"The Violence Shows the Crisis of Intercultural Dialogue"
Do you believe in Huntington's thesis of the "clash of civilizations"?
Lokman Slim: This over-dimensioned extent of violence is enough refraining us from simplifying the issue. The fact that all these expressions and manifestations are taking place under the same heading is an additional proof of the triumph of "globalisation" and pertains to it rather than to any other record.
Despite the fact that these reactions, in the Arab-speaking world, not to talk about the whole Muslim world, varied in violence, some common denominators characterized them all. The disproportion between the publishing of the cartoons and the overwhelming reaction in and of the Arab world denotes a hypersensitivity of this world concerning the symbols of its identity.
The Arab popular and political culture is far from sharing some modern and taken-as-for-granted values, such as freedom of expression and individual responsibility. It's comprehensible that some Moslems feel hurt by mocking its prophet but it's not understandable that the Arab world went through this crisis as a monolith block within which no dissent voices tried to defend the "freedom of expression".
Are these extreme reactions motivated by religion or by hurt religious feelings or should they be considered rather anti-western?
Slim: Confirming that these extreme reactions are the result of a religious feeling or an anti-western feeling does not help us to understand these extreme reactions. In the case of the Arab world I rather see in the reaction of the mainstream and the absence of any reasonable and quiet approach an additional sign of the deep crisis this world is facing due to its successive failure in assimilating values of modernity.
On the one hand we have these reactions, on the other hand there is the success of the intercultural dialogue.
Slim: I don't know to which extent we can oppose these pictures to the different attempt seeking to set up an intercultural dialogue – especially the so-called Islam/west dialogue. Under pain of disappointing the supporters of such dialogue, I think that the consecutive episodes of the crisis launched by the Danish cartoons show, in the contrary, the limits of the intercultural dialogue. The Danish cartoons crisis addresses the intercultural dialogue attempts with a vital question: is it possible to bring the dialogue forward while a partner in this dialogue gives to himself apart from the other partner(s) the right of including and/or excluding some topics from the agenda of dialogue?
You are a publisher and decided to found a cultural organization, Umam Documentation and Research, two years ago. The centre is located in the Muslim Shiite southern part of Beirut. What role do the location and the topics play in the so-called dialogue programmes?
Slim: This part of Beirut where we elected residence is indeed populated by a majority of Muslim Shiite but it's particularity is that it's a region which was cut off the city due to the overwhelming control of the Hezbollah over it. In this sense this region represents for me a kind of ghetto apart from the religious belonging of its inhabitants. In this sense our presence raises in itself the question of diversity: admitting diversity being the starting point for any dialogue. At this point at least I prefer to qualify our activity as an undertaking to break taboos more than an endeavour to promote dialogue.
What in your opinion can the Goethe Institute contribute to the better understanding between different cultures?
Slim: I prefer to talk in particular about the role the Goethe Institute could play in Lebanon and the Arab world. I think that the Goethe Institute, as a German institution, has the burden to make more known the German experience especially in its more painful episodes. We rarely talk about the Nazi legacy in the Middle East but it's high time to meet this issue. Promoting understanding between different cultures is a highly praised task but is it of the same priority for all cultures? I doubt it. Answering this question is perhaps a good starting point.
Interview conducted by Rolf Stehle
© Goethe Institute 2006
Rolf Stehle is the director of the Goethe Institute Beirut.