Building Bridges between the Muslim and Western Worlds
In the views of many, the contemporary world in which we live appears to be marked most prominently by the emergence of what is regularly referred to as “a clash of civilizations”. Proponents of the discourse of a clash have sought confirmation of their views by pointing to the increasing hostility and animosity between cultural regions—most obviously between the Islamic and Western worlds—that has defined the last quarter of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first centuries.
The long list of incidents that have revealed the intensifying tension between the Muslim and Western worlds over the past few years is countless. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the interminable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are merely the highest profile examples of a global state of affairs whose ramifications extend to even the very local and regional levels. One may point to the rising Islamophobic sentiment in other parts of the world which finds expression in such senseless acts as the burning of copies of the Qur’an to express hatred towards Islam. Nor does this sort of prejudice fail to make its way into governmental policy, as is evidenced by the relative success of far-right political parties in Europe who are intent on marginalizing their Muslim communities. On the other side, we also see a growing suspicion and reticence on the part of Arabs and Muslims to engage with Westerners on matters that may help develop their own societies.
It is my view, however, that no matter how pessimistic the landscape seems to be, we must not allow ourselves to concede to the inevitability of a trajectory which ends in the proverbial clash of civilizations. Further, it is an obligation to respond proactively to the tensions of our world by working actively and methodically to ameliorate them, so as to replace instability with stability, hostility with friendship, and animosity with alliances. In this regard, allow me to recognize the efforts of many international dialogue forums and institutions including the United Nations in bringing all sorts of people to the table to engage in genuine intercultural dialogue over the past few decades. Their commitment to cross-cultural understanding is truly commendable.
From the Islamic perspective, what is required is a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of dialogue with the other, a conscious effort to rebuild trust among different parties, and the emphasis and discovery of points of commonality. These goals are part and parcel of a larger philosophy of dialogue based on the authentic Islamic tradition, an understanding, and application, which is essential to a harmonious future for the world inhabited by all civilizations and cultures.
Islam established a moral and humanistic civilization that encompassed a plurality of religions, philosophies, and civilizations which contributed immensely to Muslim society. We see ourselves as a people who have absorbed a multiplicity of civilizations; we have been exposed to and assimilated the great civilizations of the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and Greeks into our cultural and intellectual life, and we benefited from all of them as well as contributed to them. Islamic civilization places people and worshippers above places of worship. This humanitarian and cosmopolitan world view does not allow us to consider ourselves as superior to other people. We are proud of our civilization, but we do not reject other civilizations; rather, all who work towards the constructive development in the world should be considered as our partners.
Dialogue is a responsibility that accrues to Muslims by virtue of the nature of their religion. What we have learned about Islam has been taken from the clear, pristine, and scholarly understanding of the faith and not from the self-claimed, who have attempted to set themselves up as religious authorities even though they lack the scholarly qualifications for making valid interpretations of religious law and morality. Muslims believe that Islam is the last Message until the Day of Judgment and, as such, is addressed to all humankind. These two properties are the basis for the universality of Islam and require that Muslims engage in dialogue in the best of ways. As the Qur’an instructs, “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the best way” (Al-Nahl: 125). Islam is, indeed, an open world view which never seeks to erect barriers between Muslims and others.
Muslims must be driven by the principle of conviviality, living together in harmony, and not be intent on converting every non-Muslim, for Allah Himself has made clear that “There is no compulsion in religion” (Al-Baqara: 256). Interfaith dialogue does not need to conclude with a winner and a loser. The purpose of dialogue should not be to convert others, but rather to share with them one’s principles. Sincere dialogue should strengthen one’s faith while breaking down barriers. The Qur’an makes it clear that the attitude of the Muslim should be “Whosoever wants, let them believe; and whosoever wants, let them disbelieve” (Al-Kahf: 29).
When Muslims turn to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet they will find that dialogue—and not competition—is what is required of them. Dialogue is a process of exploration and coming to know the other, as much as it is an example of clarifying one’s own positions. Therefore, when one dialogues with others, what is desired is to explore their ways of thinking, so as to correct misconceptions in our own minds and arrive at common ground. This common ground is the desideratum of all dialogue, and lays the groundwork for mutual cooperation based on the principles of faith in God and good relations with neighbours.
Indeed, dialogue is a form of jihad, a struggle in the path of Allah. As we have seen, the value of dialogue is taught in the Qur’an itself, as well as in the prophetic example, but equally, the long history of Muslims bears witness to the importance of dialogue in the Islamic tradition.
As I have argued previously in many forums, the quest for understanding and trust that underlies any dialogue is a process that requires equal and equally willing partners on both sides. The world is in dire need of forums which facilitate genuine dialogue in a shrinking world—a dialogue that stems from the recognition of identities and specificities; a dialogue that remains respectful and does not seek to inflame hostilities or dominate the other; a dialogue that is itself based upon a respect for religious plurality and cultural diversity; a dialogue that does not turn into a one-sided conversation. Dialogue from my perspective is thus not about trying to defeat others, but about understanding and learning about them. As the Qur’an states, God has created us into nations and tribes so that we may learn about each other (Al-Hujurat: 13).
