Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Crown, for the kind introduction. And I appreciate the invitation to speak here today by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Economic Club.
It is a pleasure to be in Chicago. The first thing I would like to address is the recent news, as I know you can't even pick up a newspaper here without reading about it. I just want to say that I will not be taking any questions about the two adversaries. As the Ambassador from Saudi Arabia, it is not my place to say whether the White Sox or the Cubs are the better team.
I am truly glad to be here today. Chicago is a unique and beautiful city. It is also the crossroads of America. Both literally and metaphorically, Chicago is a national and international crossroads of people, capital, and ideas.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has been, since the very birth of civilization, a major crossroads for the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Africa, and Asia. And today, as the birthplace of Islam and the location of our holiest sites, Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the lives of approximately 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.
This fact is of crucial importance these days, because, during this time of expanded opportunities for the Saudi people, we are also facing a time when our character is being questioned by others in the global community.
The questions and criticism of Saudi Arabia and of Islam come from all around us, and even from within. And the answers too, come from every direction. Some of what has been written or spoken has been too one-dimensional to offer much wisdom. Most has been fragmented, as much of our discourse has become, in today's “sound bite” world of 24 hour news. And more has been unfortunately written or spoken with purely political intent.
There has been misperception compounded by confusion. There have been myths that have become conventional wisdom. And there has been a distortion of the issues, made more complicated by emotion.
Today I would like to begin to help correct that.
For the past several months, since I had the great privilege of becoming Ambassador for my country to the United States, I have been traveling all across this nation. I have been listening to and talking with many different Americans. But no matter where I visit, I hear similar concerns.
So that is why I am here. To remind you that Saudis have been your friends for more than 60 years. And while Saudi Arabia as a country has changed a great deal, our friendship has not.
Saudis, like many people here in America's heartland, are rooted in faith and family. We are a peaceful people who want the same as you. And, yes, we have problems, many of them. But to solve those problems, we need our friends, like our friends here in America, to work with us to face these challenges; because we all gain when doubt is replaced by discussion, castigation by cooperation.
So the goal of our discourse and debate can result in a more informed and honest understanding of our different societies, cultures and religions.
Here I would like to address outstanding questions about Islam, because what is the foundation of Saudi Arabia but Islam itself. And there should be no doubts about who Muslims are as people, and what our goals in life are, because Muslims live in every nation. They speak every language. They want the same things for them and for their children that anyone else does: security, opportunity, good health and education, and a bright future.
And I think we're tired of the loud voices of radicals and extremists overpowering the peaceful and humble voices of the majority of Muslims throughout the world - like the Muslim in India working hard so he can send his child to college, or the Muslim in Chicago who is starting her own business, or the Muslim in Africa who offers charity to those suffering from AIDS.
So, ladies and gentlemen, in order for these voices of reason and moderation to be heard and understood, there are two things that need to be made clear.
First: Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion. The Qur'an says: “Whoever kills a person without justification or commits sacrilege on earth; it would be as if he killed all mankind.”
Those out there who use Islam to justify acts of violence and hatred are corrupting the healthy body that holds the world's Muslim community together. It is a wicked perversion of our faith.
I often hear in the media that Saudi Arabia is to blame for incitement because it “exports a brand” of extremism known as Wahhabism. Pundits lace their statements with words like Wahhabism, jihad, and madrassa to provoke and inspire fear about what people don't know or understand. And the West largely does not understand what Wahhabism is.
The term refers to the reformist views of the 18th century Arabian scholar Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. He did not advocate the killing of the innocent or condone acts of suicide. Extremists may claim their origins in Wahhabism, but their faith is perverted - just like David Koresh or Jim Jones who perverted Christianity to justify their evil acts.
Are the Saudi people conservative? Yes. Are we traditional? Yes. Are we extremists? absolutely not.
And the Saudi people, as with all Muslims, are tolerant of other's beliefs, despite what might be said. Muslims not only accept, but we revere and adore all of the Prophets from Noah to Jesus to Muhammad, and hold them equally as Prophets of God sent down for the education and betterment of mankind. We consider Jews and Christians as people of the book, and their books, whether the Torah or the New Testament, are revered by Muslims as we revere the Qu'ran.
The second thing to be understood is that we must also deal with those bigots in the West, and, yes, here in America, who denigrate, denounce, and despise Islam and Muslims. They, equally, must be opposed and prevented from promoting their bigotry and bias.
Ladies and gentlemen: We are not engaged in a clash of civilizations.
