Sunday, January 28, 2018
Holocaust Recognition and the Improving Role of Women -- the Saudi Arabia Modernization Program We Applaud and Trust but Should Verify
THE REAL NEWS TODAY IS ABOUT SAUDI ARABIA. But there's little talk about it. • International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Saturday. Voice of America News covered the ceremony in remembrance of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in 1945. Officials from around the world came to remember the genocide. European Union Ambassador David O’Sullivan said museums remembering the Holocaust are essential for future generations to learn about the past atrocities : “The new generation also needs people, stories and places to keep the memory alive. To make sure we keep the promise made at the end of the Holocaust -- Never Again.” First lady Melania Trump was among those who toured the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Friday and tweeted that she experienced a “powerful and moving tour.” President Trump was in Davos, but The White House on Friday recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a message that said : “We acknowledge this dark stain on human history and vow to never let it happen again. Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death and concentration camp in Poland. We take this opportunity to recall the Nazis’ systematic persecution and brutal murder of 6 million Jewish people. In their death camps and under their inhuman rule, the Nazis also enslaved and killed millions of Slavs, Roma, gays, people with disabilities, priests and religious leaders, and others who courageously opposed their brutal regime." And, on Saturday in the Polish capital of Warsaw, US Secretary of State Tillerson paid tribute to Holocaust victims by placing a wreath and making remarks at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument : "On this occasion it reminds us that we can never, we can never, be indifferent to the face of evil. The Western alliance which emerged from World War Two has committed itself to ensuring the security of all, that this would never happen again." • But, the real news was made by Saudi Arabia. • • • MOSLEM WORLD LEAGUE RECOGNIZES THE HOLOCAUST. That is real news. US Holocaust Memorial Museum officials read a letter from Dr. Muhammad Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Moslem World League based in Saudi Arabia, who wrote, “Who in their right mind would accept, sympathize or even diminish the extent of this brutal crime?” You can access a short video about the reading of the letter from secretary general Al-Issa at < blob:https://www.voanews.com/7358bf54-c237-4f28-ac69-3649a878726b > . • The Saudi recognition letter was first released and came about as a result of the efforts of the executive director of The Washington Institute, Robert Satloff, and was first publiched on the TWI website and then reported by the New York Daily News last Friday. • Satloff called the Al-Issa letter "a laudable example of outreach from the heart of Islam." To put this into perspective, TWI wrote that Saudi Arabia's "King Faisal once celebrated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact, [their] UN representative (Jamil Baroody, 1976) once denounced Anne Frank's diary as a forgery and claimed the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis was fiction. The country that not only counted among its countrymen 15 of 19 perpetrators of the September 11 attacks but whose religious hierarchy exported bigotry and intolerance to mosques and madrasas around the world for decades, fueling the hate on which al-Qaida, ISIS, Hamas and all Islamist extremist movements thrived." • In early December, Satloff tells us, he led a delegation of lay leaders of TWI on a visit to Riyadh. Among the high-ranking officials he met during our three-day visit was Dr. Mohammed Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Moslem World League, which Satloff notes is "the organization that has long been cited as the key facilitator of Saudi Arabia's global effort to export a radical, hate-filled, anti-West, anti-Semitic version of Islam. Just last year, a prominent British research institute labeled Saudi Arabia the main source of Islamic extremism in the United Kingdom and cited the MWL as a critical linchpin in that project." But, says Satloff, "the change inside MWL appears to have begun with the August 2016 appointment of Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister. Taking his lead from Muhammad bin Salman, the current crown prince who has vowed to cleanse his country of extremism and return it to 'moderate Islam,' Al-Issa seems to have a specific mandate to transform the MWL from an organization synonymous with extremism to one that preaches tolerance. And, no less important, he has promised to remake the MWL into an organization focused solely on religion, taking it completely out of politics -- except for the politics of countering extremism, that is....Al-Issa struck an impressive note. Not only did he underscore a decidedly un-Saudi commitment to religious outreach, speaking fondly of his recent visit to a Paris synagogue, he also refused to take the bait when asked about President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. If I expected any Saudi official to bang the table, sermonize about the Moslem connection to Al Quds and decry the President's decision to recognize the sovereignty of the Jewish state anywhere in the city, it would have been the secretary-general of the Moslem World League. Instead, he politely declined comment, saying only that the League is committed to peace and is not a political body." • So, Satloff recounts, he later wrote to Al-Issa, thanked him for the meeting and invited him to Washington to address TWI's annual conference in May. But Satloff added one more request -- should he come to Washington, Satloff urged him to tour the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and meet with its director, Sara Bloomfield. Satloff explains : "For more than 15 years, one of my personal passions has been to engage Arabs and Moslems in a discussion of the Holocaust. This is based on my belief that tearing down the walls of Holocaust denial so widespread in Arab and Moslem culture is a critical element in the broader fight against the hatred at the heart of Islamist extremism. I have been privileged to