The road to reform in Saudi Arabia is long and winding. In the restricted field of religion, the path is so circuitous that part of it even runs through Austria.
Yesterday, a pioneering Saudi-backed centre for worldwide interfaith dialogue opened in a baroque palace on Vienna’s elegant Ringstrasse boulevard. Riyadh paid for the building and will foot the centre’s budget for the first three years.
Such largesse from a country often ranked as one of the most religiously repressive has stirred suspicion and protest in Vienna. But the centre has unexpected supporters, most notably in Israel. Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the centre’s multi-faith board of directors, says it presents an opportunity the world’s religions cannot let pass.
“This is the first multifaith initiative from a Muslim source, and not just any source, but from the very hardcore heartland of Islam,” said Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee.
The new head of the centre said other faiths would play into the hands of Saudi hardliners if they refused to join before Riyadh made changes such as letting Christian churches open there.
“There are 1,000 extremists just waiting to hear that,” said Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar, a former Saudi vice-minister of education. “The only way to deal with this is dialogue,” he said.
Considered a reformer, King Abdullah, believed to be about 89, has been slowly trying to get his kingdom used to the idea of co-operating with other faiths.
Although named the King Abdullah International Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (Kaiciid), bin Muaammar stressed it is not a Saudi entity.
“This is an international institution,” he said. “About 70 per cent of the world’s religions are on its board. The centre will be a neutral place to exchange ideas.”
The centre plans initial work in three fields. Its “Image of the Other” programme will have experts study how other faiths are portrayed in their media and education.
A fellowship programme will bring young leaders from all religions together to study selected issues and learn how each faith deals with them.
A programme with UNICEF will involve religious leaders in Africa in efforts to support health projects for children.
Austrian media have given the centre a frosty welcome, some going so far as to portray it as a front to spread radical Islam in the Alpine republic, and several opposition politicians have repeatedly criticised the government for supporting it.
Alev Korun, a Green Party deputy in the Austrian parliament, said Riyadh’s ban on practising other religions beside Islam in Saudi Arabia “stands in amazingly crass contradiction to the dialogue the king wants to have here”.
She said the centre would give undue prominence to Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi tradition, a minority sect that had already undermined a more moderate interpretation of Islam in Bosnia.
“Sarajevo is not far from Vienna,” she said, adding that Saudi Arabia had financed the building of Wahhabi mosques there.
Saudi human rights activists also asked why Riyadh should promote interreligious dialogue in Vienna while relations even with its Shi’ite and Ismaili Muslim minorities were strained.