is part of Saudi Arabia's reform program "Vision 2030, which focuses on promoting coexistence and cultural communication between different peoples and communities."
Cynics might well dismiss such phrases as Saudi propaganda boilerplate, but an earlier visit to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by American evangelical leaders was more hardheaded. This delegation, led by bestselling author and Christian Zionist Joel C. Rosenberg, made a historic visit to the royal palace in Riyadh on November 1, 2018, to discuss Vision 2030. Along with the Christian media specialist Larry Ross, a participant in the 2018 FPPMS, the delegation included such conservative and pro-Israel luminaries as former Representative Michele Bachmann and Christian Zionist Mike Evans.
Although the ultimate results of these various Gulf State openings and feelers to the outside world are unpredictable, understanding their political context is imperative. A Brookings Institution report co-written by Hamid noted that authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries "tend to see regime survival as inextricably linked to religious legitimacy." In their world Islamic "religion functions as the common grammar of everyday politics."
Meanwhile the Brookings report observed that many ruling regimes in Muslim countries seek another form of global legitimacy. "Ever since the 9/11 attacks, there has been an eager Western and international audience for narratives around religious reform and countering violent extremism." Thus regimes are "keen to assert their utility within security frameworks defined primarily by the United States" in a global counter-jihad.
While UAE and other countries can please foreigners with events like the FPPMS, the Brookings report cautioned that appearances can deceive with regard to how deep any Islamic reform runs. "There is little evidence to suggest that the governments in question wish to change the popular culture and social practice of Islam on the mass level." Additionally, in Muslim countries "state-controlled religious bodies are often regarded as little more than government mouthpieces."
For example, the Brookings report quoted the United States Instituted of Peace on the FPPMS 2016 Marrakesh conference and declaration. For the host country, it helped in "burnishing Morocco's credentials." Yet the declaration "has received little attention in the Muslim world, and has been viewed as an elite, idealistic initiative."
Observers of the FPPMS and the like should recall the optimism that often greeted proclaimed reforms of Communist states in the Soviet bloc, China, and elsewhere in the 1980s under leaders such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Here liberalization of totalitarianism led not to a reformed socialism, but rather to the collapse of Communist tyrannies, bloodbath regime successions as in the Balkans, or brutal backlash, as in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Notwithstanding the interfaith harmony proclaimed by the FPPMS, the ultimate course of Muslim interaction with the modern world remains open.