‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview

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MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa. (AN photo by Ziyad Alarfaj)
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MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa on a visit to Paris.
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MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa inspecting a charity hospital.
Updated 09 July 2018
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‘West not plotting against Islam,’ says MWL’s Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa in exclusive interview

  • Muslims should let go of conspiracy theories, MWL Secretary General tells Arab News in wide ranging interview
  • Organization to stop creating new ‘awareness centers’ and focus on spreading moderation via social media

JEDDAH: It does not take long to realize that there is little of the conventional about Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa — and not just because his words and deeds have raised eyebrows around the world since his appointment in August 2016 as secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL).

Many Muslim clerics, for example, prohibit photography, and other forms of art. But within minutes of our meeting last week at an MWL relief center in Jeddah, Arab News photographer Ziyad Alarfaj and I were treated to a sermon on how best to take photos and edit them. Al-Issa, it turns out, is not only a practicing calligrapher but also an avid photographer. 

He is a controversial figure, selected to preside over one of the most controversial Islamic organizations. The MWL has had its share of criticism since it was founded in 1962, but the past two years have brought an altogether different kind of controversy. If extremists’ words and deeds in the name of religion are a disease that must be treated, then Al-Issa’s words and deeds in response are a form of “shock therapy.”

Yet while the MWL’s new direction continues to anger hard-liners, Al-Issa continues to be received in high places such as the Vatican and the White House. He has also opened previously closed doors with the extreme right, sitting and talking with, for example, the former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (and for a keen photographer, that was a picture truly worth a thousand words). 

Al-Issa’s appointment has clearly coincided with the implementation of Saudi Arabia’s reform program, Vision 2030, by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At a global forum in Riyadh last year, the crown prince said he sought to destroy extremists “now and immediately,” and spoke of returning Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam.” His words coincided with remarkable decisions, such as limiting the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, ending the de facto ban on women driving, and reopening cinemas.

Because Al-Issa’s tolerant and modern approach — a world away from the image of Islam that in many minds is linked to exclusion, militancy and extremism — is very much in line with the vision and statements of the crown prince, some portrayed the sheikh as merely a man to be utilized during this phase of reform.

“Not at all,” he responds. “What I said in my past, say now and will say in the future reflects my convictions ... deep convictions, because they represent the true Islam that I believe in, and not the result of any phase.”

The crown prince’s approach is making a genuine difference in confronting extremism and empowering moderate scholars to create a moderate discourse, Al-Issa believes. “The difference happening now is in the existence of initiatives and practical programs to implement this discourse.”

Critics of the programs carried out by MWL centers around the world would say they were not noted for the promotion of moderation, but they preceded Al-Issa’s appointment as secretary-general. “It is not my right and my agenda to talk about the past,” he says. “The past belongs to its owners ... I talk only about myself and my future.” Current programs in MWL centers worldwide focus on moderation and “the explicit call to promote national integration of these communities in their homelands.”

In another indication that he is unconventional in his work, Al-Issa is not convinced of the effectiveness of these centers in the modern age, and believes the message of moderation can be more effectively delivered on social media platforms.

“My policy is not to open new centers, because ... now is the time for social media,” he said. “New media plays the role of a thousand centers. The message of Islamic moderation, wisdom and humanity that we send in one tweet is doing the job of dozens of centers.”

In addition to social media, what Al-Issa relies on in his work is continuous travel and public engagement. Hardly a week passes without a photo of him with a religious or political personality in one country or with Muslim communities in another, or without a speech or lecture in a think tank or conference. And because he believes that the MWL today represents moderate Islam, his frequent trips and public appearances give him a role closer to that of an Islamic “foreign minister” than a secretary-general in the bureaucratic sense.

Perhaps this is why, last week in Florence, Italy, Al-Issa was awarded the prestigious Galileo Prize in recognition of his work in promoting peace and harmony among civilizations. Such an award, he believes, shows that international institutions are fair in their work, and have no preconceived agendas. 

Those who believe otherwise, Al-Issa says, are victims of the conspiracy theory all too common in our part of the word that the West is plotting against Islam.

“Many Muslims have a negative perception that there is a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. But, my brother, the West gave up its religious state, chose secularism and fought Christianity as a way of life, so why do you think that it is targeting you?” he said.

“We went and had a dialogue with the West and the Far East, and found an appreciation of Islam, a love for Muslims and a desire to cooperate with them when they learned about the truth of Islam. 

“Do not blame the extreme right if it becomes suspicious about you because of an (existing) example in front of it that it exploits in a political game. Had it not had such an excuse, it would not have used this extremist speech.”

However, the problem worldwide is the absence of an impression of the Muslim moderation and tolerance that Al-Issa promotes. So why are there not more sheikhs like him, calling for the same things as he does?

