The Business of Dialogue
By Farish A. Noor
Dialogue is a funny business, particularly when it happens to be dialogue of the inter-civilisational and inter-religious kind. Having just attended yet another Dialogue between Islam and the West in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I find myself compelled to pen these thoughts before my blood pressure rises any further and I risk doing serious damage to myself and the furniture in my office…
The theme of the dialogue conference I attended was ‘Islam and the West: Bridging the Gap’. Now, allow me to state some rather commonsensical yet important observations at this point. If we were to begin the dialogue process by stating that there exists a gap between the Western and Muslim worlds, then in a sense we have introduced the very same problem that we wish to rectify in the first place. How and why has such a gap emerged between the West and Islam; what are the historical and more importantly, political, processes and mechanisms that contributed to this gap; and do Muslims and Westerners perceive there to be a gap in the first place?
It is important to emphasise again and again that the Western and Muslim worlds have been among the oldest civilisational neighbours in the history of humanity. After all, the Muslim world has lived side-by-side next to Western Europe for more than 1,400 years; and if after such a long period we still do not understand each other then we really must be the worst of neighbours. History, however, is replete with examples and instances of genuine dialogue and interaction in all forms and all registers: from the cultural-intellectual borrowing and cross-fertilisation that took place in both communities leading to the renaissance of both the European and Muslim worlds to the enduring traces of cross-cultural contact and appreciation that exists in the hybrid pop culture of both societies until today.
A cursory look at the modern urban landscape of every single postcolonial Muslim-majority country today would testify to the fact that modern Muslims live in a hybrid social space where the public domain is just as much coloured by Islamic norms as it is by Western norms and values: Muslims dream of living in suburban homes, owning two cars, having two kids, two pets, membership to the country club and spending their weekends going to the mall and dining on Western fast food. (When they can afford it) Likewise Europeans and North Americans have no problems eating kebabs and bryani, listening to Rai music, appreciating the poetry of Rumi and the aesthetic delights of Ottoman or Moghul art. (When they can afford it.) So where on earth is this ‘gap’ between the West and Islam?
On a societal level it is hard to see how and why Westerners and Muslims should look askance at each other, for social interaction and dialogue have, in fact, been going on for centuries. If there is a gap to speak of, it is a political one and one that is determined by the workings of power and power-politics on the global stage.
The aim of such dialogues, we are told, is to correct the misunderstandings and misperceptions of Islam in the eyes of the West that have arisen as a result of the escalation of ‘religiously-inspired’ terrorism in the name of Islam. But ask yourselves this question: Prior to the creation of the state of Israel; prior to the intervention into Arab political and social affairs by the American government; prior to imposition of the Washington economic consensus on the economies of the Arab-Muslim world, were there so many instances of Arab-Muslim ‘terror’ against the West?
And if and when these instances of ‘terrorism’ occur, who and what are their targets? Why is it that the attacks on the West seem primarily directed towards the symbols and emblems of American political, military and economic hegemonic power? Why is it that it is Western oil companies, embassies and military bases that are attacked time and again?
Surely it can be seen that much of what fuels this resentment towards the West, and towards America in particular, is the perception that the elites of Western societies have their own agenda to manipulate, control and dominate the economic and political systems of the Muslim world. And surely much of this can and should be seen as a political response to what is primarily a political-economic problem, and not a theological one?
So why is it that Islam is put on trial and Islam has to account for itself? My concerns about these dialogue conferences are manifold, but they can be summed up as follows: Most of these dialogues are held on an inter-governmental level, and they involve the participation of elites from both Western and Muslim societies. Hence the predominance of Ministers, Prime Ministers, Presidents and princes at these high-level meetings that take place in 5-star, 6-star or even 7-star hotels and resorts. Yet these are precisely the very same elites who are collaborating in the skewered geo-political process that has created and perpetuated the gap of power and power-differentials in the first place; and in many ways it is the politics that they practice that is the source of the problem, and not the solution.
My second concern is how these dialogues have rarely ever taken off on an even footing, where both sides engage in meaningful, frank exchanges on an equal basis. In fact, more often than not what happens is that the same coterie of Muslim apologists are invited to ‘explain’ Islam to the West, and to ‘explain’ why Muslims take the course of violence by recourse to some theological explanation. Such an approach places all the blame of Muslim theology and none of the blame of geo-politics and the workings of global capital. But consider the oddity of it all: When a Muslim walks into Mc Donalds to order a Big Mac, nobody asks him if Islam compels him to do that, or suggests that it is the Qur’an that determines his tastes and preferences! Yet when a Muslim protests against American oil companies exploiting the resources of his country, the explanation for this anger and indignation has to be found in Islam somehow.
So how then do we account for the protests against America that have been taking place in Mexico, Venezuela, the rest of Latin America and Africa; where Muslims are few and far between and Islamic religious scripture has little impact? The only conclusion I can come up with is that Islam is once again being set up as the nasty culprit responsible for every act of defiance against Western hegemony that we see in the Third World today.
All in all, the cynical conclusion I have come to is that these high-level inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue conferences and seminars that are held routinely in hotels and resorts the world over have become an end in themselves: A convenient meeting point for Western elites and their third world compradore counterparts to come together and agree upon the terms of the Washington neo-liberal consensus. A waste of time they certainly are, but more than that they also mean big bucks for those who have to foot the bill. Perhaps the only ones who really benefit from them are the hotel managers and owners, who seem to be doing a roaring business whenever dialogue season starts. The funny business of dialogue has become a business, in the end.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.