Wednesday, 16 January 2008

East Meets West

Two monologues do not a dialogue make. And I am afraid that Europe's Year of Intercultural Dialogue is going to founder on this rather crucial distinction. I just sat through a protocol meeting with the Grand Mufti of Syria and his entourage in which the 'conversation' went something like this.

Us: "We are delighted to welcome you here to the European Parliament. Intercultural Dialogue is very important"

Them: "We are delighted to come to the European Parliament. Intercultural Dialogue is very important"

Us: "We hope we can promote unity and discourage extremism through this dialogue"

Them: "We also hope we can promote unity and discourage extremism through this dialogue"

Us: "Religion and politics must be separated"

Them: "Indeed they should. Diversity is God's will. That's why the Jews should never have moved to the holy land from Sanaa or Aleppo or anywhere else in the Middle East. By applying a policy of ethnic exclusivity to an area sacred to all three monotheistic religions and desecrating human dignity they have shown that their state is an historical aberration. Wasn't life better when for thousands of years they lived in peaceful coexistence with their Muslim rulers?" (OK, I'm paraphrasing here, the Mufti actually employed rather conciliatory language which, when analysed afterwards, actually contains this message).

Us: "Time is running short, we are glad you are committed to discussing diversity and secularism. We'll talk about this another time".

Constructive, no?

Having said that, the Grand Mufti (who I assumed to be a fully paid up doyen of the religious establishment but is also a fully paid up member of the political establishment since he is appointed by the government) also said a number of things that merit a mention. He is clearly quite an eloquent chap.
  • A blinkered focus on Sacred Texts stops Jews and Arabs finding a peaceful solution to the problem, whether it be insistence on a Jewish Homeland or the Muslim's exclusive 'right' to rule all territory previously belonged to the Ottoman Caliph.

  • Any solution must be negotiated politically. Blood begets blood. Syria will negotiate a peaceful return of the Golan Heights and is ready to extend the hand of friendship to Israel

  • Europe must not close the door to any side which desires dialogue, including Hamas. Respect for diversity can only come from respecting each other which in turn means respecting the importance of free expression.

  • All states should be secular. Religion is not a matter for politics. It is based on the personal relationship between men and God. As such, the state should not, inter alia, enforce things like prayer - signifying that the all-encompassing Shari'a practiced in some Muslim states oversteps the boundaries of good governance.

It may not be dialogue. But it's always good to see someone else's point of view. Too often in Europe we speak amongst ourselves and then claim to have mastered the problem. More exposure to other perspectives is definitely welcome.

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