When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a United Nations interfaith dialogue in New York on Nov. 12-13, it was only the latest in a series. Abdullah in July hosted one in Madrid. Yale that month hosted another. The Vatican hosted one in October. Plans are underway for declaration of a United Nations Decade on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace that will last from 2011 to 2020.
This month's dialogue was filled as usual with highblown rhetoric-but Marshall Sana of the Barnabas Fund notes that the Saudis, while leading a dialogue calling for religious tolerance, are "the most religiously intolerant regime on the planet." Last November the Saudi government executed an Egyptian pharmacist for sorcery, adultery, and desecration of the Quran on the evidence of a book, a candle, and "foul-smelling herbs." In February 2008, the government sentenced a woman to death for witchcraft, and in April arrested and imprisoned 16 Asian Christians, including women and children. In May Saudi officials arrested 15 Indian Christians for having a church service.
President George W. Bush at the interfaith dialogue urged all UN members to ensure freedom of worship and the right of individuals to change their religious allegiances, but in Saudi Arabia many groups-including Shia Muslims, Jews, and Christians-suffer routine persecution.
In What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue, Richard M. Landau advises participants to put aside "hot button issues" and instead identify "possible areas of common ground." But here are three more guidelines for those seeking success in Saudi-sponsored interfaith dialogue.
• Ignore theological differences. Assume that any fundamental differences on human dignity, freedom, or religious choice will dissipate if you just focus on everything you have in common: a belief in God (whoever he is) and a love of neighbor (whatever that means).
• Remembering that words are more important than deeds, talk around the realities of persecution. When asked whether his country would tolerate religions other than Islam, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, replied, "To say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you are not now or nothing else can be achieved, is, I think carrying the argument too far."
• Work to forbid the utterance of hard truths about Islam. Leonard Leo of the International Commission on Religious Freedom notes that the Saudis and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are pushing an international law outlawing the defamation of religion: "Historically, freedom of religion meant an individual's right to practice his religion, his right to believe as he wishes to believe, or his right to not believe"-but this law would protect religion's sanctity instead of protecting individual rights.
Not all interfaith dialogues gloss over differences: Last month's Vatican discussions, the Barnabas Fund's Sana says, included talk of theological distinctives, but this month's UN dialogue was political and focused on a "theological conformity and unity."
David Forte, professor of law at Cleveland State University, says that King Abdullah may be "trying to expand religious intolerance by making religious intolerance universal-a universal good." Forte suspects that Abdullah is securing his international position by mouthing platitudes, but that gives an opportunity for Western countries to "take his platitudes seriously and give them back to him," holding him accountable to practice what he preaches.
Forte concludes, "Just sitting down for dialogue, and everyone . . . nodding and saying, 'Oh, we all love God, we all love peace,' is not enough." He's right: Tough-minded discussion can be useful, but if the typical interfaith dialogue were an actual sign of interfaith peace, the lion by now would be having slumber parties with the lamb.