06/22/2006, 00.00
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Islam, the West, human rights and democracy

by Bernardo Cervellera
Europe must get rid of its secularist and falsely neutral view of religion; Islam must rid itself of its fundamentalism which holds back its development and drives it towards religious wars; the Arab world is in turmoil: a reportage on the conference organised by the scientific committee of the Oasis journal in Egypt.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – A desire to see Christians and Muslims understand and support human rights across the globe is the ambitious goal that led Oasis, a Venice-based international research centre, to organise a conference of its scientific committee in Cairo on June 19-21.

Titled "Fundamental Rights and Democracy", the event saw Al-Azhar University, the oldest Islamic institution of higher learning, pledge greater collaboration.

Since it was founded in 2004, Oasis has become a place of Christian-Muslim dialogue thanks to its rich biannual and multilingual journal.

Card Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, was instrumental in getting the conference organised. He also chaired its activities. Card Peter Turckson, archbishop of Cape Coast (Ghana), and Mgr Franco Follo, Vatican observer at UNESCO in Paris, were among those in attendance. There were also many patriarchs, bishops and prominent Church figures from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Pakistan, and India. Also present were numerous academics from prestigious universities in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Egypt and Indonesia as well as scholars from Al-Azhar University and representatives of the World Jewish Congress.

In the background of the conference, issues relating to human rights and democracy loomed large in the relations between the West and the Islamic world with tensions and questions just below the surface; issues such as Operation Iraqi Freedom aimed at spreading democracy, Muslim criticism of freedom of expression in Europe (the Muhammad cartoon affairs, headscarf ban in France, crucifix in public places, etc.), the lack of fundamental rights of Churches in the Islamic world; Islamic laws against apostasy, etc. . . .

Civilisational Hybridisation

Faced with such problems, Patriarch Scola suggested that we had to avoid both mutual refusal of one another or the falsely innocent wishy-washy integration arguments.

Starting from his concept of "civilisational hybridisation" (i.e. "cultural output that results from mutual influence of civilisations in contact), the cardinal put forward the idea that Christians and Muslims must each bear witness to tackle political issues such as peace, justice, freedom and daily challenges like human relations, work, leisure, rest . . . .

In the conference's inaugural address, he stressed that the main difficulty faced by the West is the emphasis on unrestrained individual rights (i.e. without corresponding duties and laws) and the absolutist claims by the state on "intermediate bodies" and individuals. The negligence has led the state to be indifferent to religions so much so that the "secular" state is very often "anti-religious".

In the Islamic world, this point of view has even greater resonance. Among Muslims the West, modernity and democracy are seen as the consequence of atheism and thus something to be rejected.

For Cardinal Scola, what is needed is a "new secularism", one that views positively society's intermediate bodies (i.e. religions) and turns the state from being an "empty container" into a "certainly non confessional space" but one that is open to religious traditions and avoids the opposition between "extreme individualism" and "collective oppression".

Muslim countries and democracy

Muslim participants echoed such criticism of the state and expressed support for religion as the source of human rights and democracy.

This is essence what Muhammad Nour Farhat, professor in the Philosophy of Law at Egypt's Zagazig University and formerly UN advisor on human rights, argued in his presentation.

In his address, he rejected as racist the notion that the Orient (hence Islam) is culturally condemned to despotism.

"The cultural and religious heritage of the Arab and Islamic world," he said, "is rich in ideas and texts that encourage tolerance, acceptance of others and the use of consultative institutions (shura)". And yet, in the Islamic world there is "fanaticism, despotism, cultural, political and confessional oppression".

All this is due to attempts by "religious" and "ideological" groups who, in the name of faith, nationalism or materialism, reject democracy and human rights or define them in relativistic terms.

Professor Fahrat mentioned no country in particular but one could surmise that he might have been thinking about Saudi Arabia (where democracy is seen as contrary to religious values), Syria (where nationalism is more important than democracy); China (where economic development outweighs human rights) and perhaps Egypt itself (where pluralism and human rights are seemingly upheld but without the proper legislative and social backing).

He illustrated his point by referring to a recent study that measured the place of human rights in what is taught in school. Results indicate that, in percentage terms, human rights are barely mentioned. In Arabic language textbooks only 38 per cent ever mention them; in English language textbooks, the percentage is 18.3; in books used to teach religion, the percentage drops to 14.2; in social sciences, the percentage is 39.2. What is more, the same study shows that several of the texts surveyed do not mention at all pluralism, religious freedom, and coexistence.

According to Professor Fahrat, to implement human rights and democracy it is necessary to change the "educational system and the mass media", which are too often insular or stuck in their ways.

He said he was hopeful that new intellectual elites in Arab countries and new educational programmes that include human rights as a subject matter might have positive influence.

Arab world in turmoil

Mgr Youhanna Golta, auxiliary Coptic-Catholic bishop of Cairo, was hopeful that the media and education can play a positive role in strengthening human rights. Above all, it is necessary to understand that human rights and democracy "are not antithetical to religion," the prelate said.