It has long been my view that engaging in such a constructive dialogue should be one of our highest priorities, which is a powerful tool in conflict prevention, management, and resolution. A truly constructive dialogue maintains boundaries of respect and tolerance. The necessity of dialogue is based upon a vision of intercultural relations which stresses tolerance, understanding and conscientious action. Though there will always be attempts to disturb the peaceful relations between Islam and the West, the appropriate response lies not in attack or defence—two distasteful actions—but in calling towards points of commonality. This course of action has its basis on the famous Qur’anic dictum that Muslims must call other believers to “a common word between us and you” (Al-Imran: 64).
Once this dialogue is underway and meeting with success amongst the participating parties, it is important to remember that it cannot simply remain within a narrow elite of specialists in academic and intellectual circles. This would be futile and counterproductive, as the final goal must always be to construct bridges of understanding between the peoples of the different civilizations. Dialogue must be activated and practiced and should not remain enclosed within the walls of conference rooms. Rather, dialogue must demystify religious differences to everyday people and help explain the divine wisdom behind religious diversity.
A crucial factor in achieving success in a dialogue is the cultivation of a genuine appreciation for the position, commitment, and background of the other party. This means, of course, that a commitment to true dialogue as a viable intellectual approach may take on a myriad of forms, each tailored to the particular circumstances of the dialoguing parties, their relationship to each other in global affairs, and the relative proximity of their religious or intellectual traditions. In Egypt, for example, I have always tried to focus on the historic, geographic, and religious commonalities between Muslim and Coptic compatriots, in order to pinpoint areas of fruitful contact in the past, as well as the potential for this contact to grow, thereby deepening the harmonious relations between Muslims and Christians.
In the wider Islamic World, sectarianism has unfortunately made something of a comeback, and so I have signed, along with many distinguished scholars from both the East and the West, an important document titled The Amman Message drawing on Islamic principles and fatwas and opinions from previous Muslim luminaries to urge Sunnis, Shias and all other denominations and orientations to set their differences aside and work for the common good, recognizing that the differences between them are but secondary matters and do not impinge on the fundamentals of a common faith. I have also participated in a number of organized initiatives at the global level. These included interfaith dialogues with the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as other leaders of the Abrahamic religions under the auspices of the Coexist Foundation. In addition, I co-chair with the Bishop of London C-1 World Dialogue, an institution devoted to better relations between the Islamic and Western worlds. The hope is that the proliferation of such organizations may contribute to the spread of a culture of dialogue which will ease the conflictual nature of the times.
One of the most important contributions made by the Western world to the global culture is the concept of modernity itself. As has often been noted, modernity is not simply a particular epoch in the history of the world, but also a set of very large and important structural and material changes affecting people globally. It is a condition in which we all now live, and which we must confront with the intellectual resources of not only the modern world, but also our traditions and heritage (turath). It has too often been the case that to think about modernity has been to limit oneself to the European experience—the changing economic configurations, the wars of religion, and emerging political arrangements—as a model for how modernity should be understood the world over. However, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected through technological advances, we are now beginning to appreciate the differing experiences of the world’s many cultures in their encounters with the complex of institutions and ideas that we identify as modernity. In particular, we have the new concept of “alternative modernities”, a term which goes a long way in representing the diversity of the world in encountering new realities. So, whereas it was previously thought that to be modern meant to distance oneself from religion and tradition, it is becoming evident that, throughout the centuries, community leaders have found innovative and creative ways to relate religion and tradition to new advances in technology, politics, and economics so as to provide pragmatic guidance in an ever-changing world. That is to say, it was, and is, possible to remain authentic to one’s religious traditions while still being a modern person. From the Muslim viewpoint, these commitments must be recognized by all involved, if we are to engage in a truly fruitful dialogue.
This viewpoint stands in stark contrast to the eccentric and rebellious attitudes that have been repeatedly associated with Islam in recent years. In fact, these radical attitudes stand as an offence to the humane tradition of learning that characterizes Islamic history. Instead of seeking to create havoc and chaos in the world, Islam facilitates the application of the wisdom and moral strength of religion in changing and uncertain times. It is through adopting this approach that an authentic, contemporary, moderate, and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world today. One of the problems faced by religious communities today is the issue of authority. In both Islam and other religions, we are witnessing a phenomenon in which lay people without a sound foundation in religious learning have attempted to set themselves up as religious authorities, even though they lack the scholarly qualifications for making valid interpretations of religious law and morality. It is this eccentric and rebellious attitude towards religion that opens the way for extremist interpretations of Islam that have no basis in reality. Furthermore, and this must be stressed, none of these extremists have been educated in Islam in genuine centres of Islamic learning. They are, rather, products of troubled environments and have subscribed to distorted and misguided interpretations of Islam that have no basis in traditional Islamic doctrine. Their aim is purely political and has no religious foundation. It is to create havoc and chaos in the world.
It behooves me to comment, however, that the project to rebuild a world of harmony and cooperation is a two-way street which requires the participation of all parties. This is why the rise in Islamophobia and the growing stature of Islamophobes in positions of greater authority is so troubling. Demagogic attitudes towards Muslims and Islam, and an unwillingness to understand them, do more than impede efforts at genuine dialogue. They fail to allow for the possibility of their getting started in the first place. In this regard, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the truly corrosive effects of some sensationalist media, whose profit-at-all-costs attitude does serious harm to the cause of world peace by stoking the flames of hatred, fear, and bigotry in the minds of ordinary people.
Building a world of the sort I imagine requires the participation of leaders from all communities, both religious and otherwise, to express their faith and trust in their Muslim counterparts. There will be no progress until we work together in faith and trust. There is no weapon more powerful against all sorts of extremism than the right education.