The conference opened with the hosts welcoming participants and outlining the purpose and aims of the event. Mustapha Tlili, founder and director of Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West at New York University, thanked the government of Malaysia for cohosting the event and the governments of the United Kingdom and France, as well as the MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, for their generous financial support.
Given the simultaneous international developments and renewed global discussion of the relationship between Islam and the West, Mr. Tlili stressed the timeliness of the gathering. He noted that forces of irresponsibility, insensitivity, and intolerance have been combining to endanger that relationship, infusing it with misperceptions and mistrust. This tension is underscored by cruel realities of economic and military inequality, social dislocation, and political repression.
Yet, Mr. Tlili noted, the very combination of these formidable challenges and the volatility of the current political climate creates a window of opportunity for positive action. The conference, he said, should capitalize on this opportunity to launch a new dynamic of constructive engagement between the two cultures. That engagement relies on critical self–reflection and investigation of which individuals and institutions, if any, can claim the authority to speak on behalf of a civilization. Mr. Tlili urged participants to consider these issues and suggest practical ways to remedy misunderstandings, chart new channels of communication, and, ultimately, deepen mutual understanding.
Fauziah Mohd Taib, director general of the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations Malaysia, which cosponsored the conference, spoke next. Echoing Mr. Tlili’s appeal for a conference that engages substantively with today’s critical issues, she stressed the importance of a forum for intercivilizational dialogue, remarking that unity can be found in multiplicity.
Mr. Tlili and Ms. Taib then welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was introduced by Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar.
In his remarks, Mr. Albar noted that the primary challenge facing the assembled scholars and practitioners is to remedy the lack of tolerance. This task is particularly arduous, he commented, in the midst of sobering moments of intolerance such as the current one.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi opened his address by returning to the two questions asked in the conference’s title—“Who Speaks for Islam? Who Speaks for the West?”—and noting their pertinence at a time when the Muslim and Western worlds combined comprise 51 percent of the world’s population. Attempting to address these consequential questions in a fresh but productive way, he said, would mean working from three postulates: (1) blame cannot be assigned to any one side, (2) neither civilization is monolithic, and (3) a loud but small number of extremist voices do not represent the silent majority of the Muslim world or the West.
According to the prime minister, those who can legitimately claim to speak for each side are those honest individuals who strive to live by universal principles of tolerance, upholding justice and dignity, fighting tyranny, rejecting oppression, equalizing opportunities, redistributing wealth, and being inclusive in word and deed.
But as the prime minister pointed out, what is most visible to each side today is the perceived hostility each side has of the other. Large numbers of Muslims look to the West and see only subjugation, domination, selective persecution, and hegemony. Similarly, many Westerners look at Islam and find only violence, terrorism, and intolerance. Such misperceptions have serious consequences, he insisted, and redressing them is the challenge facing this gathering of bridge builders. Animosity and antagonism between the Muslim and the Western worlds must come to an end. Reciprocity and equality should become the rule, heralding a harmonious relationship ultimately characterized by Muslims speaking for the West and Westerners speaking for the Muslim world.