‘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

‘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.


Tokyo summit discusses ‘strategic response’ to Saudi Aramco oil attacks

Taro Kono denounced the recent attacks on Aramco sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN Images/Kevin Hammontree)
Updated 57 min 20 sec ago

Tokyo summit discusses ‘strategic response’ to Saudi Aramco oil attacks

  • Shinzo Abe says it is Japan's mission to reset transparent, rules-based international order
  • Goldman Sachs' chief Japan strategist says closing gender gap can greatly boost global GDP

TOKYO: The attacks on Saudi Arabia grabbed all the headline attention at the G1 Global Conference in Tokyo, but the day-long think-in in Tokyo was more than just a survey of the dramatic headlines and images that had dominated the weekend media.

The event is now in its ninth year, as a global leaders’ conference conducted entirely in English on the big themes of international affairs, business, culture and society from a Japanese perspective.

One of the organizers called it the “Davos of Tokyo,” and while it may have fallen short of the famous Swiss Alpine gathering in numbers and glamour, the Sept. 16 event certainly rivaled it in the breadth and ambition of the agenda.

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, set a high bar in an opening video address in which he said it was “Japan’s mission” to lead the world in resetting the transparent, rules-based international order that has been weakened by the populist waves in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

On the theme of “sustainable innovation in times of disruption”, the G1 followed a familiar pattern of plenaries, breakouts, workshops and networking, in the functional setting of the Globis University in downtown Tokyo. What it lacked in Alpine splendour, it more than made up for with the convenience of a one-day colloquium.

But first, the weekend’s news stole the show at the opening plenary, and was an elephant in the room for the rest of the day.

Taro Kono, the Japanese defense minister, declared the attacks on Saudi oil installations and the threat to global oil supplies the “most worrying scenario” in the world today.

He was backed up by John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who criticized the failure of the US and its allies in the Middle East and elsewhere to counter Iranian expansion in the region.

“The strategic response to this has not been properly considered, and now Saudi Arabia’s most important strategic asset has been attacked,” he said.

The attacks on Saudi oil installations also featured prominently in a later session, conducted behind-closed-doors under the Chatham House Rule, at which security experts debated the origins and impact of the attacks, including the appropriate level of response from Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Chipman also spoke frankly about the confrontation between the US and China over trade, technology and digital strategy. “The US and the West has only just woken up to China’s strategic rivalry,” he said.

Referring to the Soviet space launch in the 1950s that stirred the US into a space race with the USSR, Chipman said: “China wants a unipolar Asia in a multipolar world, and that is a ‘Sputnik’ moment for the Americans,” he said.

There was skepticism that US President Donald Trump was the man to lead an effective rule-based order against Chinese expansion.

Mieko Nakabayashi, professor of social sciences at Waseda University, who spent many years in the corridors of power in Washington, said: “A lot of people say that Trump is a disaster, but he also has a lot of supporters. He might win next year’s election, which would make for a very adventurous four years to come.”

Given the East Asian venue and focus of the event, the threat from China, and its relations with neighbors such as Japan, Korea and the Southeast Asian countries, were recurring themes of the day.

A session entitled “Geo-politics: US-China hegemony in Asia” had two experts from opposite sides of the issue. Abraham Denmark, American director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the US was in the middle of the biggest debate about foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Although recent polls suggested that a large number of Americans still support an active role for the US in trade and global affairs, it was also apparent that the old rules of engagement with the rest of the world were no longer sufficient.

“We used to believe that engaging with China was a good thing in itself. Now we have to balance competition and co-operation, and will co-operate only on matters of mutual self-interest,” Denmark said.

Zha Daojiong, of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said there had been some “positive momentum” in recent weeks with both sides pulling back from higher trade tariffs, adding: “What is the antagonism between China and the USA? It is about primacy, and somebody has to be number one. They are like two 800-pound gorillas rising and falling under their own weight.”

Lynn Kuok, of the IISS, gave a Southeast Asian perspective on the issue. “Trump’s insistence that other countries have to ban Huawei means that the USA is saying ‘you have to chose between USA and China,’ but it should not be a choice between two countries but between rules and non-rules based orders.”

The session turned into a barbed exchange between the US and Chinese representatives. “If you give technology to Huawei, you’ve got to assume it will end up with the People’s Liberation Army,” said Denmark, who also complained about Chinese state subsidies to corporations.

Zha Daojiong responded with allegations about subsidies to US defense manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “Where is the state, and where is the company with them,” he said. Taking a swipe at US financial policy, he said: “Negative interest rates are not very capitalist.”

The G1 was not just about high matters of geopolitics, however. One big theme was the progress towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals in environmental, social responsibility and corporate governance.

Also high on the agenda was gender equality. In a session entitled “Womenomics and Gender Equality in Entrepreneurship,” Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, produced recent research showing a direct link between economic growth and greater female participation in the global workforce. “I believe that if you close the gender gap, you could actually boost global GDP by as much as $5 trillion,” she said.

The Tokyo gathering also focused on events that will put Japan in the global spotlight and boost tourism. The Rugby World Cup begins next week, and the country is hosting the Olympic Games in 2020.

In a session headed “How to evolve into a unique and sustainable tourism super-power,” experts discussed Japan’s ambitious plans to increase the number of international visitors and get them to spend more while on holiday. The government wants 40 million visitors next year.

About 75 per cent of foreign visitors to Japan come from four Asian countries — China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong — and the government would like to attract more Americans, Europeans and Australians, who tend to stay longer and spend more.

This year a 30 per cent drop in the number of Korean tourists is expected as Japan and South Korea square off amid a trade dispute sparked by events dating back to the  Second World War.