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French Version

Islam - The West : the imaginary Rift ?

Introduction by the moderator, Mr Pierre-Luc Séguillon
The question is whether the differences and divergences between Islam and the West are due to cultural and religious antagonisms or the result of political confrontations. These problems may be considered not only as major challenges but also as questions of current affairs. Is the opposition between Islam and the West relevant? Are there fundamentally different values in these two spheres? Is the Muslim religion a factor that favours a rift? What is the relationship between this so-called opposition and recent events: the headscarf in France, and, more generally, terrorism?

The headscarf
The debate began with the recent protests against the bill on secularism, one of whose chief aims is to outlaw the wearing of the headscarf at school. In the opinion of Mr Ben Cheikh, the problem constitutes an epiphenomenon that should have been settled by the Muslim religious authorities. The issue masks a debate of far wider scope, as well as fourteen centuries of common civilisation. However, in the long term it will be resolved. The other speakers agreed with this position, with the exception of Mr Murawiec, who considered that certain self-proclaimed members of the elite have instrumentalised the debate. Mr Murawiec maintained that the wearing of the headscarf in France is not only a conspicuous sign, but also a militant act. Those in support of it seek to speak in the name of their community.

Another topical question, “hyper-terrorism”, must be condemned by all, in all its forms. The issue is to combat something undertaken in the name of any religion by people who do not understand the basic tenets of that religion. In the opinion of Mr Tanaskovic, the fight against terrorism cannot be selective, and must not be based on political or strategic criteria.

Mr Ben Cheikh nevertheless made the distinction between mass terrorism and violent attacks against an occupying force, particularly those aimed against the United States in Iraq. Mr Fantar, whose position was similar, pointed out that the French Resistance during the second world war was legitimate.

Mr Murawiec held that the question is not one of terrorism committed by individuals, nor by groups, but of collective actions planned by certain countries (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia).

The relevance of the opposition between Islam and the West
For many of the speakers this opposition holds no relevance. History, geography and the realm of ideas all contradict it. For example, it is impossible to define the geographical areas occupied by Islam and the West. Nor are the notions of “Islam” and “the West” useful, because the frontiers are porous: there are Christian Arabs, and why talk of Serbs, Croatians and Muslims when the Muslims belong to either the Serb or Croatian ethnic group?

Islam itself takes multiple forms, with its different expressions, its schools of thought and the various countries in which it is practised. An approach that reduces its richness to its essentials would probably make it more difficult to deal with the problem.

Are there fundamentally different values in these spheres?
How can one judge the values of others when we hardly know them? In Mr Valcarcel’s opinion, the countries of Europe are highly ignorant of those of the southern shores of the Mediterranean. According to Mr Fantar, it was during the nineteenth century that Europe first came into contact with the Muslim world, just as it was going through a period of decline. We would do well to revive the high points of Islamic civilisation. Islam has already made a contribution to the development of western culture through its language, Arabic, which conveys words and concepts of great importance today, such as algebra and chemistry.

Does the Muslim religion constitute a factor that favours a rift?
The Islamic culture accords significant importance to other cultures. For centuries, the Mediterranean was a key meeting place between cultures. Several speakers maintained that the perceived or real source of a rift lies in ignorance of other cultures, either of the West concerning Islam, or within the Muslim world itself.

The general consensus was that the mainspring of the rift between the West and Islam lies in the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, Mr Murawiec held that this conflict was not the source, but rather the pretext used by Middle East leaders to avoid the question of modernity. He quoted the report published in 2002 by a group of Arab intellectuals questioning the economic and social stagnation of the Arab countries.

Certain Muslim Arab countries have already taken steps towards modernisation, using the Western world as an example. Mr Azab nonetheless wondered about the definition of modernity: does it just consist of the free market? No people refuses modernity if it is defined as “defending the individual and having faith in the individual”. And yet Mr Valcarcel pointed out his belief that there really are states, particularly in the Muslim Arab world, which do reject this notion.

What is to be done?
Several speakers considered that, since the origin of the problem in both worlds is ignorance of the other’s culture, it is precisely mutual knowledge of cultures that must be promoted. Mr Valcarcel noted that history is never innocent but must be studied with discerning judgement. In Mr Murawiec’s view, what the entire Arab world still needs are “tanzimat” (reform programs), each country with its Ataturk to lead it into the modern world.
The need for a dialogue within the framework of mutual respect was also underlined. According to Mr Azab and Mr Tanaskovic, it is particularly important to lessen taboos and not fall into the trap of “political correctness”, so that relevant debate can be encouraged. Mr Azab held that such dialogue cannot be the prerogative of the elites but rather of the people. Mr Ben Cheikh said that respect and solidarity must be created. These should be based not on membership of an ethnic or religious group, but on law, particularly on international law.

Mahmoud AZAB, INALCO professor of Semitic and Islamic civilizations
Ghaleb BEN CHEIKH, physicist, Vice-President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace – WCRP
Mhamed Hassine FANTAR, Ben Ali Professor of Dialogue between Civilizations and Religions
Laurent MURAWIEC, Director of Research at the Hudson Institute
Darko TANASKOVIC, Serbia and Montenegro Ambassador to the Holy See
Ghassan TUENI, former Lebanese minister, former ambassador to the UN, CEO of Editions Dar an Nahar
Dario VALCARCEL, Director of the Politica Exterior journal

Paris,03 08 2004
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