The Saudi religious dialogue conference that concluded over the weekend at Madrid was one of which we were skeptical at the outset, and our views were only confirmed by what transpired there, as reported by our Joseph Goldstein, one of the few Western reporters to make it inside the conference sessions. The Saudi king gave a speech calling for tolerance and moderation. Then, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists.
"We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism," the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who was listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. "Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion." A U.A.E.-owned English-language paper later issued an editorial criticizing a New York rabbi who found the statement anti-Semitic.
At the conference, one of Saudi Arabia's most senior religious figures, an imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saleh bin Humaid, defended his country's ban on churches and synagogues. "From a religious point of view, they can't build a synagogue or a church because it's a sacred place for Muslims," Sheik bin Humaid told our Mr. Goldstein, referring to the entire country of Saudi Arabia.
Our Eli Lake reported from Washington as the conference was in session that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that Saudi Arabia had broken its promise to the State Department to revise its school textbooks. "For example, a textbook for 10th graders on Islamic jurisprudence not only says it is permissible in Islam to murder a homosexual, but recommends the methods for doing so: burning alive, stoning, or throwing one off a high building," Mr. Lake reported.
Finally, Mr. Goldstein reported that the conference ended on a sour note as Christian and Jewish participants complained that the organizers, the Muslim World League, had too much control over the conference's closing communiqué. The document appeared to have been revised without the consent of members of a drafting committee. And the vast majority of participants never had a chance to review any version of the statement before Abdul Rahman Al-Zaid of the Muslim World League read it aloud. "For us as participants from other religions this is not an acceptable procedure for adopting documents," a Russian Orthodox priest participating in the conference, George Ryabykh, said.
Even Rabbi Michael Lerner, who was positive about the conference overall, conceded in an e-mail that "The Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who were in attendance here were props" and that though there were some women in attendance, they were essentially excluded from the dialogue. For all the oil money the Saudis have, the Madrid conference underscores the difficulty they will have in buying legitimacy in America or among the other world religions.