The last session of the conference sought to draw on the panel discussions in order to make recommendations for American and Western policy in general toward the Muslim world and vice versa, including the establishment of formal mechanisms for dialogue.
The session chair, Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, opened the discussion by noting that the logic behind such a conference is to advance policies that reflect a broadly shared vision of constructive, cooperative, far–sighted, and principled global engagement. An effort of this type seeks to amplify a wider range of voices than would otherwise be heard. In doing so, it strengthens the relationship between Muslim and Western societies. Inasmuch as U.S. foreign policy, in particular, will continue to have a profound influence on the world’s ability to cope with complex global challenges, it is essential to try to reduce the current destabilizing tensions by promoting mutual respect and understanding and by encouraging collaboration among Muslim and Western societies in managing global challenges. This endeavor recognizes, too, that both the Muslim and Western civilizations are engaged in parallel internal debates about their respective identities, futures, and places in a rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected world.
Mr. Heintz noted that, in addition to the media, our policies and actions speak for us. Each side must therefore constantly inquire whether its policies, both domestic and foreign, correspond to informed attitudes about the other. Mr. Heintz expressed concern that the mutual perceptions of the Muslim world by the Western world and vice versa seem ever–more distrustful, hence the importance of dialogue in devising a lasting framework for the Muslim–Western relationship.
Such a framework, offered Mr. Heintz, could feature the following five components: (1) measures to restore and increase trust; (2) the use of accurate and impartial language to describe relationships and shared aspirations; (3) the application of professional norms that will ensure media responsibility; (4) reform of international institutions to render globalization more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable; and (5) greater exchange in the realms of education and science.
The first speaker, Usman Bugaje, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Nigeria, started by noting that dialogue between Islam and the West is not just desirable, it also offers the only route out of the current situation of tension and mistrust. Although the search for understanding may bring to light uncomfortable truths, both cultures need to educate themselves about the other. Two such “uncomfortable truths” to note at the outset of this process are that (1) any dialogue will inevitably involve a discussion on power as the currency of achievement and on current power structures and (2) the acceptance of difference is a sine qua non of progress. It bears reminding, stressed Mr. Bugaje, that what applies to one religion does not necessarily apply to another, and that unity is not synonymous with uniformity.
The Muslim and Western worlds face different challenges. For Muslims, the present challenge is threefold. First, it concerns democratization of the interpretation of religious texts. The “gates of ijtihad” must be reopened, Mr. Bugaje maintained; the text is divine but its interpretation is human, a principle of Muslim scriptures themselves. Second, Muslims must tackle the challenge of education more directly and efficiently, particularly by rekindling their intellectual curiosity instead of proscribing fields of study. Third, in the face of persistent dysfunction, the need for Muslim countries to embrace “good governance” has become imperative; the first step is the empowerment of civil societies to challenge their governments to live up to the standards of Islam.
According to Mr. Bugaje, the challenge is similarly threefold for the West. First, the question of double standards toward the Muslim world must be addressed with a view of correcting misconceptions and ensuring equal treatment for Muslims. Second, the Western world must relinquish its claims to ownership of “civilization” in general and science and technology in particular. Too often, Westerners ignore or minimize others’ contributions toward global progress. The degree of dominance that the West currently enjoys gives it all the more reason to create space for participation by the rest of the world and Muslims in particular. Third, while no values are absolute, the West might benefit from stating a broadly shared set of values. These respective challenges, concluded Mr. Bugaje, are underscored by the urgent need for both sides to work on communication with one another.
The next speaker, Mohamed Charfi, professor emeritus of law at the University of Tunis and former minister of education (Tunisia), opened by taking stock of the historically rocky relationship between the Muslim and Western worlds, which has ranged from hostile to cooperative. For the past 100 years, the relationship has been framed around the question of colonization and its aftermath. Three geographical areas continue to fuel conflict and misunderstanding: Palestine, Chechnya, and Iraq. The sooner just and lasting solutions to these gnawing rivalries can be found, the better the prospects for good relations between Muslims and Westerners.
Since positive developments often escape the world’s notice, Mr. Charfi pointed out that many Muslim countries have, by and large, taken control of their political and economic destinies. Efforts have been particularly effective in Malaysia and Turkey. The dichotomy between success and frustration may come down to which parts of the Muslim community focus on criticism as opposed to self–criticism. The former group indulges in a blame game, entertaining notions of a Western conspiracy; such a negative approach, argued Mr. Charfi, leads to self–victimization and is ultimately a dead end. The alternative is to respond to the challenges facing the Muslim world by engaging in self–examination, diagnosis of concrete problems, and ultimately long–term domestic transformation.
Echoing Mr. Bugaje’s analysis, Mr. Charfi identified four realms that represent challenges for the Muslim world today: freedom, equality, good governance, and education. He placed emphasis, in particular, on freedom, which he indicated should be thought of not merely as a “buzz word” but in its full implications, notably, tolerance of dissent, both internal and external. Equality, for its part, must be understood especially in relation to gender issues; Islam cannot be used to justify limitations on women’s rights when the religion’s very ethos is of humanity and empowerment. As for good governance, it first and foremost requires transparency, separation of powers, and respect for the rule of law. Regarding education, Mr. Charfi stressed the need for modernization and more critical thinking in the Muslim world. A proper educational system is one that not only teaches its students how to use their minds but is also open to foreign contributions. As several participants pointed out throughout the conference, knowledge of other cultures is essential for survival in a global world.
