Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
waberakatuh and good morning.
It is a real delight for me to see so many renowned scholars and thinkers assembled in Kuala Lumpur to discuss such a pertinent issue as who speaks for Islam and who speaks for the West. It is auspicious that this dialogue begins on a Friday, which is observed by Muslims everywhere, every week, as a special day. To those of you who have come from afar, I bid you a very warm welcome. I do hope that your stay in Malaysia will be both pleasant and rewarding.
The two questions, Who speaks for Islam? Who speaks for the West? are among the most fundamental issues in the interface between two great civilizations—the Islamic world and the Christian West. Their answers are not only important in determining the relationship between Islam and the West but are also vital in shaping the future of humankind because Christians and Muslims make up at least half of the world’s people. There are 2,039 million Christians accounting for 32 percent of the world’s population, and there are 1,226 million Muslims making up 19 percent of the total. When we ask you to search for the answers to the two questions, it is our intention neither to point fingers at any religion nor to apportion blame on anyone regarding the state of affairs that now exists between the Islamic world and the West. What we seek is the truth, which can serve the best interests of all humankind, and help bring peace to this troubled world of ours. Let us pray to God the Almighty, so that He gives us wisdom, courage, and determination to discover the answers.
I do not suggest for a moment that “Islam” or the “West” is a monolithic entity. There is tremendous heterogeneity in both civilizations. Both manifest diverse and sometimes contradictory trends and tendencies. Having made that clarification, allow me to continue to speak of Islam and the West in the way they are normally understood. Let me say at the outset that while there are a multitude of voices that speak on behalf of Islam on the one hand and the West on the other, there are certain voices that I feel do not do justice to either Islam or the West.
I hold the strong view that, in the case of Islam, those who deliberately kill noncombatants and the innocent, those who oppress and exploit others, those who are corrupt and greedy, and those who are chauvinistic and communal do not speak on behalf of Islam.
In the case of the West, I do not regard as defenders of Western civilization those who invade and occupy someone else’s land; those who systematically cause innocent children, women, and men to be killed; those who oppress other people and exploit their resources for their own selfish ends; or those who are racist in outlook and bigoted in their religious beliefs. Anyone who seeks to dominate and control, who attempts to establish global hegemony, cannot claim to be spreading freedom and equality at the same time.
Who then speaks for Islam? Who then speaks for the West? The noble Qur’an speaks for Islam. At its core is an eternal message of justice and compassion, of equality and humanity, of peace and solidarity. There is also the Prophet’s exemplary life and mission, which reflect the quintessence of Islam. Through their struggles and sacrifices, the illustrious caliphs from Abu Bakr to Salahuddin Al–Ayubi (Saladin) also succeeded in bringing to the fore the authentic face of the religion.
In a sense, the great accomplishments of Muslim civilization—in science and medicine as in agriculture and architecture— served to enhance the image of Islam. The scholars who were responsible for these accomplishments such as Al–Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina should be counted among the true voices of the religion.
It follows from this that in the contemporary world, those who uphold justice, who fight tyranny, who seek liberation from oppression, who are honest and upright, who are universal and inclusive in word and deed, are the ones who represent the real message of Islam.
One should also add that those who protect the rights of the human being, those who treasure the dignity of women and the welfare of children, those who preserve the integrity of the family, those who help the poor and feed the hungry, those who live in harmony with the environment, are also speaking on behalf of Islam.
In a nutshell, all Muslims anywhere who sincerely endeavor to live according to the universal values and principles of the Qur’an are the true spokespersons of Islam. What this means is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who by and large lead decent lives, are already speaking for the religion.
To express the principles of life that are important to ordinary Muslims as demonstrated in Islamic civilization, I have personally sought to promote an approach that I call “Islam Hadhari,” which we have defined as “a comprehensive approach to the development of mankind, society, and country based on the perspective of Islamic civilization.” The 10 principles of Islam Hadhari embody universal values that have endowed the religion with strength and character through the ages. The 10 principles are, namely
I consider this fresh approach as a necessary part of the reform and renewal that is needed in Islamic countries and in Muslim society as a whole. Malaysia feels that it is well–placed to begin this journey of reform and renewal because it is a multiracial and multireligious country in which we treat our diversity as an asset to be nurtured. In fact, we are merely building on the tolerance we have observed and the interfaith coexistence that we have practiced in the country for decades. We wish to show by example that a Muslim country can be modern, economically competitive, democratic, and fair to all its citizens irrespective of their religion.
Islam Hadhari is not a new religion or madhab [school of Islamic jurisprudence]. It is not a new ideology. It is not meant to pacify the West. It is neither intended to apologize for the perceived Islamic threat nor to seek approval for a more friendly and gentle image of Islam. It is the way for practicing the religion in these modern times but firmly rooted in the noble values and injunctions of Islam.
The principles of Islam Hadhari are what Muslims should emphasize in the contemporary world, the pursuit of knowledge being one of the most fundamental. In other words, there are certain civilizational principles in the religion whose realization will bring greatness and glory to the Muslim community, the ummah, today, just as they propelled the Islamic civilization to such splendor and magnificence in the past.
Western civilization, too, has its share of greatness and majestic accomplishments. We must acknowledge that in the West, principles such as freedom and equality have found concrete expression in the rule of law, public accountability, acceptance of political dissent, and respect for popular participation. We must also acknowledge that many great statesmen and reformers of the past made sterling efforts to redistribute wealth, to equalize opportunities, and to achieve equity and social justice. They may be regarded as the true spokespersons of the West. Admittedly, the West is also the civilization that has given birth to a whole host of scientists and researchers, from Newton to Einstein on the one hand, and from Marie Curie to Alexander Fleming, on the other, who have contributed immensely to the well–being of humankind.
