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Dialogue to what end?

Farish Noor
Filed on April 29, 2007

RECENTLY a high-ranking delegation of diplomats from Germany paid a visit to Malaysia, as part of Germany’s outreach efforts to engage with the Muslim world abroad and to explain how and why the process of internal dialogue is taking place within Germany, and indeed within Europe itself.

In fact ‘dialogue’, particularly of the inter-religious kind, seems to be highly fashionable these days and everywhere one comes across conferences, seminars, projects and enterprises with the buzz word "dialogue" inserted into them one way or another.

It is undeniable that dialogue is a necessary thing, particularly in the fraught and tense times we live in when bullets seem to be doing more of the talking than words. It is also crucial that as Europe engages with the Muslim world in dialogue that the same process of communication be taking place within its borders. For this reason the German delegates went to great pains to show just how far the process of dialogue has taken place in Germany itself, as seen during the German Muslim conference that was held in Berlin last year.

However no dialogue process can or should be allowed to proceed uncritically and unquestioned. For this reason it is equally important to stress some salient points and concerns that are all too often sidelined as soon as the dialogue process begins. For a start, when countries like Germany begin the process of dialogue with the Muslims residing within their borders, we need to also address the issues of race and racism; power differentials and inequalities —both institutional and non-official —that exist in such countries. It would be a tad too simplistic to simply say that Germany’s Muslim community has not integrated well with the rest of the mainstream German population for that would overlook the economic and social realities of immigration and the fact that Germany’s millions of Muslims also happen to belong to the poorer classes of society for economic, political and historical reasons that have nothing to do with Islam or religion per se.

Secondly, it would also be important to note that dialogue should begin from the premise of mutual respect and a clear understanding of what the ultimate goal should be. If engaging in dialogue with Muslims is meant to help them integrate better into German and European life, we should also note that Europe and Germany are not, and have never been, homogenous entities.

This appears to be a problem that is slightly more difficult to address as European society still seems in a state of denial about its own complex identity and history of internal migration. Yet one look at the urban population of Germany today would point to centuries of immigration from other parts of Germany and beyond: From French to Polish, Russian, Armenian and Jewish migrants that have flowed into the country, settled there and helped to develop the rich culture of Germany we see today. The new waves of migration into Europe from Asia and the Arab lands should therefore not be seen as anything novel, but how many Germans realise that theirs was and is a country of migration?

That is why the cynics among us may wonder at the timing of these grand dialogues with Muslims in Europe today. Islam and the Muslim world have existed next to Europe for fifteen centuries —Has it taken that long for Europeans to realise that the Muslims they regard as their dialectical Others are actually their long-standing neighbours?

And if the question today is about how to integrate Muslims better into the mainstream of European life, then are Muslims simply being foregrounded and set up as test cases for a deeper and more complex process of streamlining European identity that seems to be more complex than ever? After all, Muslims are not the only ones engaged in a communitarian politics of identity in Europe today: A cursory glance at Europe’s political landscape would show that all over the continent once-marginalised ethnicities and communities are also demanding representation and the recognition of their particular identities, from the Basks of Spain to the Gypsy communities of Eastern Europe. So are Muslims the only, and main, problem of a complex Europe today?

By all means, dialogue is always commendable and important- But let this not be the opportunity to pathologise Muslims as the ‘problem’ that prevents Europe from finding itself and fulfilling its destiny in the world.

Dr Farish Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist


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