2002 Report (Continued)
Social or political thoughts that are not rooted in existential experience often remain abstract—fascinating and attractive games of the mind, though with little impact on realities, and this is what determines the ultimate failure or success of political systems. What gathers us here today, our attempt at building an intellectual framework to exchange views on issues related to the Islamic-Western encounter, began, for my part, with an experience that was unique in my life and I’m sure in the lives of many of you here, particularly those who hail from New York. As I woke up in our great city on the beautiful, crisp sunny morning of September 11, I expected a day like any other, taken up by work, family concerns, and other pursuits. But as the first hint of what was happening hit me while watching the morning news, my existence was transformed. When I saw the second plane hit the second tower from my living room in Manhattan, I ended up literally mesmerized, incapable for hours of pulling myself away from the window where I had witnessed the unfolding of the tragic events of that terrible day. I thought then of all the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers who started their day the same way I did and the same way my daughter, who could have been one of the victims, did. But she was safe while thousands of others were burning in a man-made Hell. It was not long before the words “terrorist,” “Islam,” “Muslims,” overtook the airwaves and television screens. I then felt my whole being shaken and twisted in a way that I had never before experienced. As a Muslim, and one who is proud of his faith, although I consider it strictly my personal domain, I then resolved to devote every fiber of my energy and intellectual commitment to playing whatever part I could so that what happened that day would never happen again.
I am convinced that all of you here shared this sense—you who are dedicated to the ways of the mind, you who think and believe in the nobility of reason, words, and dialogue, however wide the separation between you and the Other. You will agree then that there is no more urgent task today than to sit together and talk. It is that simple—that is the bottom line.
In the days following September 11, on both sides of the divide, DIAimages of the Other—DIAimages of Muslims as played out on U.S. TV screens and newspapers, as well as DIAimages of the West, in particular of the United States and Americans, as played out in the Arab and Muslim media—were the mirror DIAimages of each other in terms of accusations, distortions, and stereotyping. It was not only in New York, Boston, and Chicago that the question, “Why do they hate us?” was asked by elementary school students and so-called pundits on Channel 13 or on CNN. No—the same question was asked in Cairo, Damascus, and Karachi. The war of words was escalating by the day and it still continues. We are still talking at each other, interpreting the Other in his absence, and as we see him through the lens of hundreds of years of misunderstanding and prejudice. Isn’t it time then to talk to each other in the same room? Whatever views we hold, whatever political, cultural, or intellectual baggage we bring with us, what matters is that we put everything on the table. And in the most noble tradition of both Islamic civilization and Western civilization—the tradition of Baghdad in Abbasid times and of Córdoba and Granada in the time of al-Andalus, and the parallel traditions of Socrates’ symposium and France’s eighteenth-century literary salons (where Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot could debate any views, whatever their consequences)—we should aim to do what we public intellectuals do best: to propose ideas, listen to ideas, refute ideas, and, where minds meet and find a common ground for understanding, move forward. The only rules that should guide us are those of mutual respect and the rational need for coherence. If we so obey, we may have a chance—and I stress the word “may”—to offer a reasonable alternative and a measure of hope to those who are torn by mortal passions and who, in their suicidal folly, would follow in the path of the criminals of September 11.
Some may ask, “Why talk? Isn’t there enough talking already? Hasn’t September 11 generated a whole industry out of talking—seminars, conferences, and other gatherings where the same talkers make the rounds and end up repeating what started as fresh thoughts and have since turned into banalities?” I have been to a few of these meetings myself, and have decided that I have heard enough of this kind of general discussion. However satisfying for the egos of the speakers, and however pleasant the experience itself may be (especially if travel is business-class and accommodation is the same), these events are, in the end, forgotten and whatever was said has no impact in the real world. This is what we should strive to avoid in the effort that we are launching today. The tensions that surround the Islamic-Western encounter are now so high, and so fraught with danger, that we cannot afford to turn this opportunity into a self-defeating exercise in complacency. From Pakistan to Palestine to Iraq, the tragedies that continue to shake the encounter are of such threatening magnitude that they risk the future of the whole world, and not only of the peoples of one country or one region. In this context, it would be a guilty luxury simply to think and not act.
How to act, then? By educating the Other, educating Western public opinion and Western policy makers about the complexities of what is generally called “Islam,” about the anguish, the aspirations, and the needs of over 1.5 billion Muslims in more than fifty Muslim countries and countless others, including in the West. And likewise, by educating Islamic public opinion and Islamic policy makers about the West’s confusion, longing for security and peace, and need to understand.
In this educational effort, we will only serve as facilitators and honest brokers. We have no agenda but to knock down walls of misunderstanding and replace them with bridges of knowledge and reason. We aim to do so by disseminating to educational institutions and media decision makers, among others, the materials generated by conferences like this one—by reports, books, CD-Roms, etc. We will also reach out to policy makers and call their attention to the results of these exercises. Furthermore, we will make every effort to keep in touch with you, ladies and gentlemen, and the other participants in future conferences, so as to build a network of people of goodwill and of reason who might be called on in times of crisis.
