Edi­to­ri­als: One small step for mankind

With Trump’s en­cour­age­ment, the Saudis open a cen­ter for reli­gious tol­er­ance

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY -

Don­ald Trump thinks big. Am­bi­tion large and small stirs in the pres­i­den­tial breast. Even his mean­est crit­ics, skep­ti­cal of what his am­bi­tions are, give him that. The largest of those am­bi­tions now is to do some­thing to elim­i­nate the rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism that has set the world aflame.

His mis­sion to Saudi Ara­bia, the first for­eign trip of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, has al­ready paid a div­i­dend. Whether it’s a div­i­dend that will pay in­ter­est as the years roll by is for the decades ahead to de­ter­mine.

But with the es­tab­lish­ment of the Global Cen­ter for Com­bat­ing Ex­trem­ist Ide­ol­ogy, the Saudis and their like-minded Mus­lim al­lies have taken a first step to­ward re­lief, if not peace. Sal­man, the Saudi king, has hardly nailed 95 the­ses to the door of the mosque. He’s no Martin Luther in an Ara­bian robe, ig­nit­ing an Is­lamic ref­or­ma­tion like the re­buke of Rome. But it’s a start.

“Saudi Ara­bia has adopted a steady, per­sis­tent ap­proach to con­front ex­trem­ism,” writes Ali Shi­habi, the di­rec­tor of the Ara­bia Foun­da­tion, else­where in these Com­men­tary pages to­day. “The king­dom re­formed some of the more con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of its ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, strength­en­ing over­sight of teach­ers, text­books and cur­ric­ula. Through the Min­istry of Is­lamic Af­fairs, it is safe­guard­ing vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions by spon­sor­ing aware­ness cam­paigns to help Saudi youth rec­og­nize and con­front ex­trem­ist pro­pa­ganda. Se­nior cler­ics is­sued fat­was re­fut­ing reli­gious ex­trem­ism and pro­hibit­ing Saudis from fight­ing for ji­hadist causes. They also helped the cen­tral gov­ern­ment im­pose stronger vet­ting of preach­ers, ser­mons and reli­gious publi­ca­tions.

“Cul­ture and en­ter­tain­ment in the king­dom is now filled with tar­geted anti-ex­trem­ist mes­sages. Saudi tele­vi­sion pro­grams such as ‘Ji­had Ex­pe­ri­ences,’ ‘The De­ceit’ and ‘The Re­turn of Per­cep­tion’ rou­tinely fea­ture re­gret­ful ex-ji­hadists and reli­gious schol­ars. Un­der the late King Ab­dul­lah, the Saudi reli­gious es­tab­lish­ment spear­headed a pub­lic aware­ness cam­paign to in­val­i­date reli­gious rul­ings prop­a­gated by un­qual­i­fied ‘satel­lite and In­ter­net sheikhs.’”

Some of these steps taken in the name of re­form will strike any­one in the West as abuse in the name of cur­tail­ing abuse. Un­der Saudi law, those who speak their piece on In­ter­net web sites in sup­port of ex­trem­ist groups — which are likely to be de­fined in law and lan­guage that of­fend small-d democrats — with heavy fines and prison sen­tences. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a hope­ful an­swer the ques­tions posed in the West about why, if there are any mod­er­ates in the Mid­dle East, won’t they speak up? Now some of them have.

Any­thing like a First Amend­ment, guar­an­tee­ing the free­dom to wor­ship as a wor­ship­per pleases, would be anath­ema to the Saudis, not just to the king but to most of his sub­jects. Re­ject­ing Is­lam to be­come Chris­tian, Jew­ish, Hindu or Hot­ten­tot con­verts is pun­ish­able by death, and likely to re­main so. The con­cept of faith, as some­thing of the heart and not sub­mis­sion en­forced at the point of gun or scim­i­tar, can be nei­ther com­pre­hended by de­vout Mus­lims nor tol­er­ated by most Is­lamic gov­ern­ments.

But who knows what might fol­low the es­tab­lish­ment of this Saudi cen­ter? It’s a pity that Barack Obama, with his knowl­edge of and sym­pa­thy for Is­lam, did not en­cour­age such Is­lamic move­ment to­ward reli­gious tol­er­ance as Amer­ica and the West un­der­stand reli­gious tol­er­ance.

And how ironic that the pres­i­dent who flew to the other end of the earth to cel­e­brate with the king and dozens of in­vited lead­ers of Ara­bia the found­ing of the Global Cen­ter is not Mr. Obama, but Don­ald Trump, widely por­trayed across the world as the foe­man of the Mus­lim faith. Mr. Trump does not, in fact, ap­pear to know much about heart­felt re­li­gion, hav­ing once told an in­ter­viewer that he has never asks God’s for­give­ness for his sins be­cause he has never done any­thing wrong. But he got this much right, and the world might one day owe him a thank-you for it.

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