July 18, 2019

Sheikh Works to Clarify Islam, Understand Judaism

Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa

Since his appointment as secretary-general of the Mecca, Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World League (MWL), Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa has been making headlines all over the world. He has visited the Vatican, condemned the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, spoken out against those who use Islam to promote violence and terror, and organized interfaith and outreach conferences. One of these initiatives was the 2nd Conference on Cultural Rapprochement between the United States of America and the Muslim World, an interfaith summit in New York City this past October that brought together hundreds of activists from all over the world, as well as speakers from different faiths.

“Our mission is to clarify the truth,” Al-Issa said.

In January, Al-Issa authored two pieces on the importance of Holocaust remembrance, one of which was written in English for American audiences. He also explained why he broke with taboos and openly discussed Muslim-Jewish relations. The MWL’s statement after the terrorist attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was the first time the organization condemned anti-Semitic violence. Despite these examples of “responsible leadership,” as Al-Issa described them, much skepticism surrounds the MWL, which has been known to support religiously stringent Salafist groups and partner with the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, despite Al-Issa’s rejection of all forms of extremism and his consistent course of action in that regard since joining the MWL in 2016, questions remain about the sincerity of MWL’s intentions, its independence from Saudi government policies and whether Islam as a religion is as dedicated to peace and tolerance as Al-Issa’s message. After all, Al-Issa is a former Saudi justice minister. How can he keep regional politics out of religious activity?

During Al-Issa’s last visit to New York in early February, shortly after the publication of his articles regarding International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I interviewed him for two hours to clarify these and other issues.

Al-Issa told me that the MWL is a completely independent organization. As an example, he cited his recommendation for a “peace caravan” that he presented at the October interfaith summit. The idea for the caravan, which would consist of representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — traveling to Jerusalem, came “completely, 100 percent separated away from politics,” he said. For now, the MWL remains the only organization considering this caravan and the details have not yet been worked out.

However, Al-Issa said the MWL has other plans in the works, including a program to introduce some form of Holocaust curriculum to educational systems for Muslims.

The MWL, Al-Issa said,  is attempting to spread a message of peace and tolerance, and it is combating ideological extremism through the dissemination of “clarifying facts” about Islam through education, traditional media, social media and by organizing conferences — “trying to get deeper into [extremists’] ideology and by dismantling this ideology from within.” The strategy is the same, he said, whether the extremists in question are hardline Muslims or hardcore critics who reject Islam as a legitimate religion.

“We are  never satisfied with regular replies,” Al-Issa said. “We get deep into deterrence. We also discuss scriptures. Then we start dialoguing: ideology against another ideology.” He added that when the MWL lays out the facts about Islam being a “moderate religion,” people’s reactions are often very positive. The MWL also works to reveal certain groups’ hidden agendas and misleading messages. “We deal with everybody,” he said.

To prevent undesirable entanglements, the MWL requires prospective partner organizations or institutions requesting funding and support from MWL to demonstrate a track record of success on the ground, he said. 

To combat dangerous stereotypes of different groups of people; and to overcome acrimony introduced to the Middle East through centuries of feuds, grievances and, more recently, Western disinformation and conspiracy theories, the MWL utilizes workshops and conferences aimed at humanizing others and promoting tolerant attitudes, he said.

Most recently, the MWL held a conference in Mecca for 1,300 Muslim clerics and scholars from all over the world.  The aim of the conference, held next to the Kaaba, was to combat terrorism and religious extremism, and to inculcate the attendees with the message about seeing humanity in every person, Al-Issa said. That particular conference produced a historic statement that the “Creator, in His Wisdom, created people different,” he said. “We should respect other religions. If we see someone making a mistake or doing something inappropriate, we shouldn’t blame the religion for it, but hold the individual personally responsible for that. We believe that no religion is extreme. On the other hand, we also believe that absolutely no religion has no extremists. We find extremists in every religion throughout the world.” 

Since his installment as the secretary-general of the MWL, Al-Issa has traveled extensively, meeting with dignitaries and counterparts from other faiths all over the world, and organizing events in many different countries. In Morocco, Al-Issa met with local Islamic leaders to review the application of Sharia law and to sign a research and data-based agreement with Morocco’s Muhammadian League of Scholars to encourage “enlightened Islamic speech” and “combat extremism.” MWL also has held gatherings  in the Shiite-majority Azerbaijan and brought approximately 700 leaders and activists to a summit in Sweden. 

Al-Issa said that everywhere he goes, he sees many people in need of assistance from international organizations such as the United Nations. “God commanded us to help the others who are less fortunate,” he said. “The power we have, the money we have, is God’s money. God has been generous to us. And we, as brothers and sisters to those people, have a duty to help them.”

One way MWL offers its assistance is directly through governments, to avoid falling into traps with unreliable organizations and to guarantee that its money will not go to extremists, Al-Issa said, adding that even if a government is corrupt, it can still be held accountable for distribution of services. 

Exchanging ideas with foreign dignitaries and addressing large and diverse groups are nothing new for Al-Issa, although having a faith-based agenda to counter extreme ideas is certainly a new direction for the MWL, he said.

All of that, however, is gradual. Currently, the MWL does not have a program for normalizing the image of other groups or countering biases for Muslim communities around the world; however, the organization welcomes proposals from schools and other organizations, with creative ideas on how to address the problem in a way suitable for a particular community. 

Much of the time, the best way to educate children is through empathy. “We have to make sure that we teach ethics of loving others, even from different religions, and for children to learn to respect one another despite differences in faiths and ideas,” he said. 

The MWL also assists in countering mistranslated Qurans and faulty theological messaging by organizations with agendas, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades had a near monopoly on English-language translations of the Quran, Al-Issa said. An example is the word “kafir,” which has been widely translated as “infidel” but which, Al-Issa said, is better translated in English as “disbeliever.” “We have a right to disbelieve each other’s ideas. That does not mean that either of us is against this ideology or this religion,” he said.

Misconceptions about the use of these words are being promoted by extremists with their own agendas, according to Al-Issa.  Any nation striving to defend itself against an aggressor can call a war “jihad.” 

Would it have been possible to expand Islam in the early days without the use of force, just through preaching and education? “You cannot impose religion by force,” Al-Issa said. “Anyone who tries to impose religion by force has a special, private kind of agenda, and it has nothing to do with religion. … Only Prophet Mohammed was infallible and could know the ultimate good for the religion. Other people could not. Furthermore, some of his followers — not all of them — also had political agendas and waged wars in the name of Islam, even though they had other reasons for it.”

While Al-Issa is striving to reintroduce the concept of a moderate, tolerant and peaceful Islam into theological discourse, Muslim communities are facing apostasy and conversions to other religions as a result of disillusioned people judging Islam by the actions and rhetoric of some of its misguided practitioners; reacting to abuse and overreach by Islamic governments, communities, families and imams; or facing movements by Westerners seeking to introduce atheism and secular humanism as an alternative in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Al-Issa said Muslim and non-Muslim governments are doing well in respecting the teachings of Islam, while others are using their support or opposition as a cover for their own political actions and abuses. The best way to address this issue and to help everyone is through education, he said. The MWL is working to develop a conference that will touch on this topic, which thus far is titled “Belief in the Ever-Changing World.”

Reflecting on the compatibility of science and faith, and MWL’s role in tackling thorny issues in an educational way, Al-Issa stated that he sees the mission of MWL as reigniting the spirit of Al-Andalus, which at its best symbolized a great exchange of ideas between scientists, philosophers, poets and theologians of the Abrahamic faiths, who lived and worked side by side in harmony.


Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer.