East-West: The Art of Dialogue
Shafik Gabr Foundation and Humanity in Action – Cairo
2-16 June 2013
It has become clear in recent years that points of contention have arisen between Islam and the West. This is mainly because some Western media outlets exceeded the limits of decency by infringing on the sanctity of Islamic symbols. In order to address this, we must build bridges of trust between Islamic countries and the West so as to avoid a “dialogue of the deaf”.
Tangible examples for the necessity of cultural dialogue.
First: The Crisis of 2005 and 2006, which exploded after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons under the headline “The Face of Mohamed.” Hundreds of thousands of people protested against the cartoons, leaving nearly 250 dead and 800 or so wounded.
Second: the same kinds of clashes occurred in 2009 between Muslims and some Swiss officials after minarets were banned in Switzerland.
Over the last 15 years I have made interreligious dialogue one of my main concerns, and have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to separate interfaith dialogue from intercultural dialogue. I believe that these conflicts between religions emerged basically from lack of cultural knowledge of one another.
Indeed, the greatest enemies of coexistance are the kinds of clashes that stem from ignorance of different cultures. That is why it is dialogue among ordinary people must prevail over dialogue among the elite.
Throughout the years I dedicated to interfaith and intercultural dialogue, from Paris to London, from New York to Brussels, from Davos to Doha, from Amman to Sharm El Sheikh, and of course in the capital of dialogue of civilizations, Madrid, I learned several lessons that I would like to share with you today:
1. Those who truly support real dialogue must recognize that the time has come for some serious self-criticism. We must be honest enough to admit that so far we have failed engage regular people in the kind of dialogue conducted among the elite.
2. We must remember that dialogue at the grass-roots level will not bear fruit unless each of us dares to upset some of our peers by siding with what is just and lawful. Peace is unsustainable without justice, and if dialogue is not aimed at achieving justice, it will not be taken seriously.
3. It is important to halt the wholesale rejection of entire groups of people through the generalization of judgment. For example, crimes perpetrated by Al Qaeda must never be used as an excuse to hold all Muslims responsible for the results. The same goes for what is happening in the territories occupied by Israel. We must never condemn all Israelis for the violence against Palestinians and attacks on their lands. We know very well that there are people in Israel who support peace now and always.
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 created 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.
Finally, as for the interfaith part of intercultural dialogue, I firmly believe that there are no conflicts among religions but rather conflicts among political groups taking religion hostage to serve their plans for domination and control. The time has come to support a universal alliance against extremism, the source of all evils, including religion-justified violence. Therefore, all believers must assert vigorously that regardless of religious beliefs there can be:
No monopoly on faith in God
No monopoly on the word of God
No monopoly on interpreting the word of God
No monopoly on determining where anyone stands in the eyes of God.