Dr. Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League. (Image source: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Dr. Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League, has been one of the most outstanding Muslim leaders; he has recognized the brutality of the Holocaust and criticized any denial of it.
Last January, he wrote a letter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the letter, he labeled the Holocaust as "an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person."
In April, he attended an event held in New York by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, venerating Muslims who helped Jews during the Holocaust. At the event, he emphasized the need for Holocaust education in the Muslim world.
Early in October, he delivered a speech at the "2nd Conference on Cultural Rapprochement between the United States of America and the Muslim World," in New York City.
Al-Issa, in his speech, called on the conference participants to form a delegation of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders to visit Jerusalem to help settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al-Issa emphasized that the convoy should be formed of "independent peace messengers... 'independent' of any political affiliation."
Al-Issa is a hero. His thoughts are definitely constructive and pro-peace. Sadly, however, they may exaggerate the role of religious faith in promoting peace and minimize its role in inciting hatred and conflict.
One of his wishes, Al-Issa said, is that the prospective meeting in Jerusalem will be "a step toward what will some day be a more broad cross-faith acceptance of different faiths." As a previous Minister of Justice in Saudi Arabia, he speculated that the time will come when people of different religions can go to any country, including Saudi Arabia, and publicly practice their faith.
The time when non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia can openly practice their own faith, however, will come only when Muslim religious leaders, such as Al-Issa, openly say that what makes this time remote is a set of many verses of the Quran and the hadith, that disseminate hatred of non-Muslims and label them unbelievers (see for example the related fatwa by the Permanent Committee of the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta, Saudi Arabia)
Publicly admitting this difficult fact is the first step needed to be done by courageous, outspoken advocates of "interfaith" dialogue such as Al-Issa. Even he, however, still seems hesitant to do it.
One project, in fact, that the new Saudi Arabian crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), might consider is assembling a panel to see if anything in the hadith, assembled during two hundred years after the death of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, might possibly be inauthentic.
In his speech at the conference, Al-Issa disappointingly repeated the false claim that religions, including Islam, are not extreme by nature and that the problem lies in extremists who defame their religion and slander their religious texts:
"We have said and still saying today that great religions are not extreme by nature; and at the same time, there is no religion that is free of extremists."
One might agree with Al-Issa when he says that extremists attempt "to hijack the true religion, specifically through poisoning the minds of some young people with the idea of clash of civilizations and embedding the overstated idea of conspiracy." There is, nevertheless, plain as day, the role played by that set of Quranic verses, hadiths, and the resultant interpretations and fatwas that regrettably still fuel a hatred of non-Muslims and "disbelievers."
Dr. Al-Issa also refers to what he calls "intellectual holes":
"The chief role of this conference [Cultural Rapprochement Conference] is to keep extremists from taking any advantage of any intellectual holes that they can use to promote their extremist ideologies and have the opinions of well-established scholars." (Emphasis added)
There may well be "intellectual holes," but there is also the set of religious literature that extremists quote to promote their ideology and to spread hatred of Christians, Jews and other "unbelievers."
Al-Issa's description of extremists' beliefs is, unfortunately, identical to those enshrined in Quranic verses and hadiths. Compare his thinking that extremists "believe that they solely are privileged with the absolute truth" with what the Quran notes:
"And whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers." (Quran 3:85, Sahih International translation)
Many Muslims -- not only Islamists -- if they believe these Quranic verses, could easily regard their religion the same way extremists do, especially the way Al-Issa has described them: "They [extremists] have further reached the miserable state of belief that anyone disagreeing with them is an enemy of the Creator."
Quranic verses such as those above, as well as several others that extremists quote to promote their extremist ideology, are what the manifesto, "Against New Anti-Semitism," published in the newspaper Le Parisien on April 21, asks to "be [denounced as] outdated by Islamic authorities, as were the incoherencies of the Bible and the Catholic anti-Semitism abolished by Vatican II, so that no believer can rely on a sacred text to commit a crime."
No lesser a person than Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a practicing Muslim, has for years called for religious reforms.
Some of his co-religionists, he said, were becoming "a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world... a religious revolution" is needed, he said.
The clerics, however, presumably nervous about having their power diluted, pushed back.
Al-Issa and the World Muslim League have not publicly commented on the French manifesto. One understands how extremely difficult it must have been for Al-Issa and the League to read the manifesto or to show some empathic understanding of it. All the same, he preferred to keep silent rather than to comment.
The question facing many Muslims and their religious leaders who have similar views is: Will they be able to begin directly discussing the root causes of Muslims' extremism and hatred of non-Muslims?
Many Muslims worldwide are hoping they do, but governments and intellectuals will need to back these efforts with work, determination, and unfaltering support.
A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.