The Business of Dialogue

By Farish A. Noor

Dialogue is a funny business, particularly when it happens to be dialogue of the inter-civilisational and inter-religious kind. Having just attended yet another Dialogue between Islam and the West in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I find myself compelled to pen these thoughts before my blood pressure rises any further and I risk doing serious damage to myself and the furniture in my office…

The theme of the dialogue conference I attended was ‘Islam and the West: Bridging the Gap’. Now, allow me to state some rather commonsensical yet important observations at this point. If we were to begin the dialogue process by stating that there exists a gap between the Western and Muslim worlds, then in a sense we have introduced the very same problem that we wish to rectify in the first place. How and why has such a gap emerged between the West and Islam; what are the historical and more importantly, political, processes and mechanisms that contributed to this gap; and do Muslims and Westerners perceive there to be a gap in the first place?

It is important to emphasise again and again that the Western and Muslim worlds have been among the oldest civilisational neighbours in the history of humanity. After all, the Muslim world has lived side-by-side next to Western Europe for more than 1,400 years; and if after such a long period we still do not understand each other then we really must be the worst of neighbours. History, however, is replete with examples and instances of genuine dialogue and interaction in all forms and all registers: from the cultural-intellectual borrowing and cross-fertilisation that took place in both communities leading to the renaissance of both the European and Muslim worlds to the enduring traces of cross-cultural contact and appreciation that exists in the hybrid pop culture of both societies until today.

A cursory look at the modern urban landscape of every single postcolonial Muslim-majority country today would testify to the fact that modern Muslims live in a hybrid social space where the public domain is just as much coloured by Islamic norms as it is by Western norms and values: Muslims dream of living in suburban homes, owning two cars, having two kids, two pets, membership to the country club and spending their weekends going to the mall and dining of Western fast food. (When they can afford it) Likewise Europeans and North Americans have no problems eating kebabs and bryani, listening to Rai music, appreciating the poetry of Rumi and the aesthetic delights of Ottoman or Moghul art. (When they can afford it.) So where on earth is this ‘gap’ between the West and Islam?

On a societal level it is hard to see how and why Westerners and Muslims should look askance at each other, for social interaction and dialogue have, in fact, been going on for centuries. If there is a gap to speak of, it is a political one and one that is determined by the workings of power and power-politics on the global stage.

The aim of such dialogues, we are told, is to correct the misunderstandings and misperceptions of Islam in the eyes of the West that have arisen as a result of the escalation of ‘religiously-inspired’ terrorism in the name of Islam. But ask yourselves this question: Prior to the creation of the state of Israel; prior to the intervention into Arab political and social affairs by the American government; prior to imposition of the Washington economic consensus on the economies of the Arab-Muslim world, were there so many instances of Arab-Muslim ‘terror’ against the West?

And if and when these instances of ‘terrorism’ occur, who and what are their targets? Why is it that the attacks on the West seem primarily directed towards the symbols and emblems of American political, military and economic hegemonic power? Why is it that it is Western oil companies, embassies and military bases that are attacked time and again?

Surely it can be seen that much of what fuels this resentment towards the West, and towards America in particular, is the perception that the elites of Western societies have their own agenda to manipulate, control and dominate the economic and political systems of the Muslim world. And surely much of this can and should be seen as a political response to what is primarily a political-economic problem, and not a theological one?

So why is it that Islam is put on trial and Islam has to account for itself? My concerns about these dialogue conferences are manifold, but they can be summed up as follows: Most of these dialogues are held on an inter-governmental level, and they involve the participation of elites from both Western and Muslim societies. Hence the predominance of Ministers, Prime Ministers, Presidents and princes at these high-level meetings that take place in 5-star, 6-star or even 7-star hotels and resorts. Yet these are precisely the very same elites who are collaborating in the skewered geo-political process that has created and perpetuated the gap of power and power-differentials in the first place; and in many ways it is the politics that they practice that is the source of the problem, and not the solution.

My second concern is how these dialogues have rarely ever taken off on an even footing, where both sides engage in meaningful, frank exchanges on an equal basis. In fact, more often than not what happens is that the same coterie of Muslim apologists are invited to ‘explain’ Islam to the West, and to ‘explain’ why Muslims take the course of violence by recourse to some theological explanation. Such an approach places all the blame of Muslim theology and none of the blame of geo-politics and the workings of global capital. But consider the oddity of it all: When a Muslim walks into Mc Donalds to order a Big Mac, nobody asks him if Islam compels him to do that, or suggests that it is the Qur’an that determines his tastes and preferences! Yet when a Muslim protests against American oil companies exploiting the resources of his country, the explanation for this anger and indignation has to be found in Islam somehow.

