* Third of a Six Part Series: Tolerance and Intolerance in the Islamic World, held at the Palais des Nations during the Durban Review Conference. All members of the Panel are Practicing Muslims.
Bismillahi Rahman ar Raheem. I would like to address issues which affect all of us, regardless of whether you are Muslim or non-Muslim. The crisis of Islam is in large part caused by the Saudi Wahhabis who demand a monopoly on discussion and who prevent the normal, fruitful controversy that is mentioned in the Koran, and which was praised by the Prophet Muhammad as a blessing and a mercy. And it is necessary for the health of Islam that free discussion and investigation are protected.
The “crescent of normality”—all the countries from Kuwait to Yemen—have general religious freedom, and encourage expression of opinion in the media and criticism of negative social practices. Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia do this? For example, Saudi Arabia does not permit churches and synagogues, and so they are in a very poor state. As a matter of fact, I have been to these synagogues and churches which had been there prior to the fall of the Ottomans, and which were maintained until the Saudi Wahhabis took over and started demolishing them.
King Abdullah clearly understands the need for changes in this area, for greater freedom of opinion in the media and for criticism of negative social practices. As Muslims, we are strong in our belief and in our faith. We don’t need government laws to protect us, because Allah states in the Koran that he protects those who have complete faith.
I think we should name and shame the radical Imams and clerics who are inciting hatred against other faiths, other religions, as well as those who are inciting or practicing domestic violence against women. This is against the laws of Islam. I'd like to ask the United Nations: what have they done against domestic violence, in particular in Saudi Arabia, where a 19-year-old girl was gang raped by seven Saudi men and then sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes. Her lawyer, to whom I spoke, a human rights lawyer, was suspended from the Saudi Bar Association. He was not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia. The authorities took his passport away.
We should also realize that Islam is a religion which gives protection to its neighbors. Our Prophet Muhammad said that if your neighbor goes hungry, you will be held responsible on the Day of Judgment. He did not say the neighbor has to be a Muslim. Your neighbors down the street from where you live have rights you must respect. The city next to you has rights you must respect. The country next to you has rights you must respect. As Muslims we give protection to our neighbors. We don’t punish them.
I'm interested in discussing shari'ah law. Many people talk about shari'ah law. And we at the Center for Islamic Pluralism have completed a survey on shari'ah law in Western Europe which, as Stephen has mentioned, will be released in May 2009. As part of our shari'ah survey, we stressed that traditional Islam respects the law of the land, and that's what the Prophet had taught us, that when you go and live in non-Muslim lands you should accept the law of the land and respect it. Traditional Islam doesn’t say that you have to enforce shari'ah in the west, or even attempt to reintroduce shari'ah in the Muslim world, except regarding prayer, Halal meat, and other rituals of the Muslims, in which, like other religions, we have our private practices.
I'd also like to mention cultural vandalism. What has the United Nations done about Saudi cultural vandalism? It's reported in media that the historic legacy of Islamic society is under threat, and significant monuments are being demolished. In the end, no one thinks about the cultural vandalism taking place in Mecca, the cradle of Islam or, regarding the holy Kaaba, which was dismantled in 1996. Or the fate of the house of Prophet Muhammad where he lived for 23 years, with his wife Khadija and their children who were born there, the same house where the Archangel Gibril (Gabriel) revealed verses of the Koran for so many years. It was demolished in 1989 and today the largest latrines of the Grand Mosque stand over the area.
Why don’t the Muslims talk about that? Why is it that I don’t hear any Muslim leaders condemn this extremism? I think we should understand that Saudi Arabia focuses criticism on Israel while they themselves are demolishing the old, historical Meccan Prophetic heritage.
Why is the United Nations not concerned with these issues? We have United Nations preservation of certain sites: Madaen Saleh in Riyadh, and an old house in Jeddah, which don’t have anything to do with Islamic history, and yet when we approach UNESCO to help preserve historical monuments belonging to the Prophetic heritage in the Kingdom, they decline. They say no, the country itself has to register the monuments for preservation and the Saudis always reject this.
The problem lies in that the Saudis have petrodollars. And the Saudis are pumping these petrodollars into numerous institutions. Where I come from in the United Kingdom we have many universities to which the Saudis have donated millions of pounds, for example Kings College and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Therefore, if I was to try to deliver a lecture against Saudi Arabia there, I would be barred. I would not be allowed to deliver such a lecture.
How and why are we told in the media that Saudi Arabia is the center of Islam? Yes, it is, but it does not represent the majority of the Muslims in the world. It represents a very, very small minority. They are a threat to Islam, and the threat is serious: it is Wahhabism.
Someone asked me the other day what about the situation in India and Pakistan: What do I think of the Taliban? Is there a difference between the Wahhabis and the Taliban? I said No. The name for the Wahhabis in Pakistan or India is Taliban or Deobandism/Tablighi Jamaat. They have the same ideology. They want to go on missionary tours, propagating their vicious campaign for dismantling holy monuments, while criticizing other religions.
Consider a prime example of the Taliban ideology: the Bamyan idols that were dynamited. The Prophet Muhammad never said to dismantle or bulldoze the Egyptian pyramids; neither did any of his successors, the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman or Ali, or the successors after them. Recently the Saudi muftis said, let's go and demolish the pyramids. No one should keep anything monumental, related to the Pharaonic era, according to them.
Islam is not against protection of our cultural legacies. You learn from history, preserve history, and respect religions. You respect other religions.
And that's the issue about which we have to be careful. I think the United Nations does not realize that we are in a dangerous situation, and that if we are not careful now we are going to sink. If we do not stop the flow of petrodollars to finance radicalism, and if we do not stop Wahhabism, then all of us are going to suffer.
I think King Abdullah, given the time he has had, has done a lot of good work. He is bringing in a lot of changes. But he needs people from outside the Kingdom to support him. He cannot do it alone. And if he dies soon, God forbid, what will happen? The outcome will be dangerous for the many Muslims and non-Muslims across the globe.
Irfan Al-Alawi is a barrister in the U.K. and has a Ph. D. in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University, Cairo. He is currently Executive Director of the Islamic Heritage Foundation UK. He is a widely recognized historian of Mecca and Medina and co-author of an important work with Shaykh Yusuf Rifa’i.