The Saudi Religious Leader Who Condemns Anti-Semitism and Calls on Muslims to Learn about the Holocaust

June 29, 2020 | Jeff Jacoby
About the author: Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

For decades, Saudi Arabia’s export of an especially fundamentalist and intolerant brand of Sunni Islam encouraged the rise of Islamist terrorism across the globe. Mohammad al-Issa, the secretary general of the Saudi-funded Muslim World League, represents the best of the kingdom’s efforts to turn over a new leaf, writes Jeff Jacoby:

Issa vigorously criticizes religious extremism and vocally supports interfaith cooperation. . . . Especially notable has been Issa’s insistence on condemning hate crimes against Jews, including the lethal synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. In January he led a Muslim delegation to Auschwitz, then published a column calling Holocaust denial a “crime” that should appall true Muslims.

This month, speaking from Mecca to an online conference on anti-Semitism, he said he had made it his “mission to work with my brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith” to advance inter-religious harmony, and “to confront the extremists . . . falsely claiming inspiration from our religious texts.”

Clearly it is significant that a Saudi religious leader and politician (Issa was his country’s minister of justice from 2009 to 2015) is impassioned in defense of religious tolerance and so strongly opposes “political Islam,” or Islamism. . . . Yet Issa’s views haven’t prevailed in his own land. Saudi Arabia is among the most unfree nations on earth, particularly for religious minorities and dissenters.

Still, Jacoby sees reason for optimism:

The 2019 Arab Youth Survey, a study of 3,300 men and women between eighteen and twenty-four in the Middle East and North Africa, found that two-thirds believe “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East” and 79 percent believe that “the Arab world needs to reform its religious institutions.”

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