So how then do we account for the protests against America that have been taking place in Mexico, Venezuela, the rest of Latin America and Africa; where Muslims are few and far between and Islamic religious scripture has little impact? The only conclusion I can come up with is that Islam is once again being set up as the nasty culprit responsible for every act of defiance against Western hegemony that we see in the Third World today.

All in all, the cynical conclusion I have come to is that these high-level inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue conferences and seminars that are held routinely in hotels and resorts the world over have become an end in themselves: A convenient meeting point for Western elites and their third world compradore counterparts to come together and agree upon the terms of the Washington neo-liberal consensus. A waste of time they certainly are, but more than that they also mean big bucks for those who have to foot the bill. Perhaps the only ones who really benefit from them are the hotel managers and owners, who seem to be doing a roaring business whenever dialogue season starts. The funny business of dialogue has become a business, in the end.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 - 7:11 pm

    Correct, correct, correct – without these “high-level inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue conferences and seminars”, how can life go round and round for the regular kaki who hop from one fully paid dialogue conference or seminar to another in different parts of the world?

    This is a game that brings smile to the faces of MICE managers and organizers who happily spent the $$$ of sponsors.

  2. #2 by alaneth on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 - 9:01 pm

    You are right – the concept of avoiding what we dislike is by not mentioning that it is happening, worse still mentioning it in the context of the dialogue.

  3. #3 by NG on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 - 9:32 pm


  4. #4 by limkamput on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 - 11:04 pm

    Sorry Farish Noor, I don’t quite understand what is your point. American imperialism is everywhere and I think everybody know that. My question to you is do other people react the way Arab Muslim reacted? Are you trying to say that the “terror” response, even though it has nothing to do with Islam/Muslims, is justifiable?

  5. #5 by limkamput on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 - 11:05 pm

    …and i think everybody knows that.

  6. #6 by lyhmsia on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:02 am

    I would like to share some thoughts about Farish Noor article. I don’t believe that Farish is endorsing terrorism. He’s asking us to identify the root cause. What causes terrorism to flourish? If we don’t look into the problem more in-depth we can never solve the problem.

    Let’s analyze the root cause of high fuel prices happening in Malaysia now. What causes the fuel prices to rise? Certainly we can blame the global demand and supply economy.

    But if we look more in-depth we can blame the corrupted government that stole all natural resources. Thus, we don’t have efficient public transportation and higher wages.

    Why the people elected BN as the government? Because BN controlled the media, therefore most people elected BN.

    However, doesn’t most Malaysian know that BN is corrupted? Yes, we know BN is corrupted.

    We accepted corruption because we’re part of the system. We’re corrupted too. I’ve friends that change the electric meter so they have cheaper electric bill. We too steal! Didn’t we buy pirated VCD or DVD? We’re part of the system. Because we’re corrupted, we don’t elect DAP for a long time.

    Alas, it’s always easier to blame others. Just like Western world to blame the problem on another religion. Hence, you can divert the responsibility to others.

  7. #7 by Samuel Goh Kim Eng on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:40 am

    In certain cases of international dialogue
    It’s almost like one log talking to another log
    Or it may be just one log talking as in monologue
    But worst of all when all talk at the same time to create ‘polylogue’

    (C) Samuel Goh Kim Eng – 120608
    Thur. 12th June 2008.

  8. #8 by cherasusie on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:52 am

    can’t even find a bridge for malaysians but try to wear big hat……. bridging the gap between west and muslim world?

    unity? after 50 years, the same government also cannot formulate an acceptable system for all to move forward together.

    everything was and is swept under the carpet…….bridging the gap?

    why keep changing the constitutions agreed by the merdeka heroes? or did the merdeka heroes cheated the colonial government and the people then just to get merdeka?

    did the merdeka heroes lied?

    we badly need a bridge ourself……..start building it before its too late.


