RABBI MARC SCHNEIER November 04, 2021
Five years ago, the very notion of Yeshiva University, the pre-eminent institution of higher Jewish learning in the US, honoring the secretary general of the Makkah-based Muslim World League would have been met with stupefaction or downright indignation.
But such is the astounding ascendance of the MWL’s Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa as a global interfaith champion and, by almost all accounts, the foremost proponent of Muslim-Jewish rapprochement globally, that last month’s ceremony in New York seemed entirely appropriate — if not long overdue. And it reinforced Saudi Arabia’s own emergence as a leader in building bridges not just in the Middle East, but around the world.
In his short time at the helm of the MWL, Al-Issa has come to symbolize the new Saudi Arabia, which has boldly moved to the forefront of efforts to establish understanding, peaceful coexistence and partnerships among the different faiths, cultures and peoples of the world.
His January 2020 trip to Auschwitz, for example, at the head of a multinational delegation of Muslim imams and scholars, alongside the American Jewish Committee, shattered taboos in the Islamic community and Western nations. His prayer at the site of such horror was recognition of the historic suffering of the Jewish people and a demonstration of true commitment to creating a future that breaks down old divides.
But it was hardly Al-Issa’s only contribution. After the devastating Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, Al-Issa united Buddhists and Muslims in a reconciliation agreement. He has struck historic partnerships with the Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, Hindus and other religions to promote tolerance and understanding. He has brought together scholars and community leaders from notoriously fractured states such as Iraq and Afghanistan to emphasize the sanctity of nonviolence.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s global network, which I lead, has been fortunate to partner with Al-Issa and his organization. In 2019, we brought together imams and rabbis in their mosques and synagogues across 35 countries to educate Muslim and Jewish student groups, young leadership bodies, families and children about the commonalities of our two faith traditions. By focusing on the next generation of adherents, we aim to have a transformative effect on the unity of our Abrahamic community — our common faith, our common fate.
As Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva University, said at the ceremony two weeks ago, Al-Issa’s interfaith advocacy “reflects the enormous opportunity today of reconciliation.” And, as Al-Issa so succinctly summarized his mission, “we may have differences, but we must have love for one another and come together.”
Al-Issa and Saudi Arabia are delivering in word and deed. From the Etidal center, which combats extremist ideology, to the monarchy’s historic embrace of ecumenical delegations, the Kingdom is proving its genuine determination to advance tolerance and reinforce our common values.
And this is critical because Saudi Arabia’s role in the interfaith discussion is as important as that of any other country. Muslims around the world look to the birthplace of Islam for guidance and, when figures such as Al-Issa condemn statements denying the Holocaust and publicly embrace the leaders of other faiths in Europe or the US, they provide a powerful example for the future, as well as the present. Such actions buttress the overwhelming majority of moderates in Muslim countries and marginalize the extremists, whose actions unjustifiably sully the reputation of a noble faith.
The Kingdom is proving its genuine determination to advance tolerance and reinforce our common values.
Rabbi Marc Schneier
More than a decade ago, I was honored when the late King Abdullah asked me to keynote his inaugural gathering of American faith leaders after laying out his vision to the UN for a new body dedicated to civilizational rapprochement. His legacy is the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, which continues to promote respect for religious diversity, the protection of holy sites and the dignity of all human beings.
Today, we are blessed that King Salman and his Council of Ministers are equally resolved to drive greater international respect for “others,” real and perceived. It reflects a profound understanding that, to create a sustainable future peace, in the Middle East as elsewhere, we need an alliance of peoples as well as governments.
Leaders like Al-Issa are true ambassadors for such a global campaign. Saudi Arabia and the global community are blessed to have them.
- Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He is the co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Muslims and Jews.”
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