The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations

by Sarah Eltantawi
One byproduct of the widespread “clash of civilizations” discourse overtaking discussion of US-Islamic/Middle Eastern relations is the idea that world citizens are either positioning themselves in agreement with or in opposition to the notion of a colossal clash of values between two distinct peoples. Peoples, here, are defined by religious faith and predispositions of thought and attitude based on ethnicity and geographical location. It is on the basis of this essentially binary and simplistic understanding of identity that the conflict between the “Muslim world” and the “West” is understood. It is also along these lines that much well-meaning dialogue is based.

This model of engagement is inherently limited. For western Muslims born and raised in the United States, for example, harsh binaries of fixed identities do not resonate. For what is to be made of the American-born woman of Arab decent? The Anglo-American convert to Islam? The African-American Muslim? The Pakistani Christian? The agnostic Muslim living in Baghdad? And so on.

Meta-narratives describing a clash between "the Muslims" and "the West" have certainly been useful for pundits and politicians wishing, for various reasons, to frame the very complex state of today’s international affairs in 30-second sound bytes which often replace the West with the word “good” and the Muslim world with the word “evil.” But for those of us living with increasing discomfort in an increasingly polarized world, it is becoming ever more imperative that we move beyond these caricatures.

First, it’s important for dialogue partners to understand the material basis of this conflict.
Serious observers of the root causes that fuel recruits for Middle East-based terrorism concur that the political problems are rooted largely in 1) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 2) dictatorships in the Muslim world, and the support that has been given to them now and in the past by the United States. To state this another way, if these two problems were solved, beginning with the first, there would be a measurable reduction in rancor and violence between the two parties in question. At the same time, terrorism is a terrifying, immoral methodology whose horrors must also be fully understood.

Unfortunately, in the United States today, these first two points of contention continue to be relegated to a "problems that can not be named" status in public discourse, the open secret fueling much of this conflict. The unnameable status of these conflicts has perpetuated massive confusion and misinformation in the United States about the grievances, concerns and worries of our interlocutors in the Middle East.

Also underlying the problem is a profound misunderstanding between the so-called Muslim world and the West at the level of culture. Here, there seems to be two basic problems:

On the “western” side, what is needed is a realization that concepts like freedom, justice, a decent standard of living, safety for children, and a good life are not the exclusive domain or desire of the West. For too long, many in the West have been deluding themselves with absurdist notions that “Muslims,” “Arabs,” or those in the “Middle East” are simply not interested in such lofty concepts or do not have such basic human needs. This attitude is only possible through dehumanizing the other, a perennial problem that must be addressed as a prerequisite to conducting all other work.

Seizing on what they know is this bigoted strain in American culture, neo-conservative pundits have been making the very argument I just made– it’s racist to assume Arabs don’t want to be free -- to justify aggressive military expeditions in the region. Hence, the sane middle ground must be understood and supported – Arabs, Muslims, those in the Middle East, like people around the world, want freedom – but, these same people have their own histories and, therefore, their own methodologies for attaining freedom. Arabs and Muslims need neither arrogant dismissal of their concerns nor aggressive, unpopular military adventures to address them, but support for indigenous solutions emerging from within their own contexts.

On the “Muslim” or “Middle Eastern” side, instances of freedom in the West, such as the struggle for women’s rights, or the political freedom found through American democracy, should not be discredited simply because these advances have either been developed or are most widely practiced in “the West.” For too long, words like “gender equality” or “democracy” have been blithely dismissed, simply because such concepts have been developed and/or practiced in the West. This attitude is the medieval equivalent of the West rejecting algebra because it is “Arab.” There are, of course, historical reasons for such distrust – chief among them the legacy of colonialism, in which foreign ideas were used to prove the native inferior, as a cover for violence and economic exploitation. Yet the baby still can not be thrown out with the bath water when it comes to the principles of freedom and equality informing the movements themselves.

Dialogue is also only useful when both parties are truly committed to listening to the problems and grievances of the other. After listening, it then becomes important to exercise empathy – an emotion that can only be called upon when there is an assumption of sameness and common humanity among the parties. We must strive to develop methodologies of engagement and utilize terms of reference that are non-exclusive. Herein lies the problem with the dialogue of civilizations alternative: it assumes that we can speak based on the same relatively crude understandings of identity outlined by Huntington—strictly along religious or ethnic lines. Importantly, however, this is not to say that the solution is the opposite extreme, or exclusivist secularism, in which no religious perspective is allowed.

A solution is dialogue based first on knowledge of facts of the material problems of war, occupation, and terrorism that are fueling this problem. Dialogues that avoid these issues have limited value, as these material concerns are the basis of the conflict. Recognizing our common humanity and concomitant basic needs and desires as human beings, we must work on exercising empathy for the grievances of all sides of the conflict. This methodology and understanding of people is simultaneously more pragmatic and simpler than attempting a meta-dialogue between generalized symbols of religion or culture – called “civilization,” in which people and their needs tend to get lost.

Sarah Eltantawi is a co-founder and Communications Director of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America.

Source: CGNews, December 10, 2004

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata