Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 10–11, 2006
Funded by the governments of Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and France; the MacArthur Foundation; and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
The conference “Who Speaks for Islam? Who Speaks for the West?” represented more than two–and–a–half years of substantive and administrative preparations, during which time Dialogues’ staff refined the core intellectual concepts behind the conference, drafted and translated background materials, liaised with the government of host country Malaysia, and continued to raise funds.
The original idea for the conference emerged from a recommendation at Dialogues’ first international conference, “Clash of Civilizations or Clash of Perceptions?” in Granada, Spain, in October 2002. Most participants felt that questions central to “defining Islam” required further discussion. 1 Many participants felt strongly that the intra–Islamic debate should take precedence over the cross–cultural debate. It was thus suggested that a conference be held that would invite Muslims of conservative, modernist, Islamist, and secular thought to sit together to discuss their views on the nature of religious authority. This task was considered especially important at a time when the official ulama (religious scholars) appear to be under attack, in part from youth and women, and when radical fundamentalists are attempting to establish their own religious monopolies. The Granada participants believed that this debate could well help foster a valuable exchange of opinions within the Muslim world, which was regarded, in turn, as an integral step toward achieving wider dialogue with the West. But it soon became clear that the question of who speaks for Islam begs its counterpart: who speaks for the West? This new dimension of the debate reflected the confusion in the West that mirrors the confusion in the Muslim world with regard to the sources of authority. Dialogues thus adopted a two–pronged conference theme, questioning both Muslim and Western systems of legitimacy, not only for the sake of taking a balanced approach, but also with an eye toward advancing the quest for understanding between Islam and the West. Over the course of the two–and–a–half years of planning, the conceptual premise of the conference was continually refined through exchanges with various thinkers and policy makers in the United States, Europe, and the Muslim world, including at a preparatory committee convened in Amman, Jordan, on December 6–7, 2004, and hosted and chaired by His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal. Our most sincere gratitude goes to His Royal Highness for his generosity and his steadfastness on behalf of the cause of peace and understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
In keeping with Dialogues’ tradition of grounding its conferences in solid scholarly research, its staff assembled two working groups to draft background papers—one on “Who Speaks for Islam?” and the other on “Who Speaks for the West?” The papers are meant to offer analytical, politically neutral surveys of those who claim to speak with authority in either world and thereby offer a foundation for debate among the conference participants in Kuala Lumpur. Over a two–year period, the papers were drafted and revised with the objective of producing the most accurate, comprehensive, and informative documents that the program could produce with its resources. The papers were translated from English into Arabic, and both versions were made available to the participants prior to the conference. In addition to Mustapha Tlili; Shaanti Kapila, Dialogues’ special assistant; and Shara Kay, Dialogues’ editorial consultant, the “Islam” working group was also composed of Hassan Abedin of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Mohammed Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at James Madison College, Michigan State University. The “West” team included Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University; and Scott Malcomson, journalist and author. Our thanks go to all of them for their unsparing efforts in pursuit of accurate knowledge, clarity of expression, and elegance of style.
We came to an early decision that the conference should be held in a non–Arab, majority–Muslim country, and in September 2003, I met with the then–prime minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, and proposed that the Malaysian government serve as host and cosponsor. As a centrist, pluralist, multicultural democratic country with a majority–Muslim population, Malaysia seemed a fitting choice. Although Dr. Mahathir strongly supported the idea and agreed in principle to host the conference, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi replaced him as prime minister on October 31, 2003, and the government’s decision was thus not formally delivered until January 2005. Although the Institute Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) was initially designated by the Malaysian government as the cosponsor organization in 2004, in September 2005, the Malaysian government turned over local responsibility for the conference to the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations Malaysia (IDFR), an agency within the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that provides formal training to Malaysian foreign service officers. IKIM Chairman Tan Sri Dato Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid and IDFR Director Fauziah Mohd Taib, as well as her colleagues, deserve our most sincere thanks.
Fund–raising is always essential to successful conference planning. Generous annual contributions from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 2004 and 2005 enabled Dialogues to undertake initial steps, including the drafting of background papers, the convening of the preparatory committee, and planning missions to Kuala Lumpur. With the formal approval of the Malaysian government to host the conference secured in January 2005, Dialogues stepped up fund–raising efforts. In addition to Malaysia’s important financial support, significant contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France enabled Dialogues to convene the conference in February 2006. To all of these supporters we say thank you, and we hope that this report shows the importance and far–reaching effects of your contributions.
Two weeks before the conference was convened, the world witnessed the eruption of an international crisis prompted by a Danish newspaper’s publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
On September 30, 2005, Denmark’s largest circulation and historically right–wing newspaper, Jyllands–Posten, printed 12 drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, including one showing him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb and another showing him with devil horns. On October 19, a delegation of ambassadors from Muslim countries posted in Denmark attempted to meet with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss the issue. The prime minister rejected the request on the grounds that the government could not interfere in a free speech issue. Frustrated by the lack of response, a delegation of Danish Muslim leaders traveled to Cairo to present the matter to the scholars of Al Azhar University, a theological institution renowned throughout the Muslim world as an authority on Islamic faith and practice. Meanwhile, as the controversy was building, a Norwegian publication, Magazinet, reprinted some of the images on January 10, 2006.
The cartoons offended millions of Muslims around the world who perceived a willful violation of the proscription on visual depictions of the Prophet, exacerbated by the linking of Islam with terrorism. With further reprintings, the controversy became a crisis. On February 1, newspapers in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, including France–Soir, Die Welt, and Courrier International, reprinted the cartoons on their front pages as a sign of solidarity with the Danish paper. On February 8, the French satirical weekly, Charlie–Hebdo, published a special issue with the full set of cartoons, adding new ones in the same vein.
Numerous demonstrations took place in early February, with the largest and most dramatic occurring in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. Subsequently, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Qatar, the Sudan, the United Kingdom, and Yemen. While some protests were peaceful, others were violent; 13 people died in total in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Danish embassies were stormed by angry mobs in Beirut, Tehran, and Damascus. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and much of the Gulf, Danish products were boycotted and two Danish factories were temporarily closed.
The intense reaction around the Muslim world, coupled with equally intense reactions among European populations, made the issue a top international news item, with politicians and heads of state called on to weigh in with their opinions. Several Western leaders expressed their strong commitment to freedom of the press while noting the need to exercise such liberty with care. U.S. President George W. Bush, for instance, stated that “with freedom comes the responsibility to be thoughtful about others.”2 In France, President Jacques Chirac denounced “all manifest provocations that might dangerously fan passions.”3 In Vienna, the then–president of the European Union, Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel of Austria, condemned the “spiral of reciprocal provocations and insults that fuels the flames of intolerance.”4
The conference took place in the midst of this controversy—immediately after the embassy burnings in the Levant and before the major demonstrations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The cartoons affair, which pushed the Muslim and Western worlds to confront familiar issues of respect, freedom, and tolerance in new, concrete circumstances, thus informed panel debates and lent an added sense of urgency to the conference.
This report offers the findings of both our preparatory efforts and the conference itself. My gratitude goes to Mohammad–Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University; Shaanti Kapila, Yale University graduate and special assistant at Dialogues; Shara Kay, a graduate of Harvard University and Dialogues’ editorial consultant; Marisa Menna, a New York University graduate and Dialogues’ intern; and Andrea Stanton, a doctoral student at Columbia University, all of whom worked tirelessly under my supervision to make this report worthy of your time and consideration. At this critical moment in the Muslim–Western encounter, we hope to have made an informative, provocative, and useful contribution to the dialogue.
Founder and Director
Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – The West
New York University