  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 6:18 am

    Whilst Farish is right about:

    · “cultural-intellectual cross borrowing and cross-fertilisation” between Islam & West inn many “modern urban landscape of every single postcolonial Muslim-majority country” or Western majority country;

    · “Muslims’ resentment towards the West, and towards America in particular” based on the “perception that the elites of Western societies have their own agenda to manipulate, control and dominate the economic and political systems of the Muslim world”

    · and limited efficacy of “high-level inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue conferences and seminars that are held routinely in hotels and resorts the world over”,

    however there are, at present, obvious real unbridgeable (or difficult to bridge) ideological, theological and cultural differences in norms and values between Islam and the West which cannot be merely dismissed as if they do not exist by his simplification that – “if there is a gap to speak of, it is a political one and one that is determined by the workings of power and power-politics on the global stage”.

  10. #10 by bernadette on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 6:20 am

    “All in all, the cynical conclusion I have come to is that these high-level inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue conferences and seminars that are held routinely in hotels and resorts the world over have become an end in themselves: A convenient meeting point for Western elites and their third world compradore counterparts to come together and agree upon the terms of the Washington neo-liberal consensus. A waste of time ..”

    yes and don’t forget it is also the time when our PM and his deputy take a breather from work and from their wives i.e. to play golf and wine and dine at the best restaurants at tax payers expense, and maybe sneek to las vegas for a game of black jack or two when they are not seeing their mistresses!

  11. #11 by bernadette on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 6:32 am

    blaming the writer for your own inability to comprehend simple english is to go on an ego trip that nobody is interested in following up.

  12. #12 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 6:54 am

    Aren’t the following ideological, theological and cultural differences in norms and values between Islam & the West real, to name just a few –

    · Islam’s ideal of the Islamic state based on sovereignty of God’s laws and Western secular premises of sovereignty of man made laws in representative government ‘of the people for the people by the people’;

    · Muslims societies believe in the submission to religion in all aspects the way of life (‘adin’) which necessarily blur the lines between public and private morality, morality and criminal law while western societies generally upholds individualism and maintain a demarcation drawing the line based on utilitarian consideration of “harm” to others before sanction of criminal law applies;

    · in terms of family structure polygamy is allowed for in Muslim societies whilst Westerners uphold monogamy or serial monogamy (changing wives after divorce); and women in muslim societies are not generally encouraged to assert independence and equality of roles as men as their western counter parts;

    · Westerners take for granted the freedom to freely exit from majority religion or to have no religion whilst apostasy in Muslim societies is abhorred;

    and so on and so on…… ???

    Islamists world over do not just get angry with Western powers in particular and the USA for her geo-politics, support of Israel and the workings of global capital and intervention in muslim lands and affairs. They have also attributed Western ideologies and societies as the cause of evil and moral corruption and decadence.

    The Cause of World Peace is better served by acknowledging the existence of cultural and religious differences between Islam and West – the tension between which and struggle to reconcile the gap being probably raging within the author himself subject to the pull of both – and each side to appreciate and tolerate these differences rather than denigrating the differences to a mere “political one and one that is determined by the workings of power and power-politics on the global stage”.

  13. #13 by limkamput on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 8:31 am

    Some people like to masquerade their identities under different IDs and yet at the same time want to come here condemning unethical behaviour here and there among our leaders are the real bunkum.

  14. #14 by lkc57 on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 9:58 am

    No two persons are exactly identical. No two minds think alike. Not even identical twins. Differences are bound to exist.

    What puzzles me very much is that Muslims have too many sensitive issues. Religions teach us to be tolerant, trying to understand each other well in order to co-exist in harmony and peace. Business books teach us the skills of negotiation to resolve conflicts, instead of hardheadedly pursuing a path of defiance, which will end of in failure to resolve difference and further complicate matters.

    Having sensitive issues means opening up weaknesses for opponents to take advantage of. God has given us intelligence which we must use intelligently. To say there is a gap, is as good as drawing a divide between the two worlds. The platform is flawed for any successful discussion, negotiation , or dialogue to arrive at a common understanding.

  15. #15 by Allan818 on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 10:13 am

    Politics Must Take the Backseat Now

    The axe has fallen. And it fell hard. Petrol price at Malaysian pumps increased by 40% overnight. A hike of RM0.78. But in reality, an increase, no matter how painful, was inevitable. Rational Malaysians are not under the illusion that we will be spared this global phenomenon but the quantity of increase and timing is an issue of debate on the ground.

    Members of Parliament and State Assemblymen must have had to use their spare battery last night because the flood of calls and SMS would have overtook the congratulatory messages they received when they secured their seats.

