The Need for Specialized Dialogue

International Symposium on Dialogue among Civilizations for Coexistence
Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) – Damascus
18 – 20 May 2002

I have reservations about the idea of dialogue among civilizations as I believe that every time we hold a seminar, a meeting or a conference on this subject it is more or less in reaction to what Samuel Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Islam, in particular, that those in the West looking for a new enemy after the collapse of communism will wage a holy war against Islam.

Since Huntington’s book was published 1996 we have been in a constant state of reaction. I might understand such a reaction a year at most. Then people would put their energy into initiatives and activities to represent their beliefs about this subject.

My friend Dr. George Jabbour was one of the first who thought to request an apology from the Vatican for the historical wrongs committed against Muslims, such as during the Crusades. Some years later, the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue among Monotheistic Religions sent a memorandum to the Vatican with the same request. That memo, sent on March 2000, was the first document from an official Islamic institution to officials at the Vatican politely addressing this sensitive issue in the language of well-intentioned dialogue. We consider this a tribute to Dr. Jabbour who was the leader in this respect and has our appreciation.

To be productive, we should determine the specific kinds of dialogue that must be held. I believe that some priorities should be:

• Interfaith dialogue, based on the simple principle that each religion complements the other when participants search for common values and find common ground to facilitate cooperation. This type of dialogue is already evolving and being practiced today.

• East-West dialogue, especially since the concept has changed dramatically over the years. How do we talk about the West as a whole while millions of Muslims live there and are citizens of these countries? In France alone, there are more than five million Muslims, most of them holding a French nationality, with around two millions having the right to vote. The West is no longer the West as we thought of it in the past. These millions of Muslims have influenced and have been influenced by the West in such a way as to render our former idea of East-West dialogue obsolete.

• Political dialogue that requires us to determine the principles that would help us create balance with the West, even when they show double standards for freedom and peace by giving support to the unjust and oppressing the victim.

• Economic dialogue that focuses on the establishment of joint ventures with industrialized countries that would allow us to participate in the development of technology as opposed to receiving it after the fact.

• Dialogue among southern and northern Mediterranean countries, not only at the governmental level but also among ordinary people. By supporting North-South unity in these countries, we can highlight how the security of this historic region depends upon cooperation.

• Educational dialogue, especially concerning the future of textbooks in both the Islamic world and the West. This is an urgent issue. Children learn their first misconceptions about the other from textbooks, which then leads to the rejection of the other when they grow up. Scientists, intellectuals and historians must find a way to correct historical facts and interpretations in textbooks.

I’d like to tell you a story to show the seriousness of this issue. I was a student at the University of Grenoble in France when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. I was surprised to find that, in response, the most important French newspaper “Le Figaro” published a front-page article entitled “Wake up Martel”.

The writer was referring to Charles Martel who stopped the Arab advance at the Battle of Poitiers. The writer and the newspaper wanted to evoke memories of the Crusades to support France in defying the nationalization of the Suez Canal! They also attacked Saladin and described him as an aggressor, ignoring the fact that he led the resistance against the Frank invasion.

Some years later I met the author of that article and I asked him about the incorrect historical reference. His response was simple: “That was what I learned from my history textbook at school.”

• Dialogue among media professionals, as we should not underestimate the importance of the media here and in the West. In every conference we highlight the importance of projecting the right image of Islam, but the problem is still with the media. If we were to participate in meetings with specialized media professionals, we would learn how to communicate more effectively. And understanding how international media operates would help us be proactive.

In this spirit, I would like to propose a charter for dialogue that emphasizes two principles that should be agreed upon before starting any dialogue:

First: To engage in self-criticism, as self-criticism is self-respect, respect for others, and a refusal to claim monopoly on truth.

Second: To refuse generalization: neither to talk about the West as a whole, nor America as a whole, nor Christianity as a whole nor Judaism as a whole. We must remember that Islam teaches us never to generalize. When God talks about people in the Qur’an, He always says: “a few of them”, “some of them”, or “many of them” without ever generalizing.

Humbly, I would like to say that self-criticism and avoiding generalization are civilized measures that, when placed in the framework of a charter for dialogue, would facilitate the kind of work we are here to discuss today and would encourage others to join in.

In conclusion, I would like to place the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue among Monotheistic Religions at your disposal to help fulfill any the initiatives that I have raised here today.

Dr. Aly El Samman
Vice-president, Permanent Committee of Al Azhar for Dialogue among Monotheistic Religions 
Adviser to the Grand Imam of Al Azhar for Interfaith Dialogue Affairs

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