work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in an ambitious effort to legitimize discussion of the Holocaust in Arab and Moslem countries and to help prevent future genocide by spreading the lessons of the Holocaust. We have had some impressive success, especially in Morocco (where the king's brother recently endorsed Holocaust education as an important tool in the battle against extremism) and in Tunisia (where civil society is holding a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony this week)." Satloff never thought that "Saudi Arabia would merit inclusion on that list of 'progressive' countries." But Al-Issa answered Satloff's letter, welcoming his invitation and agreeing to visit the Museum. While he wouldn't be the first Moslem notable to visit the Museum, the secretary-general of the Moslem World League would be the highest-ranking Moslem religious official -- an important step in the process of legitimizing Moslem discussion of the Holocaust." Emboldened by Al-Issa's response, Satloff then "had another 'why not?' idea. With January 27 approaching, I wrote Al-Issa asking whether he would send a letter to Bloomfield on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day that she could make public. The letter, I suggested, might reflect his and the MWL's approach toward the Holocaust and the broader battle for tolerance and moderation." • • • THE AL-ISSA LETTER. To his amazement, Satloff got the following letter from Al-Issa, which was read at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum commemoration ceremony last Saturday : "Ms. Bloomfield, It’s my pleasure to write to you this letter on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, celebrating the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. On this occasion, I confirm to you what I have already told my friend Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about our great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person. This human tragedy perpetrated by evil Nazism won’t be forgotten by history, or meet the approval of anyone, except criminal Nazis or their genre. True Islam is against these crimes. It classifies them in the highest degree of penal sanctions and among the worst human atrocities ever. One would ask, who in his right mind would accept, sympathize, or even diminish the extent of this brutal crime. However, our solace is that the memory of history is fair and vivid; and a justice, free of any other inclinations, would mourn this crime on behalf of all humanity. The victims have sacrificed their innocent lives to pen a memorable reminder of freedom and determination, an example of the extent of Nazi hate which has sunk the world into wars and disasters. History is indeed impartial no matter how hard forgers tried to tamper with or manipulate it. Hence, we consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimizing of its effect a crime to distort history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have perished. It is also an affront to us all since we share the same human soul and spiritual bonds. The Moslem World League is entirely independent of any political aims, tendencies, or otherwise. It does, however, express its opinion with utter neutrality; an impartiality that doesn’t carry any political tone at all. It looks at matters and judges them without prejudice and with transparency. We do not express our views on any dimensions other than absolute the human dimension: that of innocent lives. The latter have been protected and safeguarded in Islam, which decrees that anyone who assaults and kills an innocent soul will be held accountable as if he has killed all people. Islam has, through long centuries, coexisted with all religions and respected the dignity of its followers. We are also aware that there are political slogans in all religions throughout history that exploit faith to achieve their goals and aspirations, however, religions are innocent of these schemes. As a result, unjustified and unjust wars broke out, and blood was shed and still is, all in the name of religions. The law of the Creator came with peace, love, justice, and truth. On the other hand, we find extremists who are affiliated with all religions become active from time to time, in ebb and tide cycles throughout history. They swear hatred to others, even to people of their own faith. We Moslems have seen many terrorists who tried to falsify and distort religious texts and twist their historical facts. We have said in the past, and still do today, that there is no authority on religions except correct religious texts free of misleading, false, and distorted interpretations. We must also rely only on prophets and messengers of all religions who have conveyed the messages given to them the Creator of these faiths. The religion of God came as a mercy to mankind; it was not revealed to cause their misery and be a reason for wars and calamities. Please accept my best regards and appreciation. Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, Secretary General Moslem World League, President of the International Organization of Moslem Scholars." • As Satloff states : "All in all, it is a remarkable document -- remarkable for its authorship, content, breadth and message. I assume there are many reasons -- some sacred, some less so -- why the head of the Moslem World League took pen to paper to denounce Holocaust denial. As my teenage son likes to say, this is not my first rodeo. But action matters so much more than motive. And having been written, Al-Issa's words cannot easily be undone. Thanks to him, this International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be recalled as the one in which Saudi Arabia -- defender of Islam's two holiest sites -- took a giant step toward joining the world in its recognition of the enormity of the Holocaust. Is more to be done? Absolutely. But let's give credit where credit is due." • And, let's give credit to Robert Satloff, the executive director of The Washington Institute and author of Among the Righteous : Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands. It was he who had the courage and faith to engage Dr. Al-Issa and to encourage him to join the world in recognizing the horror and reality of the Holocaust. • • • TWO OTHER SAUDI ACTIONS. • In what appears to be part of a huge sea change in Saudi Arabia, on January 