Earlier this month the Malaysian capital Kuala-Lumpur hosted a conference with the title: “Who Speaks For Islam, Who Speaks for the West?”
The conference, attended by some 60 politicians and official scholars from two dozen countries, had been planned months ago and was designed as an exercise in the now fashionable “dialogue of civilisations”.
As things turned out, however, the controversy over the Danish newspaper cartoons dominated the proceedings, and produced a set of monologues about imposing limits on freedom of expression.
One speaker, former President Muhammad Khatami of the Islamic Republic, even invited the democratic governments to impose censorship on any material that might offend even a few believers form any faith.
The first difficulty that the conference faced stemmed from its title.
What do we mean by “The West”?
If we use this as a geographic term then Iran is certainly “The West” as far as Malaysia is concerned. But if we take the term to mean a type of civilisation based on individual rights, political pluralism, and a market economy, then the term applies to over 140 countries that have adopted the “democratic-capitalist” model, among them India which is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world, and, to some extent, even such majority Muslim countries as Malaysia, Bangladesh and Turkey.
The conference also had difficulty with the other half of its title, doing with Islam.
t was obvious that the participants could not agree on any definition of Islam. Theologically, there are five major “schools” of Islam, each divided into numerous smaller ones. And when it comes to individual practice, Islam, like other religions, is, in the end, what its adepts make of it. Who can say that this or that suicide-bomber is not a Muslim? The most that one can do is to say that he is a politically misguided Muslim. By the same token, the suicide-bomber would probably regard the majority of Muslims as “lapsed” ones or even “ kuffar” (infidels).
The implicit assumption of the conference was that, when it comes to Islam, only governments have the authority to speak on its behalf. But anyone with knowledge of contemporary Islam would know that most Muslims reject that pretension. In many Muslim countries there is no dialogue even within the national family, let alone between the nation and other countries.
Even then Islam is not limited to those who live in Muslim majority countries. In fact, at least a quarter of Muslims live as minority communities in more than 130 countries. We have already noted India’s estimated 200 million Muslims. There are also some 50 million Muslims in China and at least another 100 million in non-Muslim lands in Australasia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Matters are further complicated because Islam does not recognise church-like structures and priest-like hierarchies.
One could say that the Pope speaks for the Catholic Church. But a similar assertion cannot be made of anyone in the case of any of the various Islamic schools.
Back in the 19th century Jamaleddin Assadabadi, alias al-Afghani, engaged in a debate with the French scholar Ernest Renan over a similar division of the world.
In a lecture in Paris, Renan had argued that Muslims, shackled by their faith as he thought them to be, were incapable of ever joining man’s great quest for science.
Assadabadi had countered that claim by pointing out that it was wrong to divide the world into the West and Islam.
Instead, he suggested the world be divided into “free” and “unfree” nations. The free ones could advance in science and build a more prosperous life for their people. The “unfree”, however, were doomed to backwardness, tyranny and misery.
Assadabadi rejected the Marxian analysis under which culture, including religion, provides the superstructure of a politico-economic infrastructure that acts as the matrix for values, norms and contractual transactions in society. But he believed that no religion could be regarded as the cause of any nation’s backwardness and misery. What caused miser and backwardness was the way people practised their faith. And that, Assadabadi noted, was a political choice. The same Muslims who were castigated by Renan as incapable of scientific thinking had, back in the 8th and 9th century AD, created and maintained the only currents of scientific research and study at the time.
In other words when Muslims were relatively free, at least in comparison to the Christians, they had no difficulty with science.
The division proposed by Assadabadi remains true today.
The world is still divided between “free” and “ unfree” nations rather than “ The West and “ Islam”. At the same time, partly thanks to globalisation and mass migrations of recent decades, there are “ unfree” spaces in many free societies while spaces of freedom also exist in some “ unfree” countries.
Now let us return to the theme of the Kuala-Lumpur conference.
If by the West we mean all the free societies in the world it is clear that no one in particular could claim to speak for all of them. The task of speaking for them , as far as political and legal matters are concerned, is incumbent on their freely elected governments. But when it comes to culture, art, religion, and political opinions all citizens of the free societies speak for themselves.
Khatami might not know it but the Prime Minister of Denmark or the President of France cannot claim to be the sole voice of their respective nations when it comes to matters beyond their specific political responsibilities. The censorship that Khatami wants to impose is possible only in the Islamic Republic of Iran and similar systems.
The only valuable dialogue between Islam, in its multiple forms, and the West, also in its diversity, could take place at a people-to-people level. Muslims should be allowed to read books and newspapers, see films, watch television and listen to the music produced in the West.
In exchange the peoples of the West should be able to have direct access to Islam’s cultural, artistic and philosophical production.
And, yet, we know that this cannot happen for as long as censorship remains a key element in the policies of most majority-Muslim states.
As far as dialogue is concerned that leaves only one possibility: talks at the official level. That, of course, is both useful and desirable. Despite the structural differences between most Muslim states and their Western counterparts dialogue could still help reduce tension and identify areas of agreement.
What is important, however, is that it be made clear from the outset that such a dialogue is of diplomatic and political nature and in no way implicates Islam as a religion and culture. The object of such a dialogue should be the recognition of an international public space regulated by laws and rules that are not rooted in any particular religious faith. And it is precisely in such a faith-neutral space that Islam, Christianity and other religions can come into contact, exchange experiences, and, yes, even compete for attention and support.
While religion is not compatible with political diversity, let alone democracy, political diversity and democracy are compatible with religion. In fact it is only in an open political system, where diversity is acknwoeldged both as a necessity and a virtue, which all religions can thrive. The answer, therefore, is not more censorship, as Khatami has suggested, but less.