Dialogue of Religions – Dialogue of Cultures

Rotary Club le Caire – Champollion – Cairo 

15 December 2008

First of all, I want to give you some details about my relationship with la francophonie. When I first went to France, to study in Grenoble, I didn’t know a word of French. So when I went to a coffee shop to order my favorite dessert, a layer-cake called mille-feuilles, I couldn’t get the letter “U” right. What the waiter heard coming out of my mouth was not an order of mille-feuilles, or a thousand leaves, but an order of mille-filles, or a thousand girls. The waiter, who had a sense of humor, said, “Sir, even with my best efforts, I will never get you that number.”

When I started my study of law in France, I had to use two dictionaries, a normal one and a legal one, underlining every single word so that by the end of the year, the book was black all over. When facing such difficulties, one can always day dream, and I dreamt that maybe one day I would be able to give a speech in front of a French audience and that the audience would understand me and react to what I was saying, either by throwing tomatoes or applauding – either is fine.

That was back in 1962 and this is when my story with dialogue began. I was invited to attend a conference organized by an anti-racism and anti-Semitism association, meaning that the audience would be largely Jewish. Nevertheless I went to the conference and after hearing the speeches, I came to the conclusion that there is no reason why a Muslim or an Arab cannot take part in such events. It has always been my belief that racism is indivisible and that the fight against it must also be indivisible.

To make a long story short, I want to point out that my ambition has always been to speak in the same tone and send the same message to everybody. This approach, back in the 60’s, was not exactly popular. When I invited Arab associations to join such events, a friend of mine in Paris, Clause Lanzmann, who wrote a book about the holocaust, asked me if I was not afraid of the reactions. I said that there is always a risk, but the biggest risk would be to keep silent.

One day, I was invited by the Institute of Political Science in Paris to participate in a debate with an Israeli diplomat, Ephraim Tari. I assumed that declining would be a sign of weakness, so I agreed to go.

If I recall, many intelligence reports were sent to Cairo about this traitor who agreed to participate in a debate with an Israeli. At that time, this was the general attitude. I recall that as I left the conference, some excited students from the Baath party and other Arab organizations were holding a protest, angry that an Egyptian had accepted to sit at the same table with an Israeli. The fact that I defended the Arab point of view in a forceful manner was beside the point for them.

It was in France that I first started taking interest in school curricula. This was in 1956, right after the nationalization of the Suez Canal. I was shocked by an article published in the front page of Le Figaro entitled “Wake up Martel”.

At that time, I did not know who Martel was and only later discovered that the reference was to Charles Martel who stopped the Arab army’s advance in Poitiers, France. At first I assumed that the author of the article was an insignificant writer. Then I discovered that he was none other than Andre Siegfried, a prominent member of the French Academy and a key figure in French intellectual life.

It took me two years to meet him and when I did I asked why he considered what was going on equivalent to a holy war? Why would a political decision, one that we can agree with or not, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, be treated as such? His answer was simple: “That is what we learned from the school books”.

This made me want to look carefully at school books to assess the way in which they make us form negative references towards other people. And I knew deep down that the prejudices were likely to be reciprocal.

In 1994, ADIC, the Association I presided to promote dialogue organized a conference at la Sorbonne. For the following five years I looked into the case of school books, a rather time-consuming process. What I found out was that the prejudices one finds in textbooks are often not sponsored by the Ministry of Education, but mostly reflect the personal views of the authors.

I then had a meeting with representatives of the Teachers Union and set about scrutinizing textbooks. I must tell you now that this work was not as groundbreaking as it may seem. An earlier initiative had taken place in Germany and led to a revision of schools texts there. Due to my work, the teachers agreed to change the word “jihad” to restore its original meaning, which is to fight against oneself.

Dialogue is often considered a social event, an occasion for people to deliver speeches and take photos. But media involvement in dialogue can often be disruptive, as is clear from the various occasions in which millions of Arabs and Muslims protested against perceived insults to the prophet of Islam.

It may be a good idea to organize a roundtable with Western and Arab media experts, in order to reach an historic conciliation between freedom of expression, so dear to all of us, and the right of others to protect their religious symbols and sanctities.

In talks I held in Davos, and more recently at the United Nations and in Madrid, I tried to push for such a roundtable. It is not an easy task perhaps, but it is preferable to clashes and confrontations.

Fanaticism is our common enemy, and only through dialogue will we be able to stop it in its tracks. Thankfully, I have always been lucky to meet wonderful men and women who helped me in pursuit of this goal.

I am particularly grateful to Archbishop of Vienna Austria, Cardinal Konig, one of the initiators of interfaith dialogue at the Vatican, whose efforts paved the way to the agreement signed between Al-Azhar and the Vatican in 1998.

In my experience, the conflict of religions is far from being insurmountable.

Consider the fact that I, a Muslim, was introduced to Cardinal Koenig by Karl Kahane, a Jew. Kahane organized a meeting between us in Venice, for he knew that Cardinal Koenig would be able to help me. A year later, I introduced Cardinal Koenig to the late Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Gad El Haq Ali Gad El Haq who was in Bern for treatment. They got along well and shared the same enthusiasm about dialogue. In their discussions, Cardinal Koenig elaborated on his concept of dialogue and later Sheikh Gad El Haq told me that he planned to give the matter serious consideration.

At the time, this was not easy because some members of Al-Azhar were against the idea. To enter into a dialogue with another religion was a slippery slope leading to proselytizing, or perhaps conversion, they argued.

I was surprised to read, sometime later, an article saying, “We all know that since Aly El Samman signed the agreement with the Vatican and the Anglican Church, his hidden aim was to convert Muslims.”

Curiously, till now, I did not succeed in converting anyone. Perhaps one day, who knows?

Through this agreement signed with the Vatican I wanted Al-Azhar to be present in the international arena. Al-Azhar should stand side by side with the Vatican and the Church of England. We must build on what we have and take things further.

I firmly believe that we must not separate the dialogue of religions from dialogue of cultures; the two are interrelated. A dialogue of cultures helps to have a better understanding. But this is not enough unless we break through to the popular level, to the grassroots.

When speaking about dialogue of cultures, I do not want to preach the message of tolerance to professors and leading scholars, important as they are. What I really want to do is help popularize this concept.

A good example of this idea is the association People to People, established by Mary Eisenhower, who is doing a fantastic job in spreading the word of cultural diversity. So, let’s not separate dialogue of religions from dialogue of cultures.

Finally, we have to realize that dialogue will not be successful unless we are ready to upset some individuals on our side of the cultural divide. To stand on the side of justice, one often has to fight the prejudices of one’s own compatriots. If we treat our own clan or our own people in a preferential manner, we may not be able to build bridges to those who are different from us.

I have no theological training per se but if I were to deliver a message to all people, it is that they have to understand that there is no monopoly on faith, no monopoly on the word of God, and no monopoly on the interpretation of the word of God.

There should be no monopoly on piety for we can’t know who is closer to God. When people understand this message and when they impose it on the fanatics, we shall be free once again to pursue human dignity and happiness.

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