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OPENING UP ISLAM
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
February 18, 2006

February 18, 2006 -- 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 civilizations."

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 Iran, even invited the democratic governments to impose censorship on any material that might offend even a few believers form any faith.

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, including India's estimated 200 million Muslims.

Matters are further complicated because Islam does not recognize 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. Renan 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 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 believed that no religion could be regarded as the cause of any nation's backwardness and misery. What caused misery and backwardness was the way people practiced 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 centuries 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."

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, can 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 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.

It is only in an open political system, where diversity is acknowledged both as a necessity and a virtue, that all religions can thrive. The answer, therefore, is not more censorship, as Khatami has suggested, but less.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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