View Our Photo Gallery of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa

“Some do not realize the seriousness of negative perceptions against Islam, and therefore they do not interfere in correcting them,” he said. “Some fear the reaction of extremism and do not want to engage in debates with extremists. And the religious knowledge of others does not reach the level of correct understanding.”

Al-Issa criticizes those who speak in the name of religion based on “feelings, impressions and religious zeal devoid of any scientific thought or proposal.” His own views, meanwhile, firmly rooted in Muslim theology, are anathema to hard-liners. 

An example was when he said that not wearing the hijab did not make a woman an infidel. 

“I think no Muslim can call a Muslim woman an infidel or question her values because she has never worn a hijab,” he says. “The Muslim woman, if she does not wear hijab ... is not an infidel and does not depart from Islam.”

In Belgium last year, he preached against the tide of many local community leaders when he said Muslims should respect the laws, culture and customs of the non-Muslim countries in which they live, even if they felt that to do so violated their faith. If they (Muslims) were unable to legally persuade the local authorities to respect their wishes, they should either obey local laws or leave, Al-Issa advised. 

More recently, in Washington DC, Al-Issa visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, criticized Holocaust deniers and condemned this heinous crime — which was deemed remarkable coming from a cleric of his caliber and an organization of MWL’s prominence.

However, it did not pass without drawing hate speech from extremists who saw it as an attempt to come closer to Israel at the expense of the rights of Palestinians. 

Al-Issa, however, sees no contradiction between opposing the occupation of the Palestinian territories and condemning the Holocaust, which he says “shook humanity to the core.” 

“We call for a just peace in accordance with the Arab initiative,” he says. “East Jerusalem (capital of Palestine) and West Jerusalem (capital of Israel), and there is no choice but peace.”

Despite his controversial remarks, Al-Issa says he is not afraid, although he knows his words may provoke some people. “I speak with logic, and I have right and justice on my side. And he who holds right and justice, God willing, is reassured deep in his heart. But I take my necessary (security) precautions without exaggeration.”

Al-Issa says the logic of his views has changed people’s minds about Islam. He knows this because of the dozens of private messages he has received from scholars and senior preachers, both inside and outside the Kingdom, whose names he keeps with him. And he says that, despite the critics, he enjoys wide support in the Muslim world because of his openness to everyone, the strength of his views rooted in Islamic theology, and the fact that the MWL speaks from its headquarters in the holiest place for all Muslims: Makkah.


Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest Mideast ally of US’, experts say at Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum

Updated 13 December 2018
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Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest Mideast ally of US’, experts say at Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum

  • Kingdom lies at the core of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, political and economic leaders told

Saudi Arabia will remain the strongest ally of the US in the Middle East and lies at the “heart and core” of President Trump’s foreign policy, some of the world’s leading politicians, economists and strategic analysts heard as they gathered to forecast the geopolitical state of the world in 2019.

At the 11th Arab Strategy Forum, an annual gathering to discuss worldwide political, economic, security and social scenarios and plan ways to help the region prepare for future challenges, speakers talked about a steadfast bond between the US and Saudi over the next 12 months. They said that Trump views the Kingdom as an unshakable ally with common regional interests including America’s fight against Iran, the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a turbulent and fluctuating oil market.

“The Trump administration has been fighting very hard to move beyond Jamal Khashoggi,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, who joined Ambassador Dennis Ross, former assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and Bernardino Leon, director general of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in a panel discussion titled the “State of the World Politics in 2019.” 

“They have made it very clear that they want to focus on other interests; the Israel-Palestine peace process, the question of Iran, the oil market … President Trump has made it very clear that Saudi Arabia really lies at the heart and the core of his foreign policy.”

He said that despite “tremendous pressures to take further steps” against the Kingdom, “the reality so far seems to be that the president will not listen to the critics.”

Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia. 

He said that although the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has come under strain, “as long as Donald Trump remains in power the relationships will continue to stay.”

In the panel discussion, moderated by CNN’s Becky Anderson, Leon also addressed Saudi and US relations.

“There are two dimensions; one is internal US politics, the other is in terms of foreign policy. Foreign policy has to be determined by the government and will continue to be determined by the government — this is the rule. So if you see these relations, in historical terms Saudi Arabia has always been the main ally in the region for the United States. 

“This is a region where another traditional very strong ally, Turkey, is now in a different position and even though we are at a time where this region is probably experiencing more difficulties than ever before, the United States will continue to act on that basis. I do not expect big changes. I am sure we there will be waves and I am sure the US Congress will call for more transparency and more information after what happened after Khashoggi, probably this is going to happen. But there will be no structural changes.”

