Creating really equal conditions within intercultural dialogue is an onerous but indispensable prerequisite. The complexity of exchanging ideas with the objective of achieving in-depth understanding of various points of view, contexts and traditions in which the forms of thoughts presented by others are set, is added to the problems always accompanying international political relations. It is impossible to ignore the fact that dialogue in its most complete form – as pursued by us all – cannot neglect political diversities or the power relations it directly or indirectly involves (Hassan Hanafi). Since there exist – on all sides – degrees of diffidence and resentment with roots in colonial history or in economic inequality, or wars or recent conflicts, experienced as humiliating, these elements too should be analysed in the manner that Fred Dallmayr described as «ethical-hermeneutic»: a kind of dialogue that includes the entire cultural, spiritual, literary and artistic background, and above all existential aspirations and suffering, as well as a comparison of lifestyles and mentalities linked to them.
Equal conditions and reciprocity are very onerous because they are addressed at understanding also all that violates the profoundest ways of thinking everywhere: for example, they require liberal Europeans to understand the angry reactions of Muslims’ whose faith has been insulted, but also requires the intellectuals from Muslim countries to understand that repression and violence against journalists and authors not only violates abstract principles of freedom, but hurts the feelings of freedom existing in the mentality of citizens who have grown up in open democratic societies (Otto Schily). Defending equal conditions in a dialogue is also extremely difficult, because the acceptance of these equal conditions, even if only methodological, seems to legitimate the status quo and hence generously advantaging those suspected of injustice against the other side. This deferment – or reassessment – of resentment is a crucial issue and perhaps the main objective in all projects involving dialogue. It is only by creating opportunities to meet that is becomes possible to become accustomed to a more balanced vision of others and to purify the overload of tension deriving from the diversity of contexts, history and mentality of the various political judgements concerning critical situations – that cannot be preliminarily overcome.
The recurrent subject of double standards is a formula containing a basic protest against an imbalance of power, the condemnation of prevarication by the powerful over the weak, a criticism of selfishness and ethnocentrism of others expressed against one experiencing the condition of a victim. The debate on the placing of the “centre” and the “outskirts”, of the “I” and the “Other” is a dominant element in the post–colonial debate and has objective historical foundations, the effects of which are particularly intense in the Arab world (and more in general in the Muslim world) due to the Middle Eastern conflict and economic imbalance. The subject of double standards tends to become extended to all fields and involves a tendency to structure debate polarised between the East and the West, the Western world and the Orient, between friends of Israel and friends of Palestine, the Unites States and the Arab world. A tendency to perceive the other side as one unique compact body, as a subject provided with its own will and responsibility and, consequently, to accuse the entire “West” or all “Islam” of an injustice is then added to this polarisation (that tends to render extreme the position of others). This is a representation that does not at all correspond to reality on either side, be the subject relations with the West, the war in Iraq, torture at Abu Ghraib or relations within the Islamic world concerning Palestinian resistance or suicide terrorists. Or even relations in general on both sides regards to confronting their own more radical, extreme and violent elements. All initiatives approaching a more realistic and articulated vision are hence fundamental for improving reciprocal understanding, also because criticism of the double standard does not only come from extremist environments but also characterizes those assuming moderate positions and corresponds to a blurred need for balance arising mainly from a sketchy view of the Others as one single block (Giuliano Amato).
An example: Copenhagen-Vienna
One example of this kind of deformation is provided by an interview with Al-Sayed Yassin, the secular Egyptian intellectual who founded the Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo. This interview will be published, with others, on the Association’s website, www.reset.org. It implicates the double standard on the subject of the Western world’s overall reaction to the Ant-Islamic cartoons published by the Jilland-Post, and against penal provisions in the name of freedom of opinion and press. Yassin observes that this kind of reaction was almost totally absent when David Irving was sentenced in Vienna for his negationist thesis on Holocaust. Yassin’s observations are to be discussed and there will in fact be a discussion on this subject that will be published in the Italian magazine “Reset” and then on the aforementioned website, with papers by Marcello Flores, Michael Walzer and others. Reactions to the condemnation in Vienna and those to the cartoons published in Copenhagen should therefore be addressed from a global point of view, because as one can see their effects are global ones. A more global point of view would probably provide new arguments for everyone. The entire debate on the Holocaust is addressed within the Arab world according to the criteria of the influence of “Zionist power” and the sneer at the Muslim religion by Western newspapers or some irresponsible politician is judged according to the criteria of Muslim minorities in Europe, demanding damages for their injured pride.