    Our elected officials must answer pertinent and pressing questions. Why wasn’t there a longer time frame to condition the mindset of Rakyat?. If you save RM56 billion from the reduction in subsidy, where is the funds channeled to? What are the immediate and long term plans for use to encounter this problem? What are proposed improvements to public transportation? Are we examining the use of alternative energy, if yes what is the extent of the study? Is Proton going to manufacture cheap, easily accessible and functioning hybrid cars? What are the policies to assist businesses adversely affected by the hike? How would you enforce retailers increasing prices for a profit?. These and many-many more….

  16. #16 by i_love_malaysia on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 10:14 am

    Straight to the point is the solution to any problem.
    Dont hide behind the name of religion to fight for any cause (unless it is really true) and dont let others to misuse the name of their religion to fight for their own cause. As long as these two are not resolved, we can continue to have dialogue until the cows come home!!!

  17. #17 by BoycottLocalPapers on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 10:43 am

    I think this problem will be solved once Muslim religious leaders stopped trying to force their way of life on non-Muslims. Just look at Muslim dominated countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, etc where non-Muslims are discriminated.

    The West believe in freedom of religion while Islamic world even though they claimed that there is no compulsion in religion, they do not practise it. Just look at religious persecutions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. In fact, we don’t need to go that far to see why there will always be a big gap between the West and Islam . Just look at Lina Joy’s case or the persecution of Ahmadiya sect in Indonesia. In fact, there is a very big gap among Muslim themselves. Look at the Sunni-Shia disputes and wars. At international stages, our leaders hypocritically claimed that the Shias are their fellow Muslims. But at home, they banned and persecuted the Shia sect.

    Why In the West, the Shias and Ahmadis are allowed to freely propagate their religion but not in Muslim dominated countries like Malaysia or Indonesia?

    So as long as freedom of religion is not embraced by the Muslims, I think these numerous talks like ‘Islam and the West: Bridging the Gap’ dialogue is a waste of time and money.

    The West has moved on while the Islamic World is still stuck in the past talking about Jihad and seeing Westerners as Crusaders.

    We have to accept the fact that the West and Islamic world cannot see eyes to eyes for the past 1400 years (i.e. since the Muslim invasions of Syria, Palestine, Persia, and Europe) and for the next 1,400 years. As long as we agree to disagree without trying to harm the other party who disagrees with us, we can co-exist. Unfortunately, in this country, the UMNOputras will persecute those who disagree with them even though they claimed to believe in democracy. Just look at that idiotic Datuk Ahmad Munawar Abdul Jalil who asked the Pahang state government to review the raw water concession with Selangor as it was no longer under Barisan Nasional (BN) and Najib who is not happy that two Gerakan leaders took up posts offered by Pakatan Rakyat goverment.

    I believe a charismatic Muslim leader like Anwar Ibrahim who understands the plight of non-Muslims in this country will be able to help the bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims.

  18. #18 by boh-liao on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 11:41 am

    AAB said Wednesday that there won’t be any fuel price increase for the rest of the year.

    Can we believe or trust him on this issue?

    Can we also believe or trust him on issues arising from any dialogue?

  19. #19 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:14 pm

    “Business books teach us the skills of negotiation to resolve conflicts” – lkc57

    But that is Business books : the object of business is profit. Profit is a relative concept. (1) It can be deferred. [Eg. one sells something cheap today in order to knock out competitors so that price may be raised thereafter for profit after the market is cornered]; (2) it may be substituted [Eg. One takes on a non profitable socio-economic project to develop low cost houses in exchange for a profitable infrastructure project awarded by the govt.] That which can be deferred or substituted can be negotiated for which dialogue is productive.

    In contrast, matters of religion and religious values are not relative – they can neither be deferred nor substituted – but are absolutist by nature and definition beyond negotiation. If one for example believes that apostasy is wrong against the specific injunction of the Almighty, can that be negotiated and argued by a non believer or believer of pluralistic principle of ‘to each his own’ in matters of religion?

    Dialogue is possible only in limited sense in the presence of mutual knowledge and shared core beliefs between the two parties but where there are little shared norms, beliefs and values or even knowledge in depth of one another’s religion, where is the platform for successful discussion, negotiation or dialogue to arrive at a common understanding?

