November 13, 2012 – Roundtable Discussion: Bridging Secularism and Religious Beliefs in Contemporary Societies

Ambassador Birgitta Holst-Alani, Director of the Swedish Institute Alexandria; Dr. Aly El Samman, President of ADIC; Adel Darwish, British journalist; and Amr Shobki, Egyptian journalist on roundtable at Swedish Institute

On 13 November 2012, the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC) organized a roundtable discussion with the Swedish Institute Alexandria. The event, which took place at the Swedish Institute, explored prospects of coexistence among people from different religious and secular backgrounds, as well as how the media can facilitate or complicate interfaith and intercultural relations.

A lively discussion among foreign, regional and local experts and 30 students from Cairo, Tanta and Alexandria was held in an atmosphere of respect for difference of opinion. The specialists from France, England, Jordan and Sweden shared their experiences of working in the fields of interfaith relations and media.

The speakers were Ambassador Birgitta Holst-Alani, director of the Swedish Institute Alexandria; Dr. Aly El Samman, President of ADIC; British journalist Adel Darwish; Naomi Sakr, professor of political science and media at the University of Westminster, UK; Othman Al Tawalbeh, professor of history of religions at University of Uppsala in Sweden; Egyptian journalists Afkar Al Kharadly, Amr Shobki, Mufid Fawzi, Mahmoud Bakri; Maria Guerreiro from UNESCO; and Nader Wanis, director of the cultural center Arkan of the Cathedral of St. Mark, Alexandria.

The youth, mainly students from Egyptian university departments of political science, religion, art, and communications, were eager to ask questions and express their opinions. Their feedback is being used to design follow-up sessions and activities.

Roundtable background

The concept of “secularism” has different meanings in different parts of the world. In Europe and in some predominately Muslim countries like Egypt, many people are proud of being “secular”. But those who state their secular beliefs in public are often portrayed by their opponents as being anti-religious, pro-western, or even neo-colonialists. The polarization of secularists and Islamists has gained such momentum that it is upstaging serious discussion of the problems facing Arab countries in transition. As each side elaborates its ideological difference from the other, their ability to work together is diminished.

Countries in this region are in need of cultural models that minimize their internal divisions and support them in moving forward. Until such models surface, there is concern that solutions to social and economic issues may not emerge in a timely or orderly manner. Should countries in the region aspire for cultural models resembling those in Europe and the US? Should they take inspiration from Turkey or other Muslim countries that have achieved significant cultural and economic progress? Are there other possibilities that might be applied?

Is the West, as some say, trying to impose its cultural values on the region? Or, as others say, is it ready to compromise its stand on certain freedoms in order to maintain good ties? Can we reasonably expect people in Arab-Muslim countries to follow the secular ways of western democracies at the expense of their long-standing psychological and intellectual needs, including the need to assert their religious affiliations? Has secularism supported progress in the West in ways that a religion-based society would have failed to do?


The discussion explored the nature of the current polarization and assessed the seriousness of the current divide between Islamists and secularists, as well as probed the potential for cultural models that are acceptable to all. The discussions raised a number of questions, about ways to address the secular-religious divide through social and political activities, as well as through the media.

A final questionnaire was completed by all participants at the end of the event as a tool to follow up this dynamic discussion. Future activities will be aimed at bringing people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together to learn about one another through direct experience, and workshops for people holding differing belief systems to learn to work together to solve societies biggest problems.

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