The issue of “dialogue with the other” has once again emerged as a major concern in the Arab intellectual arena, after coming into prominence twice before, in the post cold war era and following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Despite the dominant view publicized in the Arab media, which regards the west as one uniformed block whose citizens agreed to express their hatred and animosity toward Islam through their wholehearted support for the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, reality is far less ominous. In fact, many of us have read in the last few weeks commentaries by a number of western writers who condemned the defamation of religious symbols and attacks on Islam. In their view, freedom of expression should not become a pretext for ridiculing religion or defaming it.
The question of who is “the other” remains unanswered in the majority of Arab conferences and seminars on the subject. The ready answer is always: the West. But what is the west? Is it a religious, cultural or strategic sphere? What are its components?
Often, the answers are preconceived. It is clear, however, that religion is no longer a main element in the west’s identity and civilization. Culture, which is often mistaken for national characteristics, is not a major determinant and neither is strategy.
The concept of the west has it roots in the Middle Ages and the divisions of the Roman Empire and the Church, into east and west. During the Enlightenment era, the Greco-Latin traditions were revived, with the aim of getting rid of Christianity, the link with the east, as a central factor in defining identity.
In the 1950s, the west was redefined along two dimensions:
1- Strategic, when the United States joined Western Europe to form a geo-strategic alliance against the eastern bloc, thereby excluding Eastern Europe.
2- Cultural, when the concept of “Judeo-Christian tradition” was crystallized, at the expense of the Islam, a “cultural coup” according to George Qorm.
In an important book entitled “The case for Islamic-Christian civilization”, the Middle Expert Richard Bulliet revealed the feebleness of this representation and its lack of objectivity.
Bulliet indicated that the historical course of Christianity was organically tied to that of Islam, at least until the 14 th century and the advent of the Renaissance.
However, this difference did not necessarily mean a clash. He suggested that the crisis in the Islamic world is not religious or doctrinal but rather, a crisis of theocracy, resulting from the absence of a single frame of reference for religious matters. He then concluded that, contrary to the dominant picture, fundamentalist forces lacked any real credibility in religious circles across the Muslim world.
What is important for this discussion is to recognize that the term “the west” is in fact an ideological construct than does not withstand objective scientific analysis.
Human sciences have taught us that the “other” is always constructed and identity is not a given; it is the result of a long process of historical formulation and intentional choice. This is why French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, upon studying South-American tribes, indicated that Islam was not stranger to his civilization, in contrast to the South-American tribes.
We are currently witnessing a re-formulation of “the other”, according to new strategies, such as scientific classification or stereotypes publicized in the media. One such example is the Euro-Mediterranean identity, aimed at establishing a new rapport between European and Arab countries around the Mediterranean Sea, for obvious political and strategic objectives.
Dialogue with the other is often at odds with the epistemological dilemma of defining what is exactly meant by “the other”. This is why so many seminars and conferences in the Arab and Muslim world that discuss this issue become either a monologue, where the other is a mirror image (as some westernized intellectuals do), or part of a process to undermine the west, as if it had no relations with is (as radical extremists do). Therefore, imprisoning our identity forbids us from discovering the other.