Tolerance at the heart of debate as Arab, Western researchers meet in Riyadh

“We communicate as human beings away from religion and culture," said Michele D’urso, the EU ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Pope Francis (L) and Egypt’s al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb greet each other as they exchange documents during the Human Fraternity Meeting in Abu Dhabi, last February. (AFP)
Historic pledge. Pope Francis (L) and Egypt’s al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb greet each other as they exchange documents during the Human Fraternity Meeting in Abu Dhabi, last February. (AFP)

RIYADH - Researchers, specialists, academics and government officials agreed that tolerance cannot become widespread within societies around the world without serious political cooperation among nations.

Terrorism has become a global phenomenon and the response to it must also be global, they said at a symposium organised by the King Faisal Centre for Research and Studies in Riyadh.

New Zealand Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Monroe said terrorism had no religion or doctrine and referred to New Zealand’s success in addressing the repercussions of the terrorist acts at mosques last March that left 42 people dead.

Khalid Alburaythin, director of intellectual communication at King Faisal Centre for Research and Studies, spoke of the centre’s role in monitoring extremist ideas and practices in religious discourse and regarding tribal relations and society in general.

Iraqi researcher Rashid al-Khayyun addressed the problem related to the interpretation of the term “tolerance” in Arabic. The Arabic word for “tolerance” is “tasamuh” and in Arab and Islamic contexts it refers to the domain of personal moral virtues and is more associated with concepts of pardon, amnesty and forgiveness, he said.

It is closer in meaning to the concept of pardon found in the well-known Islamic expression “Pardon whenever you can,” which refers to forgiving the mistakes of those who are weaker than oneself, Khayyun said.

Khayyun explained that when it is said “So and so has pardoned so and so,” that means the second individual is no longer accountable for the mistake, so the Arabic term remains narrow in its meaning and cannot extend to religious tolerance and social coexistence.

He pointed out that, in the West, the concept of “tolerance” is contrasted with “extremism” and the term remains open to include different applications in various domains and is not limited to the virtue of forgiveness.

Khayyun said the common characterisation of extremism and terrorism as phenomena outside religion, as expressed by saying “terrorism and extremism have no religion” or “this extremist organisation has no religion” amounts to skipping over the problem. The right approach would be to admit the existence of violent sacred texts and search for appropriate ways to deal with them.

Khayyun said society must get rid of the thousands of books and jurisprudence reference works that have, for centuries, spread extremism, from within the faith itself, and continue to hold sway in society and educational curricula.

There are historical and contemporary experiences that have dealt with such texts. After the demise of the political power and social influence of the church in the West, governments sought to separate religion from the state and education and made religious beliefs and practice a matter of personal choice. In post-Ottoman Empire Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk replaced Arabic script in Turkish texts with Latin script, virtually stopping entire generations of young Turks from having access to that religious legacy.

Khayyun said he stands by a solution suggested by Sudanese Sheikh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 for his ideas. Sheikh Taha said the verses of “tolerance” are the essence of Islam and that there is no such thing as a religious state. In other words, he said the Meccan period in Islam is the one that truly expresses the spirit of Islam.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim al-Eissa, former Saudi minister of Justice and current secretary-general of the Muslim World League, said “tasamuh” does not express the essence of the process of religious and social tolerance that corresponds to tolerance.

A better word in Arabic would be “tasamuhiya,” he said, which refers to an unrestricted virtue. It contrasts with “tasamuh” since the latter virtue is controlled by an individual’s personal interest, such as pardoning.

Eissa said he considers that many Arab and Western researchers have not grasped the truth of Islam. There are some researchers who un

derstand the essence of Islam but persist in their hostility to it. With them, it is useless to engage a dialogue or a debate because their intellectual hostility is a barrier to persuasion.

Eissa pointed out that the Muslim World League has connections with the Vatican, the Orthodox Church in Russia and with Jewish institutions in France. The league is keen to promote peace and coexistence between religions known as the Abrahamic legacy.

Michele D’urso, the EU ambassador to Saudi Arabia, praised the Mecca document, which promotes noble human values ​​and contributes to building bridges between religions and cultures, stressing that “we communicate as human beings away from religion and culture.” He pointed out that Europe has become more diversified, having a greater mix of religions, customs and cultures, which contributes strongly to strengthening tolerance, respect and coexistence.

“We have a deep partnership with the King Faisal Centre in the domains of religious tolerance and diversity,” said D’urso.

Michael Privot, director of the European Network Against Racism, publicly converted to Islam, pointed to verses in Al-Maida, Al-Haj and Al-Baqarah surats that endorse religious tolerance. These are the verses that recognise all religions and affirm that the only arbiter between them is Allah.

Tolerance is on the rise in the Middle East in the face of extremism and violence. The United Arab Emirates declared 2019 “the year of tolerance” during which the “Humanity” document was signed in Abu Dhabi by Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tabeb from al-Azhar.

Abu Dhabi has begun an Abrahamic Family project, which includes three buildings, one for each of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This year also saw the signing in Mecca of the Mecca Document, which rejects extremism and affirms religious tolerance and coexistence.