Ross said that US policy — which states that if the president vetoes a decision, Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds supermajority of both houses — means it would be “very difficult” for Congress to overturn any decision on sanctions against the Kingdom that Trump, who has been vocal in his continuing support and relations with Saudi Arabia. He added that “most of the pressure” from federal government would be more likely to be dominated by the ongoing Trump-Russia investigations.

Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, left, in conversation with Dr. Ian Bremmer. 

After being addressed by Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, who posed a question about US-Middle East relations and asked if the US would distance itself from the Arab world, Ross said that the US would continue to have a vested interest in Middle Eastern activities.

“Las Vegas rules do not apply to the Middle East, what takes place in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. That is ultimately why we have to stay involved in it.” 

Abbas began the first panel discussion of the day, “Discussing Megatrends in 2019,” by questioning speaker Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia, about oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s international and regional relations and his predictions for the year ahead. 

Bremmer addressed the recent announcement by Qatar that it was withdrawing from the oil exporters’ group OPEC, saying the move would have little impact or fallout.

“Qatar in OPEC is a marginal player so I do not think their leaving is significant.”

Bremmer said that Qatar attended the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) annual summit in Riyadh this week and that Qataris and Saudis “directly engaged” was a move to be looked at in a “positive” way.

At the forum, attended by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Bremmer began his address by saying that 2019 should not see any real turbulent crisis, and highlighted the “good news” of “robust” predictions laid out by the International Monetary Fund that state the global economy will grow 3.7 percent this year. 

However, he said that 2020 is likely to witness another recession and warned — unlike the shows of unity after the 2008/09 financial crisis — of a fractious and “dysfunctional” geopolitical landscape that will mean the world will be unlikely to be able to bounce back easily.

“The good news is the 2019 economy will not be horrible. The bad news; the next economic downturn will be much worse. My worry is that whenever the next downturn comes we have a problem. The thing about the last major recession … which was a big one, is the response from all the world’s major economies. They all worked together in saying we have a problem, we need to get out of this together.

“Whenever the next downturn happens — which economists say is 2020 — when it comes the political reaction it is not going to be like 2008/9.”

Instead, the world is likely to witness a “blame-game” with countries pointing the finger at one another. Bremmer warned: “This is the most fraught geopolitical period in my lifetime … and the dysfunction is only going to grow.”

The geopolitical landscape has been heightened by a series of world events, including the “disastrous”  negations over Brexit, France’s “yellow vest” protests, the looming end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reign,  the state of US-China relations and the recent US sanctions on Iran.

Bremmer also raised concern over cybercrime and the shadow economy. He said that three of his biggest concerns from 2018 were North Korea-linked hackers stealing millions from ATMs across the world, Russian hackers using antivirus software to steal US cyber capabilities to attack Ukraine’s online network and the accounts of millions of Chinese web users being compromised in a series of hacks.

At the forum, speakers also discussed mega-trends and forecast the future of economics and government policies in the region.

The role of Iran as a leading state sponsor of terror and the impact of US sanctions was a factor among many of the key discussions. Ross said: “The interesting thing with Iran in 2019 is to see how they will tackle the internal pressure internally due to there economic decline,” while Bremmer said it was likely that Tehran would seek to wait out the Trump administration.

The growing role of China also dominated discussions. Leon said: “The US and China are two heavyweights that will keep their battle going on but it will not need to escalate much more, due to the nature of global economic markets,” while speakers highlighted the “winding down” of the war in Yemen as a positive trend in 2019.

In the “State of the Arab World Economy in 2019,” Dr. Nasser Saidi, former Lebanese minister of economy and trade, and Dr. Mahmoud Mohieldin, senior vice president of the World Bank Group, said that there was a general consensus that the economic recession would most likely start in 2019 and predicted an era of “turbulence” over the next 12 months, including a ripple effect across the GCC caused by oil price fluctuations. 

At the same panel discussion, H.E Nasser Judeh, former deputy prime minister of foreign affairs of Jordan, Dr. Ayad Allawi, former prime minister of Iraq and the leader of the National Accord, and H.E Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, deliberated on the regional landscape over the next 12 months, with Allawi warning that the region is a “fertile ground” for terrorist groups should it not stabilize and not implement reforms that the Arab world is in “dire need of.” 

Fahmy addressed Qatar relations, saying that while a fragmented Arab world comes at the expense of every country, he was “not optimistic for radical change” in Qatar’s policies and said that the GCC could not back down to a country that refuses to “change its internal methodology.” 

“Qatar has to be a player — not an adversary.”

Ahead of the forum, Mohammed Al-Gergawi, minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and chairman of the organizing committee, said the Arab Strategy Forum was launched as a platform for balanced analysis by decision-makers to offer a clearer understanding of the economic and political outlook for the Arab region and the world.