Last Updated January 19, 2007

Islam & the West: Steps to Achieving a Lasting, Peaceful Dialogue

Prince Turki Al-Faisal
Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States
January 19, 2007
As Prepared

Dean Goodman, thank you for the kind introduction.  It is a pleasure to be here with all of you today.   

Over the course of the last year, I have traveled to more than 25 states and talked with students at numerous colleges and universities.  I have been listening to young people voice their questions and concerns about the relations between the United States and my country.

I have long viewed this interaction as the most important aspect of my job as Ambassador.  I enjoy listening to and sharing different viewpoints.  And I look forward to answering your questions.

But first, I was asked to speak today about the current state and future of relations between the Arab and Muslim world and the west.  Clearly, the Kingdom is central to this discussion.

Saudi Arabia has been, since the birth of civilization, a major crossroads for the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Africa, and Asia.  As you know, millions of Muslims from all over the world recently made their Hajj – or pilgrimage – to the holy city of Makkah.  As the birthplace of Islam and the location of our holiest sites, Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the lives of approximately 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.

This fact is of crucial importance to those of us who reside in Saudi Arabia, because, during this time of expanded opportunities for the Saudi people, we have been facing a time when our character is being questioned by others in the global community.  

The questions and criticism of Saudi Arabia and of Islam come from all around us, and even from within.  And the answers too, come from every direction.  Some of what has been written or spoken has been too one-dimensional to offer much wisdom.  Most has been fragmented, as much of our discourse has become in today’s “sound bite” world of 24 hour news.  And more has been unfortunately written or spoken with purely bombastic intent.

There has been misperception compounded by confusion.  There have been myths that have become conventional wisdom.  And there has been a distortion of the issues, made more complicated by emotion.

Today, I would like to help correct that.  Primarily, I want to remind you that Saudis have been your friends for more than 70 years.  And while Saudi Arabia as a country has changed a great deal, our friendship has not.

Saudis, like Americans, are rooted in faith and family.  We are a peaceful people who want the same as you.  And, yes, we have problems, many of them.  But to solve those problems, we need our friends – including our friends here in the U.S. – to work with us to face these challenges; because we all gain when doubt is replaced by discussion, castigation by cooperation.  That way, the goal of our discourse and debate is a more informed and honest understanding of our different societies, cultures and religions.

To take steps in this direction, I would like to address outstanding questions about Islam, because it is the foundation of Saudi Arabia. There should be no doubts about who Muslims are as people, and what our goals in life are.  

Muslims, after all, live in every nation.  They speak every language.  They want the same things for them and for their children that anyone else does: security, opportunity, good health and education, and a bright future.

We are tired of the loud voices of radicals and extremists overpowering the peaceful and humble voices of the majority of Muslims throughout the world – like the Muslim in India working hard so he can send his child to college, or the Muslim here in Washington who is starting her own business, or the Muslim in Africa who offers charity to those suffering from AIDS.

So, ladies and gentlemen, in order for these voices of reason and moderation to be heard and understood, there are two things that need to be made clear.

First:  Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion.  The Qur’an says: “Whoever kills a person without justification or commits sacrilege on earth; it would be as if he killed all mankind.”

Those out there who use Islam to justify acts of violence and hatred are corrupting the healthy body that holds the world’s Muslim community together.  It is a wicked perversion of our faith.

I often hear in the media that Saudi Arabia is to blame for incitement because it “exports a brand” of extremism known as Wahhabism.  Pundits lace their statements with words like Wahhabism, jihad, and madrassa to provoke and inspire fear about what people don’t know or understand.  And the West largely does not understand what Wahhabism is.

The term refers to the reformist views of the 18th century Arabian scholar Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. He, ladies and gentlemen, did not advocate the killing of the innocent or condone acts of suicide. Extremists may claim their origins in Wahhabism, but their faith is perverted – just like David Koresh or Jim Jones who perverted Christianity to justify their evil acts. 

Are the Saudi people conservative?  Yes. Are we traditional?  Yes We Are. But Are we extremists? Absolutely not.

And the Saudi people, as with all Muslims, are tolerant of other’s beliefs, despite what might be said.  Muslims not only accept, but we revere and adore all of the Prophets from Noah to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad, and hold them equally as Prophets of God sent down for the education and betterment of mankind.  We consider Jews and Christians as people of the book, and their books, whether the Torah or the New Testament, are revered by Muslims as we revere the Qur’an.

The second thing to be understood is that we must also deal with those bigots in the West, and, yes, here in America, who denigrate, denounce, and despise Islam and Muslims. They, equally, must be opposed and prevented from promoting their bigotry and bias.

Ladies and gentlemen: We are not engaged in a clash of civilizations. Rather, We are fighting to preserve civilization. 

The religious radicalism we see today that is manifesting itself in some Muslims is not the product of some deep rooted conflict with the West.  Nor is the bigotry manifested by some Christians against Muslims a characteristic of all Christians.  There are, for certain, differences between us. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the revealed religions of the one God.  We believe in faith and family, peace and prosperity.

The underlying nature of extremism and terrorism is to exploit the differences between people. Extremists have existed in every civilization, from Rome to the Enlightenment.  It is not associated with a specific culture or geographical origin or religion.  The Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, the ETA in Spain, the IRA in Ireland, and the Irgun Zvai Leomi in Israel, are but a few examples.  These groups, along with Al-Qaeda, took advantage of the suffering of people to advance their evil ways. They use political grievances to advance their political aims.

If there is any lesson we should learn from this, it is that we should respect that people, as individuals, are empowered, as never before, in this modern age to such an extent as to make an enormous impact on the collective.  As President John F. Kennedy said, and I quote: “One person can change the world.”  But we need to recognize this can go both ways – for good or for bad.

This should reinforce the purpose of government to serve the people, to take care of them, to guide each and every one of them toward peace, security, and tolerance, so that they are not misled by deviant logic.  Because truly, all ideas are not created equal, and we must fight to ensure that peace wins the day.

This certainly raises the questions of what is Saudi Arabia doing?  What is the Muslim world doing, and even, what is the rest of the world doing to promote understanding?

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah recognizes that above all else education is the key.  He has put forth a program of reforms in this area.  In recent years, the Kingdom has committed to a review of all of its education practices and materials and is removing any element that is inconsistent with the needs of a modern education.  We are not only eliminating what is objectionable from old text books that were in our system, we are also implementing a comprehensive internal revision and modernization plan.
We have further put in place better monitoring of our mosques and our religious schools to ensure that they are not used to promote intolerance or to condone violence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has dismissed a large number of imams who have strayed as well as sent a number of those imams to schools for retraining in terms of tolerance.

Saudi Arabia is also working to educate society as a whole.  A concerted public awareness program was initiated in schools and universities, in mosques, on radio and television and on billboards to inform the Saudi people about terrorism and extremism. 

A campaign of this size and scope is unprecedented, with six government ministries coordinating the development and execution of the programs.  As a result, no Saudi citizen has been able to escape the message that intolerance, violence and extremism are not part of our Islamic faith or Saudi culture or traditions. 

Saudi Arabia has taken steps to ensure this message is spread throughout the Muslim world as well.  This is why in December 2005, King Abdullah called together the leaders and heads of state from 56 Arab and Muslim nations To Makkah in Saudi Arabia. The third extraordinary summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was convened to address the problems in the Muslim world, and offer solutions for a better future.

An open and honest dialogue followed, and specific steps were decided on, including combating terrorism and extremism, promoting academic excellence, implementing political and economic reforms, and opening up economic systems to enhance economic growth and to create jobs. The conference concluded with the approval of a ten-year strategic plan for reforms, which is marked by moderation, modernization, and tolerance.  

 In addressing the conference, King Abdullah has affirmed, and I quote: “We must put our Islamic house in order.”

At one time, Islam was at the forefront of global civilization, providing significant contributions to humanity in fields such as astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and architecture. Indeed, without the Arabian scholars ibn Sina, ibn Rushd, and al Razi, there would not have been Francis Bacon, or Galileo, or Thomas Aquinas. We again intend to regain a position from which we can make positive contributions to humanity.

But here’s where we need support and assistance from our partners. Islam is going through a period of internal debate and self-assessment.  And the issues involved can inflame passions, even among people otherwise calm in demeanor.  So the greatest of sensitivity is needed while we rid ourselves of the cancer that is extremism and terrorism, and while we heal ourselves.  

Unfortunately, a well known example of this need occurred with the publishing of certain cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.  Personally, I found them to be reprehensible and incomprehensible.  All rights, including free speech, come with responsibility and an obligation to respect our fellow human beings.  The publication of those cartoons may not have broken any laws, but they shattered any reasonable moral code of conduct.

However – no matter the level of profanity of what those cartoons depicted, those in the Muslim community who reacted with violence were unjustified.  We must calmly appeal for greater cultural understanding and respect for what is sacred.  And we must also see a halt to the insults hurled at our Prophet and our religion by religious spokesmen in your country. That is what I am calling for here today.

As I said earlier, Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads – not just one of trade and commerce, but also one of its future. The Qur’an tells us: “God does not change what is in people unless they change that which is in themselves.”

We in Saudi Arabia are taking steps to change where required for the betterment of the Muslim world, as well as the global community, and I believe we are headed in the right direction. 

Thank you very much