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Appendix III: Mustapha Tlili’s Opening Statement

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of New York University’s Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West, I wish to welcome you and thank you for joining us at this important moment.

I extend my deepest gratitude to the government of Malaysia, our host. There could be no better venue for this gathering than Malaysia—a flourishing, multicultural democracy where differences are respected and tolerance prevails.

My most sincere thanks go as well to the other funding institutions, first among them the government of the United Kingdom, whose financial support makes this conference possible. I also thank the government of France. Two forward–thinking American foundations—the MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—have also supported Dialogues since the program’s inception. They deserve our profound gratitude. In particular, I would like to recognize Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who is here with us, for his unflagging encouragement and guidance and his conviction in our mission.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, we could not meet at a more critical time in the long history of the Muslim–Western encounter. In 14 centuries of interaction between the Islamic world and the Western world, this relationship has clearly seen some ups and downs. There is no doubt in my mind that the present moment is fraught with danger and may be one of those “down” moments, if we are not wise enough to check the forces of irresponsibility, insensitivity, and intolerance.

Tragic events in history have almost always resulted from misunderstandings, leaving future historians to bitterly question, what might have happened if? In this case, we still have the time to summon the voices of reason and dialogue, to halt this race toward further violence—both the violence of insensitivity and the violence of mobs burning down embassies.

When we began to plan this conference more than two–and–a–half years ago, we already understood that deep feelings of humiliation, resentment, and anger arise from asymmetry of power, economic dependence, social dislocation, political repression, and other sad realities. We knew that these feelings—however real or imaginary their causes—could ignite in unpredictable explosions.

Misperceptions and misunderstandings, such as the “cartoons affair” of the last several weeks, perfectly illustrate the combustible combination of alienation with arrogance and ignorance. I think it is realistic to say that what has happened since the beginning of this affair will happen over and over as long as mutual understanding and respect are not the operating paradigm of the Muslim–Western relationship.

The misunderstanding is indeed mutual. Freedom of expression is a hard–won and fundamental value in the West. Like the separation of state and religion, this Western value is not necessarily shared or understood by the Muslim world. There was very little the Danish or the Norwegian government could have done to stop the publication of the inflammatory material, except, maybe, to put the matter before the courts. No other Western government would have handled the matter differently—freedom of expression is the law of land. Yet many Muslims wonder, for the sake of peace and harmony between the Muslim world and the West, whether there might be a way of balancing legal freedoms with civic responsibility, as is practiced when it comes to material denying the Holocaust.

To be sure, there were not one but many “Western” reactions to events surrounding the publication of the cartoons. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe naturally approached the situation from their own particular perspectives and experiences regarding the role of religion in pubic life.

On the Muslim side, protesters who burned Western embassies must not be misinterpreted as speaking for the nearly 1.3 billion Muslims who, although they may have been personally offended by the drawings, went about their daily lives, many of them appalled by the violence exercised in the name of their religion.

As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated recently, “There is a huge transition going on in the Middle East, as a whole and in its parts” [Steven R. Weisman, “Rice Acknowledges Surprise Over Hamas,” New York Times, January 30, 2006]. I wholeheartedly agree. I submit that her assessment is valid for the Muslim world as a whole. At a moment when its traditional moorings are being uprooted by modernity, isn’t the time ripe for all Muslims—and in particular Muslim thinkers—to embark on a new ijtihad, on a process of critical self–reflection, to examine the meaning of their Islamic identity and values, to reflect on the question, who speaks for Islam? and how to reconcile Islam and modernity?

The twin questions, Who speaks for Islam? Who speaks for the West? are the theme of this conference. We have gathered you here—political, religious, civil society, and business leaders, scholars, editors, and journalists—not only to ponder these questions, but to seize the opportunity to suggest practical ways and means to chart new channels of communication; to deepen mutual understanding; to help youth, women, and other vectors of social change reach a better understanding of each side’s values, history, problems, and hopes.

As Dialogues’ motto proclaims, the need has never been as urgent as it is today to knock down the walls of misunderstanding and build bridges of knowledge and reason. Educational programs, media campaigns, concerted integration of Muslim communities in the West, more debates like ours today—all these paths should lead, we hope, to the triumph of reason and tolerance, assuming that fundamental policy differences and related grievances are simultaneously taken into consideration.

There is nothing inevitable about the clash of civilizations. Human affairs, as Machiavelli writes in the concluding pages of The Prince, are partly under our control and only partly governed by the violent forces of history. It depends on the prince—in this case, all of us, leaders and constituents, who affect the course of the state and the destiny of mankind. It rests in our hands to uphold reason and resist the trend toward a violent clash.

I would like here to recognize Mr. Iqbal Riza, special adviser to the secretary–general of the United Nations on the Alliance of Civilizations, the initiative launched last summer by Secretary–General Kofi Annan. We hope that this initiative will lead to concrete collective policies that will—to paraphrase the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey in their recent op–ed in the International Herald Tribune—cultivate peaceful coexistence by taking an interest in the other side’s point of view and respecting that which it holds most sacred [Recep Tayyip Erdogan and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, “A Call for Respect and Calm,” International Herald Tribune, February 5, 2006].

The agenda that you have before you reflects the concerns that I have just broached. Discussions of the globalization of the media and business and constant innovations in science and technology will occupy much of our time over the next two days; many in the Muslim world feel left behind by the transformative effects of these forces. The final session will be devoted to offering rational and tolerant policy proposals to overcome this resulting alienation. As put forth in the two background papers developed by Dialogues for this conference, the cacophony of voices speaking for the West is matched by the cacophony of voices in the Muslim world. On both sides there is a crisis of identity. The simultaneous trends toward secularism in Europe and greater religious faith in America are just one example of the growing differences within the West. As for the Islamic world, its members range from violent extremists to tolerant, peace–loving citizens and organizations. We hope the two background papers will provide further historical and contemporary context for our debate.

In conclusion, I would like to read a passage from the background paper on “Who Speaks for Islam?” which I’ll ask you to keep in mind throughout the course of our discussions:

The relationship between Islam and the West has a long and perhaps cyclical history. The crisis within the Muslim world today might be said to mirror the situation of the West during the Middle Ages, when the Muslim empire was the center of knowledge and civilization. To end its stagnation, the West entered a period of self–reflection and embarked upon the Renaissance, in part by appropriating Islam’s scientific and cultural advances. The renowned 13th–century Italian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example, sought inspiration in the works of Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, the most revered philosopher of the time at the Sorbonne. Perhaps the Muslim world today, by examining its situation through the lens of modernity, will embark upon a contemporary Islamic Renaissance. We can only guess at how this might change the relationship between Islam and the West. What is certain at this point is that greater communication, improved understanding, and identification of the multiple—and sometimes conflicting—sources of authority within each civilization can only hasten our entry into a new phase of the history of the Islamic–Western encounter.


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