In June, the Austrian Parliament voted to close KAICIID, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, in protest against Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record. KAICIID was inaugurated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2012 as an intergovernmental organization with four founding states—Saudi Arabia, Spain, Austria, and the Holy See—and its constitution mandates that its board of directors be composed of members from the world’s major religions. Newly appointed Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the incoming president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, currently sits on the board representing the Catholic Church. Most of the funding and support for the organization, however, comes from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I am a political scientist, and I’ve spent the past five years researching the politics of interreligious dialogue in the Middle East. I recognize the paradox of Saudi Arabia presenting itself as a global champion of interreligious dialogue. Such contradictions were also apparent in Pope Francis’s trip to Abu Dhabi in February 2019, when he drafted and signed the Document on Human Fraternity in partnership with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb under the sponsorship of the United Arab Emirates. A number of scholars have raised serious concerns about the ways in which states in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have engaged in interreligious-dialogue initiatives as a useful distraction or, worse, as a way to extend authoritarian policies at home and abroad. The vote in Austria followed months of protests, often staged in front of the KAICIID building, against Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment and flogging of the young liberal blogger Raif Badawi. The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and the news of a possible execution sentence for the teenage Saudi dissident Murtaja Qureiris increased the urgency of the vote. Meanwhile, the fall of the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who had defended KAICIID’s presence in Vienna, left the organization vulnerable. In a sign that reflects European constellations on Islam, the vote won the support of Austria’s social democrats and its far-right Freedom Party. The bill—sponsored by Peter Pilz, formerly of Austria’s Green Party—seemed to confirm the struggle on both the left and the right in Europe to articulate a political model capable of accomodating the public presence of Islam there. In the absence of such a model, parties from both ends of the spectrum have employed the language of religious freedom to defend, alternatively, a secular liberal or Christian Europe from Islam.