Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
My favorite classmate at an American university was a Jew who was also a Communist. All my life I have heard only unfavorable things about Jews and Communists. How come my beloved friend is both and I never noticed until he himself told me?
Later, I befriended Jews and Communists and found them friendly, compassionate and trustworthy.
Later on, I came to know wonderful people of other faiths and other sects. Never once have I known a bad person who “hates us and conspires to undermine our faith” as I was taught earlier in my life.
This and similar experience, like befriending Catholic and Protestant priests, a rabbi, and atheists, taught me an important lesson in life. We are all the same species. No matter what is your faith, color or race, you are basically mind, heart and soul. We could connect with a simple package of hello, a smile and a handshake.
At the same time, I felt sorry for all those who are still hostage to preachers of hate, suspicion and superiority. There are plenty of these bad apples in every faith, culture and race. In the heartland of America, Russia, Middle East, Sudan, Japan and Europe, many good people pay hand and leg for being different.
Wars, crusades and civil disturbances ensued throughout history to prove who has the super faith or is the super race. Primitive and dark-aged as it sounds, it still exists today. The conflicts among civilizations are based on fear and mistrust of the other’s intentions, as it is on interests and politics.
In a class I took during my US studies on intercultural dialogue, students discovered that even those with the best intention had deep accumulated biases and ideas that needed to be flushed out. Most discovered that they got these thoughts from family, friends, media, schools, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples.
Almost all biases were explained as reaction to perceived stands of the others. They regard their own prejudice as protective measures. (The world is a dangerous place, and enemies are out to get you. Read History. You can’t be too careful. Stick with your own, and keep a watchful eye on the conspiring others.)
Schools, media and places of worship are the main institutions we need to work on. In our case, we have a lot to do.
Our Ministry of Religious Affairs did review the records and stands of thousands of preachers and imams on its payroll. Circulars went to every imam in the Kingdom on how to deal with issues of interfaith. Many were given training courses on similar subjects.
The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education took similar steps — all with a view to removing misconceptions about other faiths and promoting interfaith understanding. The Ministry of Information gave Saudi media hints and tips on the subject.
King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue chose the topic of “The Dialogue with the Other” as the subject of the next conference, later this year. Teams of researchers are conducting workshops all over the country to debate the issue on regional bases. The better participants will be chosen to join the national conference.
Is that enough? I would say no. You can’t change a mentality, an attitude or an ideological doctrine overnight. These concepts were made over ages. A whole generation was affected. To fix all that, we need a grand strategy that deal with the roots as well as the symptoms. We need to examine the reference books and doctrines that bred the phenomenon.
The old guards of these texts and concepts must either change their mind, or be changed. Removing parts of books and sermons would help in the short term. Removing the convictions behind them will solve the problem permanently. The new National Dialogue Forum is our chance to formulate such a strategy.
Our schools need to change directions. Instead of focusing on nonpractical, nonscientific subjects, we must concentrate on science and technology. The market is full of preachers, short in teachers, full of talkers, short of workers. The future of this country can only be built on the solid concrete of science not the moving sands of ideologies.
In short, we need more teaching and less, much less preaching.