Saudi Arabia's 'slow steaming' changes to Islam may just work

Saudi Arabia's 'slow steaming' changes to Islam may just work
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“Slow steaming” is a concept by which container ships operate at lower speeds to minimize wear and tear on engines, save fuel, reduce emissions and otherwise improve efficiency. This concept proves that, sometimes, slower can be better than faster. For those who are observing events in the Muslim world, with an eye toward recognizing positives rather than negatives, the concept of slow steaming is being used by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to administer a course change for Islam to gradually bring stability to the Middle East region.

Let us examine a few of these initiatives and what they seek to do.

In May 2019, Riyadh published the “Charter of Makkah” (meaning “Mecca”) — a document that still escapes recognition as being groundbreaking. Not since Martin Luther’s nailing of the “95 Theses” on the door of a Catholic church in Germany in 1517 has a religion received such a wake-up call for change.

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As a result of the Muslim World League (MWL) Conference in one of Islam’s two holiest cities, attended by more than 1,200 Muslim leaders representing 139 countries and 27 Islamic sects, the charter sought to implement changes of an all-encompassing nature. The charter also sought to proclaim Islamism as not being representative of Islam and to introduce, for the first time, acceptance of the universal equality of human rights for all. This comes after 1,400 years of Islamist indoctrination that Muslims are superior to all other human beings. 

In yet another first, the charter recognizes acceptance of diverse religious beliefs and that diversity never justifies conflict. This document truly seeks to put Muslims and non-Muslims on an equal footing. 

Despite the widespread participation of Muslims from around the world, what the charter says and what Muslims end up doing remains to be seen — just as our own Constitution witnessed a struggle to enforce the standard that all men truly are created equal. The charter’s new doctrine will have to fight a battle for acceptance by 1.6 billion Muslims, but it marks a starting point for this evolution.

We are seeing that the charter is not a “one-and-done” effort to change the Muslim mindset towards non-believers and, particularly, towards Jews. Since the days of Prophet Muhammad, Muslims have harbored a hatred towards Jews that asserts itself in both the Quran and hadiths. But Muslim leaders apparently again recognize that slow steaming is necessary to change the Muslim mindset to accept Jews as equals. The 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz gave them the opportunity to “walk a mile” in the shoes of Jews.

On Jan. 23, Muslim and Jewish leaders honored victims of the Holocaust in a historic joint visit to the site. Approximately 60 senior Muslim civil and religious leader from across the globe toured the camp. The Saudi head of the MWL called the visit “a sacred duty and a profound honor.” Astonishingly, the group’s secretary general knelt and bowed to the ground as he led prayers for the million-plus victims killed there.

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This was another groundbreaking effort by Muslim leaders to level the human rights playing field. Ever since World War II’s end, and despite all the evidence of record, many Muslims have chosen either to deny the Holocaust ever happened or to mock it. Iran periodically holds a cartoon competition to ridicule the genocide the Nazis committed.  

The Auschwitz visit by these Muslim leaders is important for two reasons that underscore the difficulty of implementing change within Islam:

  • Unlike Catholicism, with a globally recognized head in Rome who implements doctrinal changes quickly, Islam lacks a pope. No Muslim leader singularly wields the power of the pope to impact Islam. In fact, Islam basically allows any religious leader or scholar to issue a religious declaration, which then can be accepted, or not, by followers. But the fact that 60 global Muslim leaders participated in this first step is encouraging to demonstrate a collective Muslim mindset exists towards equality.

  • The fact that Saudi Arabia is involved — recognized as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Islam’s holiest sites — lends immense credibility to the effort.

In addition to the Charter of Makkah and the Auschwitz visit, Riyadh is taking another significant step to snuff out extremists’ flame of hatred. Saudi Arabia will terminate its policy of funding mosques abroad where such hatred is being fomented. Existing foreign mosques will be turned over to local authorities to be administered by local Muslims and their elected clerical head. This obviously is a follow-through on Riyadh’s 2018 decision to ban Islamist teachings from its schools and begin opening up to all religions. 

With Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab nations realizing that the only thing they have to fear is Islamism, and that their hope for regional stability aligns more with non-Muslim interests such as those of Israel, the above steps hopefully will be expanded to ensure that the seed of tolerance for all is nurtured. 

Slow steaming will take a little longer for changes in Islam to be accepted by its followers, but after 1,400 years of indoctrination, it is clearly the way to go.

James G. Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He heads a security consulting firm named after his father, Adm. Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.