How Do We Each Respond to
Clash, Violence, and Conflict?
by Sadek Jawad Sulaiman
The Fez Dialogue: Fez, Morocco, May 1 and 2, 2004
Questions discussed and my commentary:
Session I: Is Global Partnership a 21st Century Necessity? What challenges to this are rooted in our histories and religious texts, and what resources do we have to overcome them?
Global partnership, as distinct from globalization, is absolutely necessary if we, and generations to come, are to avoid being drawn into relentless violent strife. But more than ordinary challenges stand in the way of global partnership. Extreme nationalism and religious extremism, aggravated by historical rancor, keep pulling peoples apart by engendering mutual distrust and misperception.
Extreme nationalism not only leads away from global partnership but often also leads to war. It feeds on chauvinistic tendencies. Religious extremism too incites rabid adversity. Different religious conceptions deriving from different sacred texts expound disparate versions of reality, all of which fundamentally clash with evolving empirical human knowledge. As such, neither nationalistic zeal nor religious zest can offer modern societies a valid framework for cooperation. Both are averse to objective knowledge, humanistic self-understanding, and global partnership. Where the two combine at opposite ends of a civilizational divide they invariably spell civilizational clash.
This and future generations cannot build global partnership on notions and emotions that limit and divide, and nationalistic and religious zealotry limits and divides. Therefore, in our conversations to promote global harmony we ought to transcend both nationalism and religion as primary definers of who we are, what we think, and how we behave towards one another. We must cease to act, react, or interact from normative nationalistic or religious understandings and standpoints. Instead, scholars and intellectuals of our time ought to accentuate humanism and elevate science, reason, morality, and experience as the more authentic builders of human progress.
Session II: How do we each respond to clash, violence, and conflict in our midst? How can we better negotiate subtle differences on these matters?
Like Mahatma Gandhi I believe nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. Like him I believe the spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of the physical might, but that the dignity of the human requires obedience to a higher law.
How do we respond to violence? Individually and collectively we must reject its use in any shape or form, and cease to justify it for any cause. In practice, we must desist from reverting to violence, and where violence is used against us, endure it in conscious suffering while persevering to defeat its purpose and disabuse its perpetrator. In Gandhi’s words, “this does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant;” and “working under this law of our being it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire.” It is possible, says the Quran, for those who are patient and have the great fortune (of wisdom) to turn an enemy into a loyal friend.
Even where violence appears to do good the good is transient, and the evil it has unleashed entails greater and more lasting harm. Moreover, again in Gandhi’s words, “means are as important as the ends; when the means are right, the end is bound to be right; when the end is good and the means are vitiated, the end, too, gets vitiated.” Thus violence is bad means that vitiates good causes.
Session III: How can we work toward common approaches to matters of inter-cultural humiliation and honor?
Humiliation and honor are mere misperceptions. Neither humiliation degrades nor honor upgrades a person or society of intrinsic self-worth. While in reality we can be hurt physically, we cannot be humiliated or dishonored if we remain pure in thought, word and deed. Our integrity as humans is inviolable unless we ourselves violate it by acting immorally. Paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make us feel inferior without our consent.
Where there is value, worthiness, and effort to improve no pejorative comment thrown one’s way can tarnish the task. Where there is lack of value, worthiness, and effort to improve, no amount of flattery can uplift. Temporary deficits in achievement need not be seen as vices if coupled with earnest exertion to catch up with the more advanced. This ought to be our consideration in the case of both individuals and nations.
Session IV: What can the West and the Muslim world learn from each other? What are the best resources and traditions that we have to offer each other in terms of coexistence, civil society, respect and nonviolent approaches to conflict?
The Muslim world can learn from the West primarily science, governance, organization, innovation, and work ethic. It can also emulate Western applications of democracy, equality, and freedom of speech, assembly, and worship. The West can learn from Islam, though not contemporary Muslims, primarily Islam’s profound sense of human dignity, its commitment to justice, and its strong emphasis on personal, familial, and social ethics. That aside, coexistence, civil society, mutual respect, and nonviolence are more recently developed humanistic themes that are best addressed and promoted as universal requisites for shaping good life.
Session V: What steps can we envision that will build trust between equal partners who take responsibility for their civilization’s development and relations to others?
I envision building trust not merely by reassuring the other person about my good intentions, but proving my good intentions by my actions. I am not sure, though, about “equal partners” – states, or nations, though inherently equal in dignity, are not equal in acquired capabilities and resources. Some obviously are stronger, better organized, and more productive than others, and therefore more competent to lead and more capable of offering help. As such, the developed nations bear special responsibility for minimizing the inequities of circumstance and ability, and for maximizing just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort.
As for the developing nations, in the context of taking responsibility for one’s own civilization’s development, I would say they ought to get on with political and social reform at home. They ought to establish good governance and exercise greater prudence in the management of their resources. They ought to enhance their capacity for absorbing modern knowledge and acquiring productive skills.
