2002 Report (Continued)
Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West held its first conference in Spain from October 28 to 31, 2002. The program was conceived in the aftermath of September 2001 to foster discussion of the relationship between Islam and the West. Forty participants gathered in the historic city of Granada, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews peacefully coexisted during the Middle Ages, to consider the extent to which there is entrenched hostility between religions and cultures. Participants came from a number of Western and Muslim societies and were drawn from academia, media, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations, among other fields. Various perspectives were aired, and the discussion proved open and constructive.
After a formal welcome from local officials, the meeting began with comments from Dr. Mustapha Tlili, the founder and director of Dialogues. He stressed the vital importance of these deliberations, particularly in light of the recent charged atmosphere. In his view, it is a counsel of despair to accept that civilizations are inevitably locked into conflict. Islam, like the West, consists of diverse strands and what is needed is an exchange of nuanced and informed viewpoints. Dr. Tlili noted that the Granada conference was but the first step toward mutual understanding. Dialogues, he emphasized, has no hidden agendas. The program plans to sponsor a number of meetings that will help clarify the problems and prospects of the Muslim-Western encounter, will lead to practical solutions, and will establish networks of individuals to promote further, meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.
Especially after September 11, there has been considerable debate—in media, academic, and official circles—about a supposed Clash of Civilizations and about the “threat” that Islam poses to Western-dominated economic and political order. Conference participants voiced a variety of views on how to understand Islam and the West, and several speakers warned against the illusion of monolithic civilizations. Nearly all agreed, however, that there exists no engrained cultural or religious divide between Western and Muslim societies. Rather, they share complementary interests and overlapping values, despite points of divergence.
Often used to legitimize policy or to draw models for the future, history has a strong hold on the contemporary imagination of both Muslims and Westerners. Andalusia, for instance, connotes interreligious coexistence, whereas the Crusades carry the negative significance of religious conflict. Most participants were in accordance that the historical record is open to interpretation and is subject to hijacking by partisans. Moreover, historical memory is fleeting and can be manipulated. For dialogue to succeed, we must avoid essentialist views of the Other’s history and recognize that Islamic-Western interaction has forever been a two-way street.
Pluralism and tolerance are the watchwords of civilizational dialogue, but democratization is not an inevitable corollary. Although the current debate over the Clash of Civilizations often centers on the related issue of whether Islam is compatible with democracy, most participants felt that this question is inherently misleading and distorting. Participants agreed that Western efforts to promote democracy risk being seen as ethnocentric and misguided. Muslim societies follow their own historical trajectories and their own values, and, as was suggested, if the West seeks to help, it should inspire by example.
The media have often distorted Islam through simplification of complex issues. Participants from both Muslim and Western societies pointed out the dangers of these popular misrepresentations of Islam. Some Western journalists at the conference argued that they work under practical constraints, but they conceded that this explanation is not an excuse for skewed reporting. Several participants emphasized that in the current political climate, the media in Western and Muslim societies have a special responsibility to depict the Other lucidly, fairly, and positively whenever possible.
Today more than ever, there is no single answer to the question of who speaks for Islam. Nor is it clear whether Islam is a political religion, and if so, what exactly this means. In fact, the conference witnessed considerable discussion on what constitutes Islamic authority today. While most concurred that Islam consists of one spiritual community, it was acknowledged that there are vying doctrinal interpretations and varying social manifestations of Islam. Different perspectives on the political mission of Islam were also heard. Participants believed these issues to be at the core of current debate within the Muslim world, and not necessarily counterproductive. Rather, internal discussion may indeed be a sign of vitality, and its outcomes will not only affect the future development of Muslim thought and practice, but eventually influence cross-cultural relationships as well.
Millions of Muslims now live permanently in the West and this blurring of boundaries is one reason why the Clash of Civilizations thesis is questionable. Daily, these Muslims experience a degree of social, cultural, and political pluralism that will inevitably impact their views of tolerance and good governance. A number of participants maintained, however, that Western governments advocate multiculturalism and integration, yet also may seek to impose greater uniformity than exists within the diverse Muslim community. Participants generally agreed that Western Muslims are an intrinsic link between Islam and the West; though they are themselves Westerners, they also possess strong connections and sympathies with the broader Muslim world.
Participants recommended that Dialogues follow its initial conference with the following, more thematically focused series of events.
A workshop on elections will bring together approximately forty Muslims and Westerners to discuss their experiences and exchange views on this important activity of modern political life. Although the Granada conference recognized that democratization is not the proper framework within which to view the complex development of Muslim societies, it is nevertheless true that Muslim societies have adopted electoral practices. It was equally understood that elections in Western countries have at times been restrictive, corrupt, or inefficient. The proposed workshop will gather information on these various electoral experiences and will delineate common goals without prescribing a particular path or approach.
A workshop on the responsibilities of the media will bring together journalists, producers, scholars, and policy makers to consider how to avoid stereotyping and distortions in reporting. Participants at Granada acknowledged that although the media’s negative impact on cross-cultural relations is often mentioned, little has been done to pinpoint the causes of this phenomenon or to chart a corrective course. The proposed workshop seeks to fill this significant gap.
A conference on the nature of Islamic authority today will convene Muslim leaders and intellectuals of diverse viewpoints. It will address the related questions of who has the right to interpret Islamic doctrine and what is “authentically” Islamic. Dialogues will encourage the free exchange of ideas, thereby facilitating intra-Muslim dialogue. While a clear consensus may not emerge, the meeting hopes to discover points of commonality.
A conference on the Muslims in the West will examine the degree of their political participation and their perceptions of their own minority identity, as well as governmental attitudes toward them. Muslims from North America and Europe will form the majority of participants, but others from primarily Muslim nations, as well as non-Muslim Westerners, will also take part. The potential of Western Muslims to contribute to bridge building between Islam and the West will be explored in depth.Back to the top.