The religious radicalism we see today that is manifesting itself in some Muslims is not the product of some deep rooted conflict with the West. Nor is the bigotry manifested by some Christians against Muslims a characteristic of all Christians. There are, for certain, differences between us. But the underlying nature of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the same. We believe in faith and family, peace and prosperity.
The underlying nature of extremism and terrorism is to exploit the differences between people. Extremists have existed in every civilization, from Rome to the Enlightenment. It is not associated with a specific culture or geographical origin or religion. The Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, the ETA in Spain, the IRA in Ireland, and the Irgun Zvai Leomi in Israel, are but a few examples. These groups, along with Al-Qaeda, take advantage of the suffering of people to advance their evil ways. They use political grievances to advance their political aims.
If there is any lesson we should learn from this, it is that we should respect that people, as individuals, are empowered, as never before, in this modern age to such an extent as to make an enormous impact on the collective. As President John F. Kennedy said: “One person can change the world.” But we need to recognize this can go both ways - for good or for bad.
And so this should reinforce the purpose of government to serve the people, to take care of them, to guide each and every one of them toward peace, security, and tolerance, so that they are not misled by deviant logic. Because truly, all ideas are not created equal, and we must fight to ensure our peace wins the day.
This certainly raises the questions of what is Saudi Arabia doing? What is the Muslim world doing, and even, what is the rest of the world doing to promote understanding?
In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah recognizes that above all else education is the key, and he has put forth a program of reforms in this area. In recent years, the Kingdom has reviewed all of its education practices and materials, and has removed any element that is inconsistent with the needs of a modern education. Not only have we eliminated what is objectionable from old text books that were in our system, we have also implemented a comprehensive internal revision and modernization plan.
We have further put in place better monitoring of our mosques and our religious schools to ensure that they are not used to promote intolerance or to condone violence. And the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has dismissed a large number of imams who have strayed, as well as sent a number of those imams to schools for retraining in terms of tolerance.
Saudi Arabia is also working to educate society as a whole. A concerted public awareness program was initiated in schools and universities, in mosques, on radio and television and on billboards to inform the Saudi people about terrorism and extremism.
A campaign of this size and scope is unprecedented, with six government ministries coordinating the development and execution of the programs. As a result, no Saudi citizen has been able to escape the message that intolerance, violence and extremism are not part of our Islamic faith or Saudi culture or traditions.
Saudi Arabia is taking steps to ensure this message is spread throughout the Muslim world as well. This is why last December King Abdullah called together the leaders and heads of state from 57 Arab and Islamic nations in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. The third extraordinary summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was convened to address the problems in the Muslim world, and offer solutions for a better future.
An open and honest dialogue ensued, and specific steps were decided on, including combating terrorism and extremism, promoting academic excellence, implementing political and economic reforms, and opening up economic systems to enhance economic growth and to create jobs. The conference concluded with the approval of a ten-year strategic plan for reforms, which is marked by moderation, modernization, and tolerance.
As King Abdullah has affirmed, "We must put our Islamic house in order."
At one time, Islam was at the forefront of global civilization, providing significant contributions to humanity in fields such as astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and architecture. Indeed, without the Arabian scholars ibn Sina, ibn Rushd, and al Razi, there would not have been a Francis Bacon, or a Galileo, or a Thomas Aquinas. We again intend to regain a position from which we can make positive contributions to humanity.
But here's where we need support and assistance from our partners. Islam is going through a period of internal debate and self-assessment. And the issues involved can inflame passions, even among people otherwise calm in demeanor. So the greatest of sensitivity is needed while we rid ourselves of the cancer that is extremism and terrorism, and while we heal ourselves.
An unfortunate example of this need occurred recently with the publishing of certain cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Personally, I found the cartoons to be despicable and reprehensible. All rights, including free speech, come with responsibility and an obligation to respect our fellow human beings. The publication of those cartoons may not have broken any laws, but they shattered any reasonable moral code of conduct.
However - no matter the level of profanity of what the cartoons depicted, those in the Muslim community who reacted with violence were unjustified. We must calmly appeal for greater cultural understanding and respect for what is sacred. And we must also see a halt to the insults hurled at our Prophet and our religion by religious spokesmen in your country. And that is what I am calling for here today.
As I said earlier, Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads - not just one of trade and commerce, but also one of its future. The Qur'an tells us: “God does not change what is in people unless they change that which is in themselves.”
Well, we are taking steps to change where required for the betterment of the Muslim world, as well as the global community, and I believe we are headed in the right direction.
To borrow a phrase from one famous statesman from Illinois: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in." Let us move from here today and make our business the business of peace and tolerance, understanding and mutual prosperity.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.