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The Necessity of Difficult Dialogue November 30, 2006

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. NoorFor the past two weeks the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin has played host to a rare event: A two-week lecture and study tour where more than a dozen Muslim activists and politicians from Malaysia and Indonesia have been invited to Germany to engage with politicians, political parties, NGOs, civil society groups, students, the media and the general public of Germany.

This project was conceived as an experiment: an attempt to bring together Western political actors and agents and Islamists from the Muslim world for a frank and candid discussion of shared political goals as well as their differences. The experimental character of the project lay in the simple fact that no-one could have predicted the outcome, and many misperceptions remain about what political Islam – or Islamism as its sometimes referred to in academic circles – stands for. Likewise there exists misperceptions of the West among many of those who call themselves Islamists, based on the assumption that there is such a thing as a singular homogeneous ‘Western world’.

The rationale behind the tour was the belief that the process of Muslim-Western dialogue has largely failed to address the root issues that continue to divide the two communities, and that that unless and until these differences are addressed openly and honestly, doubts and misconceptions will remain.

Thus far many of the attempts at dialogue between the West and Islam have taken off from the faulty premise that abstract terms like ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ mean anything at all. Most of these dialogue attempts have been in the form of inter-elite meetings and conferences, invariably held at five-star hotels, and have lasted for a couple of days of so. The net result of such encounters have been predictable: Western and Muslim elites have tended to come together to focus more on the similarities between them (which is not difficult as many Muslim elites also happen to belong to the Western-educated, cosmopolitan and globally-connected sections of their societies). After the usual round of apologia and mutual back-patting, they toast each other and take their flights back home (flying first class, naturally).

The ZMO tour was different in many respects: For a start the Islamists invited were precisely that: Muslim activists, politicians and intellectuals who base their political and social activities on their belief system and who were not secular. They also came from Islamist parties that have made the Islamic state and Islamic society their political goals. They also happen to come from parties and NGOs that have strong grassroots links to their own communities, and as such can be said to speak for the people they represent. It is ironic that despite all the studies and research work that has been conducted on the phenomenon of political Islam in the West, few scholars have actually made the effort of inviting the Islamists they study to come to the West to speak on their own terms. One cannot study any social phenomenon without allowing it to speak its own voice, surely?

Which brings us to the second aspect of the tour: The tour was conceived of as a speaking tour where the Islamists would have the chance to speak to their counterparts and the public at large, without taboos or restrictions. The results were astounding: Almost all the discussions were focused not on religion but rather on structural issues such as the welfare state, the management of natural resources, the concept of Society in the West, the foreign policy of Germany and such like. If the doom-sayers were expecting a crowd of rabid mullahs to come and spill blood and venom on the streets, they were surely disappointed.

It is also important to note that have lifted all restrictions on speech and the topics to be discussed, the debates that followed were decidedly hot by nature. As the Islamists were given the chance to explain their political ambitions, these very same ambitions were put to question by many. Why do Islamists have to carry out their struggle in the name of religion? Isn’t religious politics just another form of sectarianism and how can it avoid being exclusive and divisive? It is fine for Islamists to talk about dialogue with others, but how do they deal with differences and diversity within the Muslim community itself? How would Islamists deal with the realities of a modern plural society, with constituencies such as secular Muslims? These were among the issues put on the table, and had to be addressed.

All in all, as an experiment carried out in an academic spirit, the tour has proven to be a great success. There was not the intention to convert each other to the other’s point of view, but the differences (and there are many) were clearly stated and put on the table at last. Having said that, what was most evident was the earnest desire to learn more and to understand, on both sides: All the public talks were well attended, and some had standing room only. For the Islamists it also became clear that the Germany they had known from media reports and movies was infinitely come complex and that it too was grappling for answers while facing the realities of globalisation.

So if the West-Islam dialogue process is to continue, should this be the template for such projects in the future? While not denying that even Muslim elites have the right to speak, it is important to remember that Islamists also represent an important and growing constituency in their societies. They represent movements that have evolved naturally and organically, in respond to structural problems and weaknesses in their own societies. Would such a dialogue bring us closer to any better understanding of differences?

What is clear however is that the mode of Western-Muslim co-operation of the past is now redundant. Islam-West co-operation dates back to the Cold War where the Western world was united with the Muslim world in the face of a common enemy: Communism. But today such oppositional dialectics has proven to be instrumental at best and counter-productive in the long run. As said by Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, head of the research centre of the Malaysian Islamic party PAS (who took part in the tour): “Surely by now we should realise that Muslims and the West cannot get together solely on the basis of fighting a third enemy. We need to go beyond oppositional dialectics where we can have a common vision for humanity as a whole that does not divide us.”

Note: Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. Visit his website at www.othermalaysia.org.

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