However, for a lot of Muslims today, this is not the face of the West that they see. It is the hegemony of the centers of power in the West that is most visible to them. They see the subjugation of Palestine as an indirect concretization of this hegemony. They see hegemony manifested directly in the attack on Afghanistan and in the occupation of Iraq. These are some of the realities that confront the Muslim masses today. Of course, there are other manifestations of hegemonic power that have also made a deep impression on the Muslim mind. These include foreign military bases in Muslim countries; the dominant presence of huge Western corporations; the pervasive impact of currency markets; the ever–expanding security tentacles of the superpower; plus certain negative traits and influence of Western culture and ideas.
At the popular level, the West is perceived as “biased” against Islam and Muslims. Muslims feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have become victims of double standards and selective persecution. More specifically, Muslims see those responsible for the devastation of Jenin and Fallujah, and the humiliations of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as the ugly face that speaks for the West.
Similarly, many in the West see Islam as synonymous with violence. The Muslim is viewed as a congenital terrorist. They [Westerners] think Osama bin Laden speaks for the religion and its followers. Islam and Muslims are linked to all that is negative and backward. For example, Muslim men, it is alleged, oppress their wives. Women, it is said, have no rights in Islam. Some so–called Western “experts” on Islam argue that Muslims invariably discriminate against non–Muslims. They say Muslims are intolerant. They say Islam is incompatible with democracy and modernity. The demonization of Islam and the vilification of Muslims, there is no denying, is widespread and within mainstream Western society.
It is the duty of all people of goodwill to work hard to change these negative perceptions on both sides of the divide. Undoubtedly, the task is not going to be easy, for these perceptions have deep roots. Since the advent of Islam at the beginning of the seventh century, Christian, and to a lesser degree, Jewish antipathy toward the religion and its Prophet, Muhammad, has grown into active antagonism. The Crusades, Western colonialism, the imposition of Israel on the Arab world, postcolonial hegemony, and the Western desire to control oil and gas, especially those supplies coming from the Muslim countries, have all contributed in one way or another to the huge chasm that has emerged between the West and Islam. The targeting of so–called “Islamic terrorists” in the global fight against terrorism aggravated the situation, and the senseless violence of the terrorists themselves has made things worse.
Quite clearly, we will not be able to change the situation by mere talk, dialogue, and being nice to one another. We must be brave enough, and we must be honest enough, to admit that as long as there is hegemony, as long as one side attempts to control and dominate the other, the animosity and antagonism between the two civilizations will continue. This is why hegemony must end. Mutual respect for one another should replace hegemony. Reciprocity should become the ethical principle that conditions relations between the West and Islam. The West should treat Islam the way it wants Islam to treat the West and vice versa. They should accept one another as equals. Respect, reciprocity, and equality: these are the essential prerequisites for a happy and harmonious relationship between the two civilizations.
It is significant that in both civilizations there exist men and women today who are working toward a genuine transformation in relations, which will bring to an end the animosity and antagonism of the past and the present.
There are many in the West, for instance, who realize that the exercise of hegemonic power and the demonization of Islam are not conducive for intercivilizational peace. It is these voices that the world should listen to. Likewise, there are numerous groups and individuals in the Muslim world who are deeply distressed by the violence and terror perpetrated by certain fringe groups within the ummah, just as they are equally uncomfortable with the sweeping denunciations of Christians, Jews, and the West. They, too, oppose hegemony and occupation, but their words are authentic voices of Islam.
Certain voices, both in the West and in the Muslim world, are not given the prominence they deserve. The mainstream media should give much more attention to them. It is only too apparent that these two groups—one in the West and the other in the Muslim world—share a common perspective on some of the critical challenges facing both civilizations and the world at large. Both are opposed to hegemony. Both reject violence and terror. Both yearn for a just and peaceful world. Both are united by a common bond. It is this common bond that makes them bridge builders.
It is such fine men and women who are capable of reaching out to one another, who are willing to transcend the civilizational divide, which we need badly at this juncture in history. It is a pity that there are not enough of them. One of our most urgent tasks is to multiply the bridge builders. We must develop through the family, education, and the media tens of thousands of men and women who can be critical of the weaknesses and wrongdoings of one’s civilization and, at the same time, be empathetic toward “the other” civilization. When the bridge builders reach a critical mass, their collective power would become so overwhelming that it would destroy the walls erected by those who are hell–bent on keeping Islam and the West apart.
At that point, when the bridge builders reign supreme, the people of the West will speak for Islam and the Muslims will speak for the West.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let us start now by curbing the extremists in our midst. We must put a stop to the mockery of any religion or the sacrilege of any symbol held sacred by the faithful. Let us not underestimate the power of religion as an imperative for people to act. In the face of fanaticism and hysteria, we must take action to counsel moderation and rationality.
On that note, let me conclude by congratulating the Malaysian Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations and Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West for organizing this very important conference and for bringing together in Malaysia a prominent group of people who are serious about the subject of dialogue between civilizations. For those who have come from abroad, I invite you to take this opportunity to look around you and witness for yourself the Malaysia that you might have heard of. I hope you will be able to bear witness to our efforts at nation building in which interfaith and interethnic harmony lies at the core of our national development program.