We are now more than 6 billion individuals on this planet, and we all need sustenance for a decent life. That means we all must work hard for a living and administer our affairs justly and judiciously. Corruption and incompetence impair states and impoverish nations, if allowed to fester for long. To succeed and prosper nations must function democratically at home and act responsibly abroad. Their governments must have both national and international legitimacy. No nation that falls short in this effort can place blame for its shortcomings elsewhere. And no nation that succeeds remarkably in this effort should turn its back on societies that need a helping hand.
Session VI: (Group Discussions): What meaningful gestures do we need to receive from each other to build respect and trust, and even find forgiveness for the past? What specific actions? What in particular can we promote in our community?
We must learn to think outside the conventional boxes of nationalism, religion, and culture, and at the level of thought relate to one another as intelligent and moral beings; that would accentuate our common humanity and generate worldwide bonding, respect, and trust. There is no need to tarry in the past, except to learn lessons from mistakes made. Yet, when a prospect beacons that holds unlimited possibilities of universal progress and prosperity, we must embrace that prospect. There is no need for asking or giving forgiveness for acts of generations past; no good purpose is served attributing or accepting collective guilt. What we truly need is transcending past acrimony and building goodwill and cooperation amidst this generation that would carry over to the generations to come.
What should we promote in our communities? I say, spread the word, with clarity and conviction, that there is ample room and resource on this planet for us all. Mother Earth has nurtured us well from inception to this present moment in our evolution. Conversely, much of what has held us back has been of our own doing: impediments of ignorance, arrogance, superstition, intolerance, injustice, aggression, greed, violence, and such. It is time we realized how much we stand to lose through disputation and how much we can win through cooperation. It is time we understood that negativism obstructs progress and diminishes potential. It is not possible for the human mind to hold both negative and positive thought at the same time, and we cannot move head vacillating without end. And since we act as we think, in order to act positively we must first think positively as well.
Session VII: Summation of ideas and opportunities for common action
Let us shift the framework and focus of discourse from the national, religious, cultural, and sectarian to the commonly human. Let us come to our meetings not as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and such, but as thinkers of our age. Let us come not as nationals of this country or that but as citizens of the world. Let us promote knowledge, reason, morality, and experience as the real enhancers of the human condition. And let us remember that by leashing our intellection to the past we inevitably disfranchise our intellection in the present.
This generation, as every generation, has as much right to break new ground and pioneer new directions as the generations that went before. Every generation is as much responsible for formulating its values, morals, and ideals as for abiding by them. It behooves no generation to remain permanently bound by and beholden to the ideas of generations bygone. While remaining open to their wisdom we need not stay locked in their understandings and judgments. Instead, every generation must do its own thinking, freely and boldly; and it should not fear to go the end of its thoughts. In science we go where it leads; in humanities, too, we must go unhindered.
Session VIII: Conclusions (My concluding comment)
The complexity of our world increases in step with our expanding fund of knowledge coupled with our accelerated pace of technological innovation. The turbulence of our times, though, ensues from our lack of self-understanding, from failing to perceive us as worthy beings with an open-ended potential for intellectual and moral development. That says to me that our growth in knowledge needs to be complemented by growth in wisdom; that our ability to choose wisely ought to match our ability to effect change. So much of the foolhardiness we exhibit as individuals and nations these days is a result of trying to be smart rather than wise, to overpower rather than level, possess rather than share. As a result we all end up partaking of a poor quality of life. Conversely, we can all reap boundless benefits and blessings from working together and sharing in a cooperative and equitable manner.
In all we do context matters. It makes a world of difference whether we approach an issue in a humanistic context or from a parochial standpoint. In the former we are prompted to be consistent, fair, and inclusive; in the latter we are prone to become selective, contentious, and exclusivist. And since we live in an increasingly interdependent world, and at unprecedented proximity with one another, it would serve us well to approach our common interests and concerns in a context of intellectual discourse and humanistic considerations rather than a context of inter-religious, inter-cultural, or inter-national argument. It stands to reason that problems that are common to us all are approached through understandings that are shared by us all. Religion offers different and conflicting paradigms; moral principles and values remain universally paradigmatic.
For better or worse, in a relatively short span of time we have transformed our world from a far-flung planet of isolated societies to a global village of seamless humanity. Paraphrasing Francis Bacon as he saw the signs of things to come as early as four centuries ago: having changed the world so much we must change our philosophy as well. In a similar vein I would say let us shape a future that is relieved from the tutelage of the past. Let us adopt a humanist paradigm: one that nurtures humanity’s potential to find fulfillment through its intellect and inherent goodness.
And so if it be peace, justice, equality, dignity, cooperation, good governance, economic prosperity, and such that we desire, the rational rather than the religious, the moral rather than the spiritual, would help us through. For therein lie our strengths as rational and moral beings.
Mr. Sulaiman is a former Ambassador to Washingotn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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