18, in addition to the Holocaust letter, Dr. Al-Issa signed a cooperation agreement with the World Council of Religious Leaders (WCRL), which was also signed by Bawa Jain, the secretary-general of WCRL. Both parties agreed to organize an international conference at the UN to be attended by a number of religious, intellectual and political leaders. The Saudi news release stated : "In this context, the advisor for international relations at the MWL, Adil Al-Harbi, said the step constitutes a key shift in the framework of enhancing the global programs of the MWL. The MWL has become one of the leading cultural and religious foundations around the globe in its capacity as an umbrella of the Islamic nations and its strong and influential relations, said Al-Harbi. He said the MWL has represented the Islamic World at a number of global forums and presented a civilized message that has maintained Islamic identity and, at the same time, coped with the contemporary period in a positive way. Al-Harbi said the proposed conference is expected to have a big international presence with special emphasis on peace and clearing the atmosphere, materially and morally, and facing extremist and terrorist ideology. Jain said the MWL has become a global and influential entity and the world has become attentive to it." • In another less astonishing event, Arab News reported that Princess Reema bint Bandar made an eloquent plea for gender equality as a driving force for economic change in the Kingdom during her address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last Thursday. Princess Reema said : "Saudi Arabia is advancing the cause of women 'because it’s necessary for our nation from an economic point of view, and also from the holistic nature of how you want a family to actually function as a family if you’re constantly segregating family members. It just doesn’t work that way. We’re not doing gender equality because the West wants it, or because it will target Human Rights Watch and get them off our backs, or because Amnesty International is going to say ‘great, good job you.’ We’re doing it because it is right." Princess Reema, a granddaughter of King Faisal, who last year became the first woman to head a Saudi sports body, said sport, culture and entertainment were at the heart of the drive to improve the quality of life in the Kingdom. She accused the world’s media of double standards in covering the Saudi transformation : “There is a determination not to allow us to create a new narrative. My question is, why? You ask us to change, and then when we exhibit change, you come to us with cynicism. I find it so destructive on a daily basis, and detrimental to the women I’m trying to inspire. But you have to understand that we’re not working for anybody outside this nation, we’re working for the women of this nation, for the men of our nation, for the evolution to where we need to be, and that’s how we will benefit youth, that’s how we’ll be a global player. However, you all have to understand something in this room. A behavioral shift does not happen overnight. Sometimes economic factors drive it, like sometimes you need the money so you let your daughter go to work. That was our reality perhaps five years ago, but today the mind shift necessary is : There’s value in this woman, there’s value in her contribution to the community, there’s value in her voice and the decisions she helps make, for a more balanced economy and a more balanced society. Perhaps you just have not heard our voices before. Today the introduction of the woman may seem like an anomaly or novelty across the world, and in Saudi Arabia, but we’ve been there. Where we have been is the silent partner, but today we’re being given the opportunity and platform to be more present and more relevant. I hope you don’t think I’m the only woman in Saudi Arabia that feels this way or is working toward this. I actually represent the thousands of women who are a lot more competent and qualified than I am. All I can hope for is to do them justice while I’m here. These are women who are already in the Shoura Council, already in the municipalities, already have PhDs, that took more work and longer than the time I’ve been alive. It is sad for me that those women are not shown and they are not showcased. I really hope you’ll take the opportunity to see that they exist.” • • • DEAR READERS, we know that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is a young man determined to make Saudi Arabia a modern "moderate Islam" state. He has apparently broken the hold of any possible opponents in the Saudi royal family by detaining them and exacting large fines because of their corrupt activities. But, MSB, as the crown prince is known, has also apparently unleashed Dr. Mohammed Al-Issa of the Moslem World League to "moderate" the religious side of the Kingdom. And, while we know that Saudi women are now permitted to drive and to attend soccer matches and have long been well-educated and active in business and cultural activities in Saudi Arabia, it was reassuring to hear a female member of the Saudi royal family speak of ongoing changes. What we cannot know is whether this reform will take hold and prosper, or whether the radically conservative forces in the Kingdom will again assert themselves. As Princess Reema told attendees at Davos : "You ask us to change, and then when we exhibit change, you come to us with cynicism." So, let us accept the astonishing Holocaust letter of Dr. Al-Issa and the efforts of Princesss Reema as the signs of the Crown Prince's genuine resolve to moderate and modernize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. • It brings to mind Suzanne Massie, a writer in Russia who met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987 and who taught him the Russian proverb, "Doveryai, no proveryai" (trust, but verify). It was an expression that President Reagan adopted and used in December 1987 after the signing of the INF Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Russian leader quipped, "You repeat that at every meeting," to which Reagan replied, "I like it." • We like what Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is doing. We like very much Dr. Al-Issa's letter. We like Princess Reema's championing of Saudi women. But, let us remember to verify even as we applaud and support these signs of the Saudi sea change.