2002 Report (Continued)
Dialogues is devoted to the serious and unbiased exploration of relations between the Western and Muslim worlds. It seeks to encourage discussion and debate on significant issues of contention, with no other agenda than to promote dialogue as a good in itself. To this end, the project seeks to involve individuals of all religious and political positions, and to draw in both Muslims and Westerners across the conventionally restrictive lines of gender, generation, and faith.
Dialogues convened its first conference in the historically resonant milieu of Granada in late October 2002. The intention was to move beyond the standard rhetoric and to pierce mutual misunderstandings. Academics, policy makers, journalists, and nongovernmental activists gathered for three full days of deliberation. Some who were invited—both Muslims and non-Muslims—chose not to participate, regrettably, while others—Muslims, especially from Islamic Asia—faced difficulties obtaining entry visas. The conference, at least at certain points, would likely have been different had these invitees been present. Nevertheless, the discussions described in this report demonstrate that a remarkable range of experience and diversity of opinion were represented in Granada. Participants avoided, and indeed vigorously combated, the stereotyping that has become commonplace in both Muslim and Western societies, and their interaction shed light on the intricacies of cross-cultural relations.
Although the discussions inevitably took place in the context of September 11, the war in Afghanistan, the continuing occupation of Palestine, and the impending conflict in Iraq, participants succeeded in looking beyond the headlines to focus on underlying issues. Conference participants often questioned conventional wisdom and even academic fashion. Furthermore, as the section of the report on the second plenary session indicates, the paradigmatic appeal of Andalusia was all the more pronounced in this era of supposed civilizational antipathy and at a time when Muslims are becoming a permanent part of European and Western society. Yet, as several panelists and other participants unambiguously stated, even the history of Islamic Spain is a complex one and should not be read in a deterministic manner. Likewise, the popular understanding of one or another’s civilization is shaped and reshaped over time. Essentialized understandings lend the Clash of Civilizations thesis its appeal, but at the same time eliminate nuance and flexibility. In the third plenary session, speakers approached the subject from a variety of perspectives, and while most had major reservations about the Clash thesis, speakers expressed a range of opinions about the actual inevitability of conflict. Few doubted that cultural and religious norms were deeply rooted, but most assumed that an honest exploration of one another’s claims and grievances and an understanding of common goals could help attenuate the tension resulting from real differences.
The conference also revealed that perhaps the prime area of misunderstanding relates to the meaning of Islam itself. The definition of Islam is a subject of immense sensitivity and many Westerners perceive Islam as a dangerous political force. The Granada meeting addressed this topic in its fourth plenary session, at which individuals spoke on Islamic authority today, the nature of Islam’s political role, and Islam as defined by the West. As participants noted, the discussion was inherently biased since only Islam was subject to scrutiny; why not ask “Who speaks for Christianity?” or “Who speaks for Judaism?” (Future meetings will analyze both Islam and the West in this regard.) The Granada conference’s discussion of Islam did, however, reveal a number of interpretations, some of them theological. Despite the lack of agreement, many found the frank exchange useful and informative—an example of just the sort of dialogue that the program aims to foster. As the report shows, the fourth plenary session belied assumptions that intra-Islamic debate is moribund and that non-Muslims are incapable of appreciating the stakes involved.
History is patently important to the formulation of individual and communal identities and to relations across cultures, but it is also constantly reinvented and manipulated. Proceeding from this notion, plenary session five emphasized the powerful but often illusory nature of historical perspective and the dangers of closed-minded, exclusivist accounts. Speakers discussed how, in the long-term view, the Islamic-Western encounter has produced a variegated pattern of war and alliance, competition and cooperation. And contrary to current notions of Islam’s supposed rigidity, a review of past centuries suggests that the kind of fruitful exchange of the medieval period, when the Islamic world exported technology and goods to the West, is not an impossibility in today’s globalized world. Participants also warned that history could be highjacked for particular agendas, whether by failing to take into account the interconnectedness of the European and Muslim experiences, or by presuming to discern a divine plan in order to justify a “fundamentalist” view. Others noted that if textbooks were revised, history could also advance an awareness both empowering and just.
“Political Islam” and “Governance and Accountability”—topics that are logically connected to the issues discussed in the plenary sessions—were the focus of two interrelated workshops. Some participants again stressed that the very attention being paid these subjects automatically positioned Islam as the recipient of Western judgment, relegating Islam to the status of a problem. Others argued that dispassionate analysis would reveal that Muslim values and history are not compatible with the distorted and violent perceptions of Islam advertised by some marginal, if vocal, groups. Participants maintained that the Muslim canon endorses the normative practice of peaceful relations with non-Muslims and encourages antiauthoritarianism at home. The most contested area of discussion among Muslims as well as with Westerners focused on the treatment of women and other gender-related issues. Another concern was that too little analytical and policy attention is paid to practical issues like poverty, illiteracy, and the lack of economic power. Yet others complained that the advantages and disadvantages of social cohesion were not considered. Many participants did agree that expressly politicized interpretations of Islam must be countered by means other than direct intervention. The West must not simply prescribe or promote democracy from the outside; since the very powers that call for reform and liberalization often support narrowly based Muslim regimes, democracy promotion is bound to seem hypocritical.
Throughout the discussions, participants attempted to translate their analytical commentary into practical recommendations. Several concrete proposals emerged, which are outlined in the final section of this report. No attempt was made to reach an artificial consensus; rather, the very differences that emerged provided the stimulus for the next phase of the Dialogues program. There was a pronounced need for further, structured discussion of Islamic authority in today’s rapidly changing world and of the role of Muslim minorities in the West. The desire for practical workshops on elections and on the responsibilities and demands of the media was also expressed. These workshops will call on Western experts as honest interlocutors, not as agents of a predesigned prescriptive program. Perhaps the meeting’s firmest conclusion was that Muslims seek and are indisputably able to speak for themselves.Back to the top.