Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ways of Dialogue With the Other

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Once I asked Abdullah, my young conservative friend, to join me in a “diwania” (weekly gathering). He was surprised to find people with diverse views among my friends. There were liberals and Islamists, those who belonged to the left or the right, and those, like myself, of the middle.
We talked and discussed. After heated discussions someone cracked a joke and we all laughed. On the dinner table we seemed to have forgotten our differences altogether. Abdullah couldn’t understand this. On our way back, he was thinking and pondering. Finally he asked: “How could you all be friends? How could you discuss divisive issues like curriculum change, roots of terrorism, minority and women rights, extremism, the attitude of youngsters, and joining the World Trade Organization and not get angry with each other? Early in the evening I thought you hated each other. One camp was almost shouting at the other. Then some of you came to an agreement. Others were whispering in the ears of the people they disagreed with earlier. And then you all joked and laughed like nothing happened. I might not understand, but please try explaining, anyway.”
I tried. I told him that in Islamic civilization, as in any other, people have not only the right but also the obligation to a free debate on all issues of concern to some or all. Since heated debates do cause fractions, dislike and anger, golden rules were set. They are almost alike everywhere. Basically, you express yourself as you wish, as long as you don’t insult the personal feelings of others. Talk about public issues as strongly as you like but never go personal with your opponents. Even if you disrespect his position, respect his person, and his/her right to speak his/her mind.
Abdullah thought for a while, and then looked hopelessly at me and said: “I need time to absorb all this. You see, I was raised in all-of-one-idea environment. We debate, yes, but within the same boundaries, under the umbrella of the same school of thought, representing different angles of the same issue. The other camps have always been alien to us. They represent the rival if not the enemy. You cannot be friends with others without their subscribing to your school of thought. Besides, these disagreements are too serious to be forgiven in a minute. It is not sports. You cannot just fight it out in the field or fan club, and then leave hand-in-hand. This goes against how I was raised. You may convince me intellectually that this is the true Islamic way, but I would need lots of time and effort to change my natural response and attitude.”
I wish Abdullah were a lone case. Unfortunately, he is typical of many young people raised by some teachers, scholars, trainers and fathers to be of one idea, one group, one way. They are not used to dialogue with the others. When they confront alternative stands and thoughts, they either avoid it or fight it. Whether the fight is mental or physical, they can’t help shielding their heads and hearts against the other’s message. They feel guilty for talking nicely to holders of contradicting thoughts.
Labeling is their best game. Instead of analyzing and attempting to understand the other’s point of view, they take the easy way out by judging people’s intentions and classifying them accordingly. So, I was called in different settings, by different people, or even the same ones, so many names. In a party, last Tuesday, I was labeled by the same person as Salafi (fundamentalist), Ikhwani (of the Muslim Brotherhood), liberal and American stooge. How can I wear all these hats and kofyas at once? Go figure! So, we do have a problem. Once we recognize it and decide to face it rather than ignore and deny it as we did for ages, it is not a hopeless case. Like Abdullah, many youngsters can be impressed. With comprehensive, well-planned and thought-out, enduring and relentless program we could change even the die-hards. At least we could teach them how to make a useful dialogue.
The idea is not necessarily to makeover people, but to teach them how to be civilized: Respectful, reasonable and sensible in dealing with the different other. They could insist on their beliefs if they so wish. They could preach and try to convince us to move over to their side of any argument. But they should do so following our Islamic rules of debate (Fegh alkhelaf), not by force, not with hate, disrespect and dissidence.
By the way, Abdullah became an active member of our “diwania.” He turned out to be a wonderful debater. Told you! It is not over, yet!

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