On the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was living with my wife and sons just outside of Washington, D.C., just a few chapters away from completing my first novel.

It was a political thriller about a group of radical Islamist terrorists hijacking a plane, flying it into an American city and setting into motion a global war against such terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

It was supposed to be fiction, a worst-case-scenario “What If?” plot that I thought might make an interesting book and eventual movie. But that morning, fiction tragically became fact and the world has been deal with the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s real-life plot ever since.

Little could I have imagined at the time that years later I – as a Jewish man and an Evangelical follower of Jesus living in Jerusalem – would have the opportunity to forge an unlikely friendship with a devout Saudi Muslim who has made it his life mission to combat such radical and violent extremists and advance moderate Islam, as well as to teach hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world to reject violence and embrace Jews and Christians as both neighbors and friends.

Nevertheless, it happened.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulkarim al-Issa is the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, the largest non-government Muslim organization in the world.

As such, he is one of the most influential Sunni Muslims on the planet.

I first met him in Riyadh when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a., “MBS”) invited me to bring an Evangelical delegation to meet with him and other senior Saudi leaders in November 2018. It was the first time the Saudi royal family had ever invited Christian leaders to visit the palace and engage in talks in the more than 300 years since the al-Saud family has ruled on the Arabian Peninsula.

Not only was the Sheikh in our delegation’s historic two-hour meeting with MBS, we then spent several hours with the Sheikh, touring the offices of the Muslim World League and discussing a wide range of issues.

When the Crown Prince invited me to bring a second Evangelical delegation to visit the Kingdom in September 2019, the Sheikh was again in the room, this time at the royal palace in Jeddah. We also had a working lunch with the Sheikh and his colleagues, and then a much longer meeting, continuing to get to know each other and discussing areas of mutual concern between Evangelicals and Muslims.

Having watched the bold steps he has taken to build friendship and advance peace between Muslim, Jews and Christians — despite our theological and other differences — I decided to ask Sheikh Mohammed if he might consider becoming a founding member of the Advisory Board of ALL ARAB NEWS. He immediately said, “yes.” Indeed, he was the first to join our Advisory Board.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa meets with Rosenberg and Evangelical delegation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in September 2019. (photo credit: All Arab News staff)

 

Since then, he has been working with me for months as my Palestinian and Lebanese Arab colleagues and I have worked on build a news and commentary site that will provide fair, honest, truthful and balanced coverage of events in the Middle East and North Africa, and give a platform for a wide range of peaceful voices, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish or other.

In an exclusive interview for our first day of operations as ALL ARAB NEWS, I asked the Sheikh to share with me his memories of 9/11 and how it shaped his life mission.

ROSENBERG: Given that we are about to mark the tragic anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I would like to ask where you were on that day? What do you remember about that day? How did you first hear about the attacks? What were you doing when you heard? And what was your immediate reaction?

AL-ISSA: I was at home when the news broke of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It left me, like the whole world, in a state of bewilderment.

The attack was ghastly and shocking, and I remember those around me were astonished and could not believe what they saw or heard. We were all glued to the TV screen, anticipating more details as information started to trickle in on news channels.

The one specific reaction that I can recall was a tremendous pain for the innocent lives lost, even as we were all dealing with the overwhelming sense of shock with the details were still unclear. As they became clearer, the horror of what had happened became only more profound.

Every year, we all relive this painful tragedy, and I think back to that day. It is a terrorist crime like no other in human history.

ROSENBERG: In the months and years that followed, how did the 9/11 attacks – and the tremendous blow that it had, both on U.S.-Saudi relations, and the perception of people in the West and all over the world towards Islam – impact you personally, as a Saudi and as a Muslim? Did it change you in any way – your views, your personal mission – and if so, how?

AL-ISSA: As a human being, I felt an indescribable sense of pain and sadness for those innocent people who lost their lives on that horrible day. And as a Muslim leader, I was angered by those terrorists that purported to commit such an abominable crime in the name of Allah. True Islam does not promote hatred and violence. It does not teach intolerance and injustice. In fact, it teaches us the exact opposite. Islam instructs us to advance peace and coexistence, as well as embrace people of other faiths and beliefs.

From that day forth, I vowed to speak out against those who seek to highjack Islam to commit violence and advance hate. This is what I do every day at the Muslim World League. My objective is to advance the true, moderate values of Islam, build coexistence among all faiths and peoples, and confront the extremist rhetoric and expose its flaws, particularly as they pertain to the misinterpretation of religious ideas.

The extremists avoid engaging with us knowing too well the truth is on our side, yet they continue to deceive and spread their lies. We will not rest until we uproot their ideology.

ROSENBERG: What makes the Muslim Brotherhood theology and ideology so dangerous?

AL-ISSA: The Muslim Brotherhood poses a serious threat to the very fabric of our society because it seeks to exploit Islam by deceiving and encouraging Muslims, especially our youth, to commit egregious and deplorable acts.

There is no room for the Muslim Brotherhood – or any of form of political Islam – in our religion. It does not abide by the true, moderate values of Islam.

The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood has no respect for the constitution or laws of any country and it actually alienates Muslims from the nations and societies they live in. And in doing so, it succeeds in sowing division and promulgating hatred. We have seen repeatedly how such a process leads to hatred, extremism, violence and terrorism. We must do all in our power to prevent the spread of this warped ideology.

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TOMORROW: In part two of my exclusive interview, I will ask the Sheikh what kind of specific reforms he has made at the Muslim World League to advance moderate Islam and to build friendships with Christians and Jews.

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