The dialogue on democracy
Dialogue is effective if it manages to keep under control the various asymmetries that hinder it. In a discussion with Hanafi, Fred Dallmayr warned us against the risk of using these asymmetries as a shield to preclude dialogue instead of clarifying and neutralising them to improve it. Within a framework made extremely difficult by resentments and accusations exchanged between the West and the Arab world, by the Palestinian crisis and the war in Iraq, it is hard to envisage that the discussion on the development of democracy in the world’s non-democratic countries, might take place as a pure expanding of “the power of seduction” of Western political and cultural models or as the application of a pedagogic model with the West seated in the professor’s chair and the Orient sitting on school benches. From the perspective of those who like us hope for a global development of democratic regimes and open societies, a vision of democracy as the result of a process involving the interpretation and re-interpretation of single and different traditions and cultural histories becomes increasingly important. It is reasonable to believe that Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Amartya Sen are right in stating that every culture contains within itself the same principles and ideas able to inspire populations to present political requests, making forms of government accountable to the governors and requests to have their rights acknowledged by those governing. Principles and ideas that can inspire commitment to a critical interpretation of the sources of one’s own tradition, ethics and texts. (Nadia Urbinati)
The exchanges of the past
A comparison of the historical phases of exchanges between cultures is useful for approaching a more articulated awareness of the other participants in the dialogue. In particular, the papers presented at the Cairo conference (Burnett, Campanini, Ehmad, Gutas) emphasised both the contexts that rendered possible the more intense stages of these exchanges, and models of cultural integration achieved in a number of favourable moments in history, ranging from the Baghdad model to the Andalusian one. The translation of scientific books from Greek into Arabic during the 9th Century, and from Arabic into Latin in the 12th and 13th Centuries, were turning points and moments of exceptional progress in human history, comparable to the European scientific revolution in the 17th Century. Exchanges arose from the need experienced by one culture to fill some of its voids, as happened for the Medieval Latin world, short on mathematics, physics and medicine. (Burnett) Profounder knowledge of the backdrop helps dialogue, since it allows one to observe the current situation within a temporal timeline, it sets current differences within a historical situation, it enriches awareness of other dimensions compared to those that are one’s own and that one is used to, it stimulates reflecting on the educational programmes in various countries, contributes to dissolve mistrust, suggests new initiatives for the future valorising a knowledge of the history of Others that complicates and articulates one’s perspective, preventing the formation of homogeneous and stereotype blocks.
Orientalism and Westernism
The formula using “orientalism” and “westernism” as labels for containers of reciprocal deformations is generally accepted, or not opposed, although the Egyptians, indirectly or hinted, proclaimed a sort of right to overturn the roles of a certain phase of “westernism” as a study of the “I-centre” by the “Other-outskirts”: the other becomes the I. On the other hand, the word Westernism does not only indicate a deformation but also an entire historical cycle of studies undertaken by the West. Westernism in Margalit’s version – coined on the model of the anti-modern reaction of the culture that resulted in the Japanese kamikaze of the Forties – is rather a container of the deformations of western civilisation, to the degradation of the enemy and the stigmatization of his “idolatry” (as in the holy texts) for the metropolis of sin, of consumerism and Nihilism. Margalit’s westernism is not exactly a mirror for Edward Said’s Orientalism. However, his contribution is penetrating: in both the book he wrote with Ian Buruma and the paper presented in Rome, the subject of the vision of civilisation seen by the South, or the East, is expressed so as to emphasise that the conflict is not “between cultures” ma “between cultures and civilisation” (hence modernity). But even those who proudly, out of symmetry, lay claim to the right to a post-colonial phase of study of the western “Other”, then admit to the need to look “beyond” this phase (Hanafi).