This explains why John Paul II stressed the significance of a secular vision of human rights, one that is respectful of the various faiths though, when he said that human rights unite "believers of all religions and non-believers alike" in his 1999 World Peace Day message.

By contrast, in the Arab world the term "secular"—which underscores the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights—rhymes with "atheist" and for this reason is rejected.

This refusal is made worse by the growing appeal of fundamentalism and violence which submit man to the arbitrariness "of power in all its forms, especially political power when wielded by religious institutions", and open the way to "religious wars", to the denigration of other religions and deny the notion that "children of the same nation are equal and have the same rights and citizenship".

According to Mgr Golta, except for some differences, the Middle East is still in the "dark ages", suffering from "scientific and religious illiteracy", with traditions "controlling individual and collective behaviours" as religious fundamentalism asserts the "absolute truth" of religion and in doing so chars the truths of science, history and geography, nullifying the "work of reason", extinguishing the "energy of innovation".

For Mgr Golta, the Arab world is in a state of turmoil. On the one hand, it is drawn to modernity and a global civilisation; on the other, it is stuck in its own past unable to move.

"The [average] person in the Arab world feels a stranger in his own home and in his homeland," the prelate noted. "An atmosphere of fear and a conspiracy of silence is growing in Arab societies with regard to mounting injustice and tyranny. Meanwhile, the "religious discourse . . . is unable to bypass . . . a sense of being under siege and stop inciting one against the other. [Instead,] it is nourishing a culture of resentment based on past injustices whose outcome is violence".

To break the stalemate and overcome suffering, we must assert that human rights are the "expression of a modern world and a contemporary culture that respond to the needs of men living in a melting pot. Hence, we must assert that "human rights are not in contradiction with the various religions but are rather inspired by them".

For this reason, institutions that defend human rights and educational programmes that spread a human rights-centred culture are important tools to bring about changes in how people think.

Meeting with Al-Ahzar University

One example of the stalemate and religious and ideological impasse human rights in the Middle East find themselves was a controversy that arose between two participants: Sayf al-Din, a Muslim professor of political science at Cairo University, and Rabbi Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Mr al-Din, in his lecture on human rights in the Qur'an, drifted off into an invective against Israel and the US, responsible in his opinion for the desperation of the Palestinians, the violence in Guantanamo, the occupation of Iraq, all the while saying nothing about terrorism. Mr Singer responded by putting aside his prepared address to defend Israeli policies and democracy.

More productive was the meeting between the Oasis scientific committee and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, rector of Al-Azhar University, the oldest (founded in 998 AD) and most renown Islamic institution of higher learning

After welcoming the delegation led by Patriarch Scola, Al-Tayyeb spoke about the "organic relationship" between Christianity and Islam in particular and monotheistic religions in general. He explained the Qur'anic bases for respect, hospitality and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Although he stressed the view that Islam was the fulfillment of preceding faiths, the rector of Al-Ahzar extolled the virtue of diversity and welcomed "differences".

Mr Al-Tayyeb said that this vision of tolerance, so typical of moderate Islam, is the one his university tries to teach in its courses (offered in more than 60 faculties) to its students (more than 100,000 from 102 countries). None the less, he did acknowledge that Islamism remains an obstacle calling its various forms "heresies that exploit the poor," pushing them towards "guns, tears and blood".

He also said that in order "to ease modern man's sorrow" and "save civilisation", he was willing to increase contacts with other institutions of higher learning, with the Oasis Centre and with the Patriarchate of Venice in particular.

Reciprocity and religious freedom

In the last leg of the great conference participants turned to the future and what could be done. Among the many contributions it is worth to mention Prof Cesare Mirabelli, from Rome's Università di Tor Vergata. Mirabelli, who is the president emeritus of the Italian Constitutional Court, stressed that "fundamental rights", criticised by many for being secular, are never the less "a break to absolute power" and the "totalitarianism of the majority".

Speaking on the issue of "reciprocity", a very touchy topic in Christian-Muslim relations, the Italian scholar explained that Western countries (who guarantee freedom of religion and expression to Muslims) cannot use the principle of reciprocity and deprive their own Muslim citizens of such a fundamental entitlement as leverage against Muslim countries that fail to protect such rights. However, he did suggest that it is appropriate to speak about "extending" such rights to Muslim countries.

In focusing on the issue of "extending" rights, he was not alone; two other participants highlighted the difficult situation Christians face in the Islamic world and demanded that others make a greater commitment to religious freedom. Perhaps the conference itself should have given greater prominence to religious freedom, which is as dear to Benedict XVI as human rights.

In his address, Mgr Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Arabia, talked about the absence of freedom of worship in Saudi Arabia for religions other than Islam. Similarly, Mgr Joaquín Allende, international adviser to Aid to the Church in Need, spoke about the deadly dangers Muslim converts to Christianity face.

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