Anwar Ibrahim:Civilizational Dialogue in a Divided World

Speech by Anwar Ibrahim at the Opening Assembly of the International Meeting for Peace: Bound to Live Together – Religions and Cultures in Dialogue, Munich, on the 11th September 2011

On this day, exactly ten years ago, when I was still held in solitary confinement in a Federal prison back home, the guard came running to my cell and shouted: “They have bombed the building! Huge explosion, planes were hijacked!” Being cut off from the electronic and print media, I could not at that time visualize the real extent of that event. However, three days later when someone smuggled in a copy of the 12th September newspaper I discovered to my utter horror the carnage and destruction wreaked by the September 11th attacks. Within a week, I managed to dispatch an article to Time magazine condemning the attack and calling for calm and sanity to prevail fearing naturally that this event would unleash reprisals and a new tide of hostility towards Islam and Muslims.

The need to write that article was to a degree prompted by a certain sense of personal culpability. After all, these attacks were perpetuated by self-proclaimed Islamic zealots in the name of jihad while I, on my part, had been an active and vocal proponent of civilizational dialogue vehemently advocating Islam as a religion of moderation and calling for greater understanding from the West. Now that I was in prison, the least I could do was to express full sympathy with the victims’ families and condemnation for these heinous crimes against humanity.

How anyone could commit such dastardly and evil acts is beyond our understanding but we know that the history of mankind is littered with unimaginable acts of depravity and cruelty. And though it is said that “humankind cannot take much reality”, we should at least have the humility to appeal to a higher Reality, one which is the End-All and the Be-All. Here, permit me to quote a short passage from Of The City of God, by St Augustine of Hippo:

“In this, then, consists the righteousness of a man, that he submit himself to God, his body to his soul, and his vices, even when they rebel, to his reason, which either defeats or at least resists them; and also that he beg from God grace to do his duty, and the pardon of his sins, and that he render to God thanks for all the blessings he receives.”

Muslims are enjoined to submit to God and constantly seek His forgiveness for indeed it is only through the humility of the soul before the vastness and magnificence of the Almighty that wisdom may be attained. In the words of the late Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad, popularly known as Frithjoh Schon:

“May the light of wisdom unite

With love to accompany our striving

And may our souls find grace –

The path from God to God – in eternity”

Indeed ‘the light of wisdom uniting with love our striving’ is not just a possibility but will be a certainty if the teachings of all the great religions are viewed rationally and with an open mind. For example, Islam’s tenets enjoin its believers to shun violence and terror by virtue of the principles of moderation and the protection of life, limb and property. So, when the jihadists quote chapter and verse to justify their violence in the cause of Islam we have to tell them that many a religious fanatic whatever the calling or creed can and often do resort to perverse interpretations to justify their actions. In any event, just to take on the issue, it is the view of the overwhelming majority of scholars that jihad can never be used to justify mayhem and murder.

Jihad is spiritual cleansing. It is a call to the soul of the faithful to fulfill the tenets of the religion by doing good and averting evil, establish justice, promote charity and help the weak and the poor. Above all, jihad enjoins Muslims to maintain peace and harmony and safeguard the sanctity of life and property.

This is the cornerstone in the discourse on Islam and the West for the debate has invariably been blindsided by the overriding misconception about Islam being a religion of terror and violence and one diametrically opposed to equality, justice, and human dignity. This ‘belief’ has led certain quarters to conclude that the term ‘Muslim democracy’ is an oxymoron.

But with the advent of the Arab spring, the old paradigm has crumbled and with it, one would hope, also the old misperceptions and prejudices. However, we needn’t have waited for these events to occur just to realize that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible. We have time and again spoken of Turkey as an example of what a Muslim nation can achieve if its leaders stay true to the basic tenets of Islam. Today, with the Arab spring, we are optimistic that the newly emerging democracies of the Middle East will be, like Turkey, modernist, moderate, progressive and tolerant with justice and the rule of law as a motto for governance.

While it is true that changes may not happen overnight, all indications are pointing towards fundamental changes taking place and the skeptics who say that the Arab spring is nothing but a cliché will be proven wrong. Indeed, with so much having been sacrificed, we are optimistic that the ideals of justice, respect for human rights, and good governance will be realized. We would expect the remaining autocrats and dictators to mend their ways and do the necessary or else face the same fates as those who have been overthrown. The sun is setting on a world where democracy, freedom and justice can be denied by merely raising the Islamic bogeyman. But even more importantly, we hope Europe and America will break free from the paranoia that has blinkered their view of Islam and Muslims and marred their domestic and foreign policies.

The Arab spring has shattered not only the pillars of oppressive regimes but the myths and misconceptions spun from years of propaganda and misinformation. While the Islamic fundamentalist/terror bogey should rightly be consigned to the dustbin of history, so should the notion that revolutions can only happen in the Muslim world with menacing mullahs chanting “death to the infidels”.

But in saying this, we are not trying to trivialize the role of Islamists and the consequential debate on Islam and democracy. Indeed, religion, culture and civilization have all impacted our outlooks and world views. There is a history that we must come to terms with and from which we must take our lessons. There were victories and there were defeats but we must not be overwhelmed by the accretions of past influences. Unless we can accept that religious diversity is a unifying force, very little progress can be made.

The reality of religious diversity is acknowledged in the Qur’an which tells us clearly:

“O people! Behold, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes to that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”

Nations clash because of exclusive claims to territorial sovereignty. Likewise, cultures clash because of exclusive claims to the metaphysical truths. But to my mind the higher truths go beyond mere practice and ritual and converge on the singular truth: and that is from God we were sent forth and unto God we shall return.

Expounding the unity of God in Judaism, the great medieval scholar Abu Imran Musa bin Ubaidalluh Maimon al-Qurtubi, popularly known in the Western world as Maimonides, said: God is one and there is no other oneness like His.

That is the way to take us away from darkness into light, from war to peace and from hatred and evil to love and kindness. Speaking for Islam, it is true that ideological rigidity among certain quarters of the religious orthodoxy will continue to be the stumbling block to progress and reform. But the experience of Turkey and Indonesia shows us that such intransigence will not get much traction when Muslims are given their democratic choices. The emerging democracies of the Middle East will soon be put to the test in this regard and we are confident that the moderates will gain the upper hand.

The Qur’an speaks not just to the spirit but to the intellect as well. Muslims are enjoined to examine thoroughly the principles and certitudes within it and this process is a necessary precondition for the ultimate attainment of wisdom and the realization of the eternal principles of the Divine Unity. It is from this unity that the Shari’a is sprung but often those who advocate it seem to forget that while the laws are divinely ordained their application is for humanity. Being so, the Shari’a is therefore not cast in stone but is ever growing and demands an interpretation that is dynamic and progressive.

In this regard, I am reminded again of St. Augustine who in Book One of his well-known treatise on the faith On Christian Doctrine tells us how God’s love is expressed in his use of humanity, and how people may appreciate God’s love through the Scriptures, faith, and charity. According to him, those who think they understand the Scriptures, but do not interpret them to reflect charity and love, do not really understand them.

Our theme for this auspicious gathering resonates with our continuing quest for civilizational dialogue. It is about putting aside one’s differences and reaching out to the other side. It is about a yearning for truth and the pursuit of justice and virtue. Indeed, the world today is more intensely diverse than ever before but yet paradoxically becoming more integrated because of the quantum leaps in technology and connectivity. But in spite of this, it would be a suspension of reality to suggest that this new globalized borderless world has yielded greater peace and harmony.

Nevertheless, in this new world of social networking at one’s finger tips, we cannot deny that the movement for reform, democracy and justice has moved by quantum leaps. In this process, the subscription to shared universal ideals will certainly result in the greater peace and harmony that we yearn for. These are ideals that drive us to seek the truth, justice and compassion.

Thank you.

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