Copyright (c) 2004 The Daily Star


Thursday, November 11, 2004

Bridging the great divide



By Meena Sharify-Funk


From both humanistic and practical standpoints, the current estrangement between Islam and the West is unsustainable. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent American military campaigns have left Muslims and Westerners increasingly distrustful both of each other and of the more humanistic and life-affirming values within their traditions. At the same time, Westerners are finding that they cannot retain a fully "Western" way of life without peaceful relations with Muslims - insofar as the term "Western" is intended to evoke respect for free open societies, democracy, human dignity and human rights. Democracy, after all, cannot be protected or projected through undemocratic means. Likewise, many Muslims are discovering that they cannot fully realize the potential of their faith tradition as long as they find themselves locked in antagonistic relations with a "Western other." Such relations empower extremist factions that are willing to jeopardize the rich and diverse heritage of Islamic civilization in their pursuit of an elusive ideal of cultural purity.

Individuals on both sides of the cultural divide have much to gain from moving beyond preoccupation with tired images, symbols and postures, and toward genuine openness to a new experience of the other. Narrow attachment to preconceived images, inflexible doctrines and fixed political positions prevent dialogue. Most important for both communities at this time is the need to move beyond reactionary impulses triggered by solipsistic discourse - that is to say, self-serving and ethnocentric "either/or" value dichotomies that split the world into opposing camps.

In contrast, dialogue as a tool for transforming conflict implies seeking power with the other rather than power over an alien culture. Ideally, such egalitarian cultural engagement should not merely be an elite endeavor, but rather a more broadly participatory process in which members of estranged cultures rediscover their respective traditions and motivations. Rather than focus primarily on the negative task of debunking stereotypes (as manifest in tendencies of Orientalism and Occidentalism), dialogue seeks to develop new, mutual understandings on a collaborative basis. Such active engagement through sustained dialogue can help us discover shared meaning amidst fear, anger, insecurity and incomprehension.

Dialogue across cultural boundaries makes it possible for members of communities that are in conflict to rediscover their own traditions. By seeking ways of understanding that accommodate present realities as well as external criticisms, practitioners of dialogue allow their traditions to speak to new contexts. In the process, they gain access to empathetic understanding of other cultural systems, and thereby begin a process of broadening and reconstituting the cultural foundations of their own identities. Though this need not mean sacrificing one's own original loyalties, at a minimum it does require more intercultural habits: experiencing other contexts into one's own identity.

Moving beyond reactionary attitudes and ethnocentric behavior requires that the West and Islamic world know one another. Retreating from the challenges of active engagement only serves to strengthen the position of fundamentalists in both communities. In the modern world, retreat to a cultural or political ghetto by any group - be it Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu - is not only a denial of the rich diversity of the contemporary experience, but also a rejection of responsibility for future generations. We need to develop processes of intercultural communication capable of generating respect for diversity within our own communities and outside of our own communities, trust in difference, and self-critique. Participants should not expect immediate rewards, a decisive end of conflict, or "definitive" understanding. Rather, they should seek to help each side understand how the other community reads its identity into the world, while encouraging both sides to work together in the discovery and creation of shared meanings and priorities. Dialogue of this nature would challenge Westerners and Muslims to better understand their own values and ideals as they learn to share them in new ways.

Because the present world affords no scope for authenticity in isolation or security through rigid boundaries, Muslims and Westerners need to experience themselves "in relationship" rather than "out of relationship." Fostering relations of peaceful dialogue in the present climate of mutual recrimination and renewed claims of inherent cultural superiority will not be an easy task. Dominant American and Middle Eastern narratives are remarkably similar in the ways they construct enemy images through selective appropriation of history. As products of ethnocentric behavior, such narratives make war appear natural. Peaceful dialogue, in contrast to war, is proactive and requires deliberate effort to move from the superficial to the relational, from morbidity to creativity, from defensiveness to openness, from a competitive focus on the negative to a cooperative affirmation of positive possibilities, and from the politics of fear and projection to the politics of hope. Positive dynamism requires full engagement of the self with the other, together with awareness that "Islamic" and "Western" relations bear within themselves not just the burdens of past conflicts but also resources for peacemaking in the present.

Meena Sharify-Funk is an Adjunct Faculty member at American University's School of International Service in Washington, D.C. where she co-teaches a course on Islam and democracy. This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service


Copyright (c) 2004 The Daily Star