Between secularism and religious reformism
The dialogue between intellectuals from Muslim countries and European and American ones, and particularly intense with Egyptians and Iranians in spite of the very considerable differences in these contexts, emphasises a complex discussion within the cultural framework of Islamic countries between what one could define as a secular school of thought and one of religious reformism. A famous and experienced intellectual, such as for example Sayed Yassin, defines himself and the Egyptian State on the basis on the secular idea. Others like Mohammad Salmawi, president of Egyptian authors, prefers to describe himself as “civilised”, both because he considers the secular concept as the bearer of an excessively emphasised opposition to religion, and because describing the Egyptian State as secular, although it is certainly “more secular” than others in the Islamic world, means describing a situation better suited to European States. And if one takes the European model as the standard one for secularisation, the Egyptian States cannot be described as “secular” in the same manner (Salmawi).
The debate within the Muslim world tends at times to become open among “secular” intellectuals, in the variously interpreted sense of liberals (hence please see among many available references work by Filali Ansari and by Ramin Jahanbegloo) committed to the modernisation of institutions in their countries but not involved in the theological debate, and others who believe it necessary, indispensable, to allow a liberal evolution of the rules and legislation in states belonging to the Islamic world, to have an interpretation of the Koranic texts and the Sunna allowing one to understand the historical context in which certain statements were understood in different eras and achieve greater understanding of the meaning of these holy texts in modern times. These are sectors of the debate that often never meet, at times oppose one another and more often ignore each other. There is currently widespread debate in Egypt on the role to be played by religion, and the election of a considerable minority of representatives belonging to Movement of Muslim Brothers has made it even tenser.
In forms very different to those in America and Europe, the Islamic world is experiencing a process involving a return to religious spirituality that is not the expression of submission to theocratic regimes. And while this was encouraged in the days of Sadat, it has not been in the times of Mubarak. One can instead use the words submission and repression for a number of other situations, such as Iran, where the religious wave was extremely powerful in the days of Khomeini’s revolution, but then decreased along side the mullahs’ regime’s loss of popularity. Intellectuals such as Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian and a Shiite, and Nasr Abu Zayd, Egyptian and a Sunni, support liberal reform, fully liberal and democratic reform, believing it is possible to pave the way for these through their work as reformist theologians.
The complexity, and also the great interest, in this debate suggests that one should address the subject of relations between “secularism, liberalism and religious reformism” as central and also as the possible focus for our next encounters. The Association’s website will start the debate immediately with papers by Yassin, Salmawi, Hanafi and others.
Differences on the subject of religion
Religion’s influence on political life is the object of widespread debate all over the world, both in the West and in the East. The “post-secular” theme presented in the European context by Klaus Eder and Juergen Habermas addresses an issue that also concerns the Muslim world: religion’s return to the public stage, its greater visibility, its demand to have greater influence in collective life. It is not however applicable within this context, although it emphasises certain shared phenomena – a renewal of religious spirituality and the appearance of conflict between believers and non-believers, and between believers in a plurality of religions – since it acquires its full meaning in describing the situation in liberal regimes in which secularisation has fully achieved its process. And it is not applicable to the Muslim world since this world has not experienced a process involving radical secularisation as Europe had, with Turkey as the only exception, within certain limits. However, the area of problems concerning the appearance of religious absolutes in public life presents a number of affinities, and the conditions exist for inter-cultural dialogue developing a better understanding between western and eastern intellectuals, or at least for developing a fertile and shared debate
Comparing the various different theses could be the object of future meetings. Margalit’s thesis for example states that religion plays an important role in the Middle Eastern conflict and generally speaking in the tension afflicting the world between the West and Muslim populations. Others instead believe that, both as far as this tension is concerned as well as terrorism inspired by religious motivations, the causes of these conflicts and tensions are of a political, economic and social nature, and are only ‘covered’ with religious ideologies (this is Olivier Roy’s thesis, but also the one upheld by Navid Kermani). Analogously there are different opinions expressed on the function of inter-religious dialogue, considered impossible as far as a real dialogue is concerned. It is significant that this sort of opinion is often expressed by both “secular” and “civilised” intellectuals in Egypt (Salmawi, Yassin), according to whom meetings between the believers in different faiths are only testimony and not dialogue, while this is instead defended and practiced by others (Hanafi) or indicated as necessary to enrich reciprocal understanding of elements belonging to a community’s history and soul, as the necessary backdrop for creating shareable ethics with common traces in the philosophy of Aristotle, Al Farabi, Hegel (Dallmayr). And there is no need for me to mention that among the members of our Association’s scientific committee, which pursues dialogue between cultures and not religions, there is also the director of the Sant’Egidio Community, Andrea Riccardi, at the centre of many important inter-religious initiatives.
The roots of non-violence
One direction to work on was suggested by the paper presented by Jahanbegloo and by Dallmayr’s work in general, consisting in promoting the figures and the moments of the history of culture and contemporaneity affirming the principles of non-violence rooted in the different traditions and supporting the possibility of a spreading and merging of different points of view: those of two leading personalities of the 20th Century, such as the Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, with Jahanbegloo adding the Pakistani Abdul Ghaffar Khan, better known as Badshah Khan, whose profound “belief in the truth and effectiveness of non-violencee came from the depths of personal experience of his Muslim faith.” He also proposes Toshihiko Izutsu, the Japanese who supports an ethical merging of Sufism and Taoism. In the past Dallmayr had already suggested in-dept analysis valorising figures of vulture capable of merging the perspectives of the present and the past, ranging from Goethe to Ramon Panikkar and Abdolkarim Soroush. Following an image by Amin Malouf, one could devote a working session to the “thought on the crest of the wave”, the one that does not allow itself to fall in the “trough of the wave” and remains able to see that at all times what in conflict is not always obvious injustice against enlightened right, but good and yet different rights. These are the often bloody and unsolvable “conflicts of reasons” according to the definition provided by the Israeli Amos Oz (as in the Israel-Palestine case), that require a greater effort to remain “on the crest”, to cultivate a certain degree of ambiguity with which one must learn to coexist, without feeling ill at ease, to inspire balanced solutions. The collection of names to be placed on this “crest”, and that as you can see has already begun, could be one of the objectives of an inter-cultural objective such as the one our Associations has established.
The filter provided by the media
The prospect of a better understanding of Others cannot avoid addressing the problem posed by forms of communication. Awareness of the effects of the spreading of satellite television is still rather lacking and needs to accelerate so as to provide us as quickly as possible with a more precise picture of the development of crossed images various cultures provide of themselves to Others, and that Others provide to their own viewers. The explosive and violent events concerning the Danish cartoons were carefully analysed during our meetings but deserve further investigation. There are many elements leading us to envisage that some of television’s effects, so far carefully studied at a national level and in homogeneous linguistic areas, are also projected at an international level. I refer to the conflictual effects of the closing curtains that prevent one from seeing the backstage and that broaden one’s own “courtyard” at a global level. “There are no local debates anymore. You can no longer play little games in your own small backyard without the world noticing. We are truly experiencing what it means to live in a globalized public sphere.” (Lau). One should also resume, and in some case begin, studies at an international level, studies such as those done by Joshua Meyrowitz on American society. If the bulkheads that kept many events confined to the backroom have broken down, one must get used to controlling the consequences. Extreme provincialism can have catastrophic consequences. There are also other trends in mass media information that must be analysed, such as those that have already greatly influenced national political life and that characterise the very structure of the information industry: obsessive speed, extreme personalisation, dramatisation, de-contextualization, accentuation of unrest factors, preclusion as far as what is ordinary and normal calm is concerned. Due to their own logic, the bodies of information select fact that raise the number of viewers and that long-term can cultivate an image of Others that emphasises the extreme elements and radicalises their characteristics. It is clear that the Nihilist and pornographic West of the metropolis of the “idolisers” “goes through” the media filter far more easily than nice and reassuring good American families, or the tidy life in the European countryside; just as the religious invocations of Al Zarkahwi’s decapitators “go through” on video on the web far more than a bright and calm market day around the Al Ahzar mosque in Cairo. It is very probable that the media radicalises and polarises images, encourage a stereotyping process that becomes a serious obstacle to understanding and the source of conflicts. This a subject to be addressed in-depth at international meetings with contributions from specialists in analysing the media and its influence.