We have no agenda but to renew the great traditions of dialogue and debate that flourished during the best moments of Islamic civilization—in Umayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, and al-Andalus’s Córdoba and Sevilla, when anathemas were left at the doors and all shades of thought were welcome.
We have no agenda but to reassert the right of the critical mind to doubt, to question, to listen, and, if convinced, to bow to the authority of reason. There are those, including some in this room, who think that for too long critical thinking has been stifled in Dar al-Islam. In this interpretation, all domains of life—the life of the mind, the social life, the political life—have been subordinated to the authority of the supreme leader, the imam, the mufti, the radical political activist. Through violence or other dictates, including dictates based on manipulations of symbols, invocations of historical memory, interpretations of heritage, many have imposed their rule and/or their “truth” and thus inspired the image of Muslim society that is widely held today. One has to admit that such an analysis is not totally without foundation, particularly when it comes to the Arab world. Something certainly has gone wrong, but as Bernard Lewis has asked, exactly “what went wrong?”
We have no agenda but to educate Western public opinion, intellectuals, media commentators, religious leaders, and above all, policy makers, who today may have the final say on grave matters of war and peace. What we want to tell them, through meetings like this one, is that there is no such thing as the Islam they imagine, the looming monolith, the new bogeyman, the “Green Menace” taking the place of the now-dead “Red Menace.” There is an Islamic spiritual community, there are Muslim countries, there are Muslim people, Islamic traditions, and various expressions of Islamic faith, many of which are represented here. This truth should be meditated on and taken into serious account by all, not only by scholars in their intellectual pursuits.
The philanthropic foundations—the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, El legado andalusí, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—who have welcomed our approach to these complicated issues and have financially supported us as a program of the New School University in New York City, understand clearly where we came from and where we want to go. With Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and his colleague Priscilla Lewis; with Shireen Hunter, Geri Mannion, and Shirin Tahir-Kheli of the Carnegie Corporation, who are here representing Vartan Gregorian, its president; with Carmen Calvo, the Andalusian minister of culture; as well as with Jerónimo Páez López, director of the El legado andalusí, we hope to travel the road that will lead us from the land of misunderstanding to that common ground on which the youth, the journalists, the preachers, the political activists, the social reformers—all those who shape, in one way or another, our societies and their future—can stand together, hands outstretched toward one another.
The material offered in the folders that were distributed to you will, I hope, provide you with a sense of how we intend to embark on this journey. I also hope that you will note that we intended to exclude no one, no particular trend or political tendency from either the Muslim world or the Western world. There can be no real dialogue where exclusion of any sort is practiced. Many invitees, particularly Americans whose views are rejected by the majority, declined to attend. We invited the evangelical preachers Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Frank Graham. We invited Daniel Pipes and others. They all declined despite the assurance of our respect and the guarantee of a genuine forum for a civilized dialogue. I hope that they will agree to join us in the future. We also invited Sheikh Tantawi, the Egyptian dean of Al-Azhar. We invited Sheikh al-Buti of Syria, and we made relentless efforts to get them to come to this gathering. But to this moment, we have not heard from them. In your name and mine, I call on them and others to join future conferences. More than ever, dialogue is important for the future of the world.
I also call on Western authorities to facilitate visa matters for those who accept our invitations but who found themselves incapable of joining us for that reason. Genuine dialogue presupposes the readiness to listen also to those whose views we do not agree with.
As I’ve said, this conference is only the beginning of a long road. We intend to continue in our effort, counting on the assistance and the good intentions of all those who made this first gathering possible. Before I hand the microphone over to Prof. James Piscatori of Oxford University, who will tell you more about our coming sessions, I believe it is fitting to pay tribute to the spirit of al-Andalus, which brought us here. We may be inspired by the example of openness, tolerance, and flowering of the arts and philosophy in what María Rosa Menocal called in a recent book the “ornament of the world.” Made ever more vivid by the poignancy of our own times, the resonance of al-Andalus is still with us. It was the age of Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas; it was the age of cross-cultural interaction, religious coexistence, and common striving for reason, beauty, and good. Jerónimo Páez López, who has spent the last ten years of his life investing all his efforts in reviving this legacy through his foundation, El legado andalusí, is most suited to tell us whether the al-Andalus experience could and should serve as a paradigm for our age—as a paradigm of pluralism. But it will take all the philosophical and analytical powers and breadth of historical knowledge of Mohammed Arkoun to evoke for us fully the importance of the era through the contributions of its seminal thinkers whom I mentioned, as well as to address whether pluralism finds its roots in that period of our common history, indeed a history that has become part of the collective consciousness.Back to the top.