The next speaker, Wilhelm Höynck, former secretary–general of the Organization for Security and Co–operation in Europe (OSCE), argued that future interactions between the Muslim and Western worlds depend on tolerance but also on the very real challenge of its implementation. One such meaningful and practical step, he suggested, is support for the Alliance of Civilizations, the UN initiative launched in July 2005, which seeks to bridge civilizational divides and overcome prejudice, misperceptions, and polarization among cultures. It is equally important to develop adequate and innovative institutional responses for proactive management of rapidly escalating crises. Admittedly, noted Mr. Höynck, this is a monumental task that calls for a balanced and cooperative effort.
He raised three principal objectives for those concerned with improving the relationship between Islam and the West: (1) protecting individuals and groups from acts of intolerance and discrimination; (2) safeguarding societies against the actions of religious extremists; and (3) intensifying knowledge–based dialogue to address disagreements. Beyond such institutions as the Organization for Security and Co–operation in Europe and the League of Arab States, the untapped potential of a larger set of regional actors is an additional asset toward accomplishing these goals.
Mr. Höynck cautioned that one must be realistic in assessing the very real challenges facing Muslim–Western relations. The more attempts at dialogue fail, the more people will lose heart, and the more frustrations will build. He closed on an optimistic note, however, suggesting that the experience in building a unified Europe from among once antagonistic states should offer hope for a lasting, peaceful solution to conflicts between the Muslim world and the West.
The discussant, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary–general of the Muslim Council of Britain, outlined two options for moving forward. The negative option is to dwell on what has not been done and continue to lament the status quo. A positive approach is to assess the challenges and forge ahead by listening (to the other) with an open mind. Specifically, it is unhelpful to construe a view of Islam that does away with the religion’s intrinsic variety. A positive approach offers greater prospects for building mutual respect, anticipating or defusing crises, breaking down monolithic preconceptions, and working together on the challenges that unite Muslims and Westerners.
Sir Iqbal agreed with Mr. Bugaje’s analysis that the interaction between Muslims and Westerners has a long history shaped by ideas and science but primarily by power—its presence, absence, uses, and impact. The two civilizations are now in a postcolonization phase, dealing with the fallout from decolonization and, in some quarters, a dangerous yearning for imperial power. The outcome of this phase of the relationship depends on the Muslim world to implement equitable, democratic, and well–governed systems recognizing the rights of women. According to Sir Iqbal, the West must in turn (1) widen the definition of citizenship to confer rights and societal responsibilities not merely legally, but communally, in acceptance of people of different cultural backgrounds; (2) integrate this citizenry—and especially the youth—in a dynamic way without imposing a sterile and alienating uniformity; and (3) foster an inclusive society intolerant of prejudice.
In the general discussion that ensued, participants concurred on the importance of self–criticism and introspection within both the Western and Islamic worlds. Mr. Muravchik remarked that the West has a system of permanent soul–searching built on the cornerstones of freedom and democracy, which includes opposition parties, a free press, and an active intelligentsia that is at liberty to criticize those in power. By contrast, he pointed to the current situation in the Islamic world where several newspapers in different countries, including in Malaysia, had been shut down, and editors fired, for reprinting the Danish cartoons.
Mr. Muravchik added that a positive outcome to the conference and a validation for the process of dialogue would be for the delegates to issue a far–reaching, intercommunal statement that would condemn, in all forms, defamation that offends religious sensibilities across faiths. Ramón Pérez–Maura, vice–editor of Diario ABC, agreed with the importance of institutional vehicles, such as the newly formed Alliance of Civilizations, to further mutual recognition. Such efforts require strong leadership in order to fairly and comprehensively represent the idiosyncrasies and traditions of each side. For example, he remarked, the Christian lineage of the West (once referred to as Christendom) must be acknowledged as a lasting influence on large segments of the Western population.
In that respect, Mr. Fücks posited that while the West tends to be defined (and defines itself) as a set of institutions and values, roughly circumscribed geographically, Islam is understood and paints itself as a religious community spread over a number of specific countries but global in its presence. This configuration, he remarked, raises the issue of difference between the provinces of faith (a set of personal beliefs grounded in the absolute truth of divine power) and politics (in which there is no absolute truth).
Participants further addressed the question of power and the notion of its limitations, primarily the requirements of justice. Mr. Riza noted that when the politically and socioeconomically aggrieved do not find justice, they often turn to use of force. He reiterated the call for reform of international institutions, such as the UN Security Council, to give a greater stake to less powerful states. Hoda Badran, chairperson of the Alliance for Arab Women, remarked that the persistence of double standards perpetuates injustices and, therefore, the sometimes violent acts undertaken to right them.
While noting that the conference had been useful from his perspective, Mr. Solomon urged that the discussion on how to improve Muslim–Western relations should move beyond elite circles to encompass grassroots activists in communities and the faithful in churches, mosques, and synagogues. Truly effective dialogue must embrace all strata of societies.
The session closed with Mr. Heintz highlighting three main areas of insight that emerged during the discussion that could be further developed as follows: (1) reorienting the framing of the current relationship away from the religion/ region dyad; (2) reforming global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank to ensure greater justice in their operations; and (3) empowering transnational civil society to play a larger role in intercivilizational dialogue.