US offends Arabs Jan02

The UK Foreign Office invited me to be part of a small delegation visiting Cairo and Riyadh. I attended the Inter-Faith Seminar at the People’s Assembly, presided jointly by the Speaker of the People’s Assembly, the Chief Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church. The Seminar was attended by the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Coptic Churches in Egypt, Members of Egypt’s People’s Assembly as well as Members of the Shura Council (Senate).

I addressed this distinguished Assembly depicting Christianity and Islam as two great religions - two wheels of a bicycle bound by a single chain of monotheistic belief, common philosophy and shared values. I stressed that Christians and Muslims must recognise this common heritage and pedal in the same direction to move forward to enable all followers to live in peace and prosperity.

I met the Chief Imam of Al-Azhar as well as eminent scholars and businessmen who were curious to know about the Muslims living in Europe, especially Britain. I declared that there were about 3 million Muslims and over 1500 mosques in the UK. In Britain, this large Muslim population displayed diversity of ethnic origin, lifestyle, cultural traditions and language. Sadly, the media portrayed Islam in a negative way and there was a need to ensure that eloquent Islamic scholars had an opportunity to clarify the misconceptions perpetuated by the media.

Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church received me at his residence. We discussed the situation of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. The Pope pointed out that until recently there was discrimination against Coptic Christians and some Churches had been burnt. Fortunately,  the situation has improved and the Copts are now able to participate in the civic and political life of Egypt. The Church has no difficulty in securing permission to build new churches. .

I had detailed discussions with Speakers of the Egyptian Shura Council (Senate) and the People’s Assembly (Parliament) as well as the leading Members of both Houses. The Egyptian Parliamentarians expressed their deep reservation about US policy in connection with Palestine, the bombing of Afghanistan, and the media perception of Islam. They were keen to establish that there was no link between terrorism and Islam, as Islam was a religion that rejected violence.

In Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) I met the Speaker and leading members of the Majlis Al-Shura that advises the King. I was also privileged to meet two brothers of King Fahd - the Governor of Riyadh and the Saudi Foreign Minister. The Saudis do not accept US criticism of its traditional Islamic society and implementation of Sharia. They are offended by media insinuation of Saudi support for terrorism and they reject that Islam is a religion based on violence. They point to the stability and security of Saudi Arabia based on traditional Islamic values despite having almost 6 million expatriates living peacefully with their indigenous population of 14 million. They claim that they have maintained good relations with the West, the Arab world and continued to guarantee the flow of oil. They are disappointed that the US does not recognise and respect this level of co-operation.

I drew the distinction between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and stated that: “Afghanistan is a country that has been unruly for over a century whilst Saudi Arabia has enjoyed security and peace since King Abdul Aziz founded the Kingdom in 1902. Afghanistan, occupied by external powers, impoverished by civil war, plagued by the hazards of drug trade and with every citizen owning arms cannot be compared with the stability, security, affluence and regularity of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban regime used violence to rule, the Saudis use Islamic tradition.

The European Union is hosting this year an International Conference on “Understanding Islam” and I look forward to taking an active part in the debate.