  20. #20 by limkamput on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:49 pm

    Why not, negotiate to “agree to disagree”. This is certainly one of the options which all religions must learn to accept. All religions must be made to understand they can’t impose on others, their principles are not necessary the universal truth, but truth only to their respective followers.

  21. #21 by limkamput on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 12:51 pm

    “absolutist” to who may i ask? So there is certainly ground for negotiation.

  22. #22 by lakilompat on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 1:44 pm

    “AAB said Wednesday that there won’t be any fuel price increase for the rest of the year.”

    How can u believe AAB when everyone thought the fuel hike will be in August, but then announce it to be immediate.

    Everytime fuel prices increases, his old say will be “Ubah Gaya Hidup” why not “Ubah Kera”

  23. #23 by rainbowseahorse on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 7:58 pm

    Come end of June 2008, I suspect the government might reduce the fuel prices by between 20 to 40 cents.
    By the way the UMNO gang seem more relaxed these couple days, I think whatever crisis some smart Aleck did to spook and panicked that poor old Badawi into making a very hasty and irrational hike in fuel prices has or will pass very soon. So the government will soon afford to give some reduction in fuel prices to: Quote by Badawi:”lighten the people’s burden and also because the government always have the people’s welfare at heart”.Unquote.
    The crux of the fuel reduction at the end of June 2008 (if it is to come) is to pacify us STUPID Malaysians into believing how very generous and caring Badawi’s government is.

    Talking about dialogue, I think before we Malaysians go all “gang-ho” and hand power to PKR Anwar on a silver platter, is there a way that we can have a dialogue with him to secure some guarantees that he & his power house WILL NOT follow the same road as UMNO?? I am not that worry about DAP cause PKR will most probably over ride them in most policies plus DAP has shown to be in able hands under uncle Lim & son.
    I do have some deep reservations with how the PKR gang is going to behave when they are in power. After all, quite a number of them are re-cycled politicians and we all know that seasoned politicians are no band of angels!

  24. #24 by bernadette on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 10:35 pm

    “Why not, negotiate to “agree to disagree”. This is certainly one of the options …” leekamput

    you mean you can negotiate that jesus is not the son of god but muhammad is?? that’s real daft!

  25. #25 by One4All4One on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 10:58 pm

    Some people, somewhere, sometimes, somehow who wanted to be seen as knowledgeable, but who really are otherwise, get together with like-minded and like-attitude people from schools of other thoughts and seem to be debating something which seem to be hell and heaven moving and bending, are actually doing no more than just you and me chatting up at the mamak stall.

    Only difference is that they are able to get hold of the rakyat’s money and splash it at some posh hotels with all the glitters and make-over which make it seem all important. VVIP status accorded. 5-star rated event. But in actual fact, just another tame and lame affair.

    Well, jugde it for yourself. What have we gained from all those ‘big-league’ events, other than draining off the rakyats’ coffers?

    We suffer in the end, while they pride themselves for having participated in such glossy events. They are the leaders of (while we are the) the down-trodden.

    The world really needs a paradigm shift.

    Leaders should not be allowed to use the tax-payers’ money for their own agrandisement or political agenda.

    The world needs to relook at the way the people’s money is spent.

    No wastage allowed. No free rides anymore. Pay as you use should apply to everybody, with no exemptions nor exceptions.

    Let this apply to all dealings, be it organising a dialogue or seminar, or even a holiday.

    Let the days of freebies die a natural death and the dawn of accountability begin anew!

    Good luck folks.

  26. #26 by lkc57 on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 11:04 pm

    Negotiation occurs in business, non-profit organizations, government branches, legal proceedings, among nations and in personal situations.

  27. #27 by lkc57 on Thursday, 12 June 2008 - 11:08 pm

    AAB has “fooled” us once by promising that petrol price would not be increased within last year. However, the price went up by 41% after 1 year.

    He is using the same tactic again. See he is not smart. We can expect the price of petrol to go beyond RM4.50!

  28. #28 by limkamput on Friday, 13 June 2008 - 1:00 am

    bernadette Says: you mean you can negotiate that jesus is not the son of god but muhammad is?? that’s real daft

    You bird brain. Please go back again and read what I wrote. Jesus is son of God to me. But if others who choose not to believe, let them be. We will evangelise, but we will never impose. Please I would appreciate you leave me alone. There is no doubt in mind that you have something against for reasons best known to yourself. You boh kam wan is it, I am smarter than you.

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