Dialogue Conference in Egypt

Is the West Using Its Economic Might to Subjugate the Muslim World?

For the fourth time since 2001, academics, theologians, journalists, politicians, and interested lay people from Egypt and Germany came together in Ain el-Sukhneh, Egypt, for a dialogue conference. Peter Philipp sums up the results

photo: Peter Philipp
A dialogue and its limitations: opinions diverge on the Near East conflict

​​It very quickly became evident that the organisers of the event – the Lutheran Evangelische Akademie Loccum and the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS) – had selected a particularly thorny issue for this year's dialogue, namely "values and violence in the globalisation process".

At the start of the conference, Egyptian law professor Mohamed Nour Farahat raised several questions that subsequently dominated the focus of most of the remaining conference. What is violence? Can violence be divided into different categories? Should one not differentiate between terrorism and resistance?

Defining violence and the Near East conflict

These questions did not – like those posed by the German delegates – focus on the link between religion and terrorism. They originate in the deep dissatisfaction and frustration of the Arab Muslim world about political developments in the course of which the West is ignoring, suppressing, and maltreating the Orient as part of the process of globalisation.

According to Farahat, it is no coincidence that the West is undermining international law with regard to the Muslim and Arab world – e.g. with its pre-emptive strikes – and that the armies of the superpowers are allowed to intervene in the region.

He was, of course, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The criticism that the West is also taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was voiced at the same time.

The discussion could never really free itself from the Palestine issue. Several German delegates must have been rather taken aback by the vehemence with which their Egyptian interlocutors fell back on radical and stubborn positions on this issue. The discussion was dominated by the reproach that both Western politics and Western media are biased and pro-Israeli.

On barbarism and the holocaust

Germany's former Parliamentary Speaker, Rita Süssmuth, initially expressed confidence that delegates could learn "mutually from one another" in a dialogue. She said that no one party had more to offer than the other; instead all parties relied on each other and needed the other's opinions and experiences. She added that she had repeatedly heard the reproach in the Arab world that the West behaves arrogantly and fails to appreciate Arab-Muslim culture.

Süssmuth pointed out, however, that it is at least as important – especially in Europe, which is now home to a Muslim minority of 20 million – to get to know each other better. But exactly this aspect, she said, had been neglected in the past. In Germany in particular, she reported, people lived alongside one another for a long time and called it tolerance.

"We didn't spend much time with each other and didn't learn all that much about each other. We are only starting to do so now. In this regard, I would also like to say that while we in Germany may not have learned enough from the history of the 20th century; we did indeed learn something. And what did we learn?

Firstly: that while the means of war and the means of violence can be employed to stop violence from time to time, they cannot be used to solve problems. Problems can only be solved politically, not militarily. The second thing we learned is the extent to which a people can become embroiled and can be seduced into descending into the most despicable barbarism – committing endless mass murders, annihilating Europe's Jews, destroying cultures – and the effort that was required to get us out of that state."

This, she said, was one of the main reasons why the German delegates had not come to Egypt to impose something on the opposite side "from the outside," but instead to find things out together. Süssmuth added that while people in Germany may not always really appreciate their own freedom, justice must always take precedence over arbitrariness.

The delegates would have been able to agree on this if the nagging issue of the "Palestine conflict" had not reared its head again: freedom and justice must also apply to the Palestinians, argued Egyptian delegates. They once again accused the West of only applying its rules to the Muslim world and not to Israel.

McDonalds and aggressive market economy

Prof. Eglal Amin warned against the confusion of definitions and different viewpoints in a most unconventional way: the economist argued ironically that violence in globalisation could not be defined through terrorism or Western arrogance alone. Basically, he said, it begins with McDonalds and the aggressive market economy tactics employed by the West to subjugate the Arab and Muslim world.

To have the will and the willingness to exercise self-criticism was one of the pieces of advice that delegates took with them at the end of the conference. That may not be much, but it was enough to be able to say that the conference had been a success.

Amina Shafiq, the renowned human rights activist and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Al Ahram, is convinced of one thing: the purpose of dialogue is not to share the same opinion all the time.

She says that dialogue is always a useful way of breaking down prejudices and broadening horizons: "We cannot always live with one attitude alone," says Shafiq, "namely that the West is against us … No, there is more than just one West. And even in one country, there are more opinions than the government's opinion. Many people and many organisations have many different opinions. And this is why this method of understanding will always lead to improved relations in the future."

Peter Philipp

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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