In his essay, the acclaimed Syrian-Lebanese intellectual Adonis criticises the monotheist religions' dogmatism and uncompromising claim to truth, blaming them for blocking constructive Euro-Mediterranean dialogue to this day
Boiled down, there are four factors preventing a humane and sincere dialogue between the northern and southern Mediterranean states – in other words, between Arabs and Europeans.
Firstly, the monotheist faiths' view of the world and humanity; secondly, the purely technical understanding of knowledge and science; thirdly, the interpretation of the state and political practice; and fourthly, the old enduring conflict between the Jewish sacrosanct and the Muslim sacrosanct, now taking place in the form of war and violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
If we truly want a constructive dialogue based not only on tolerance but also on equal rights for all, we must first remove these barriers, or at least work towards doing so in our encounters and meetings.
It is impossible in this context to cover every single factor in detail, so I would like to address a selection of aspects on the above points.
Religions as instruments of power
To start with the monotheist religions' worldview, it is well known that each of the three faiths – be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam – assumes that God sent a unique message to them and only them. As a consequence, this becomes an absolute ideology in practice, and the interpretation of each religion's scripture becomes the only true and possible understanding of God.
All other paths to God are declared null and void. Thus, God's word becomes an instrument of power, its interpretation instrumentalised as a cultural authority for the justification of political and social power.
Before we enter into a dialogue between the monotheist religions, we must therefore start by posing a number of fundamental questions: does the respective revelation constitute the entire word of God and is eternally valid as such, or is it merely a part and can thus be extended as necessary?
Can the word of God really be reduced to a single revelation, so that it can be claimed that God will no longer speak or reveal himself following his Jewish, Christian or Islamic revelation, and that his message to the respective religious community is complete, final and thus a fait accompli?
Is it conceivable that God might send another revelation, a better one than that which he previously sent to the monotheist religions? If so, are we robbing the monotheist revelation scriptures of their claim to absoluteness? And if not, are we restricting God's freedom by boldly claiming that not even He has anything more to say?
What we call dialogue between the monotheist faiths is plagued by a fundamental paradox: these religions have incompatible images of God. But how can a dialogue be possible if each of the parties denies the others' right to exist by announcing that they alone are in possession of the absolute and universal truth?
Monotheist claim to universality
Theology is equally dominant over both intellectual and material life, as the monotheist claim to universality as a religious principle determines not only the intellect and thought, but is moreover a means of absolute control of the human body – a theological gaol in which Mediterranean thought is held captive. Jewish fundamentalists, for example, define occupied Palestine as "liberated biblical territory". Muslims purport precisely the opposite.
And if God Himself is already the prisoner of a revelation put into writing by humankind, on closer inspection humanity too, in our entire nature, in our thinking and actions, is a prisoner with heart and mind of that written revelation.
This correlation becomes even more complex through the growing contradiction between what humanity would like to write and what God did write, or between earthly reality and divine expectations.
The result is that liberation from this gaol is an indispensable prerequisite for a humane, rational dialogue based on equal rights, all the more so in that current and historical experience clearly shows that the entire dominant interpretation and its practical implementation on the part of the monotheist religions lacks any sign of critical, doubting reason with all its attendant contradictions and questions, hypotheses, explorations and achievements.
Indeed, it contradicts human nature, its physicality and sexuality in the life of man – and woman – with all that goes along with it: lust, longing and desire. With all that makes life a festival of joy and celebration, the highest human value there is.
In the entire Mediterranean region, theory and practice of this kind have led to lust for power, conquests and hegemonic ambitions at various points in the history of the monotheist faiths, the crusades being far from the only example.
From prayer to the sword
On every occasion, men massacred their fellow human beings in the name of the truth of their respective revelation, with God serving as a mere military commander, divine power reduced to hackneyed rhetorical phraseology. Religion itself turned its back on prayer and took up the sword.
Yet this embodied not only the degeneration of religion or the declining significance of religious institutions in intellectual life and interpersonal relationships, but also the fundamental shortfall in the monotheist worldview. Its causes should be sought not in external circumstances, as so many sociologists do, but in the structure of this view itself.
And this search should be undertaken regardless of what the aforementioned external circumstances were – the rationalism of the Renaissance, the critical secularism of the Enlightenment or the Darwinism and modern technology of the industrial revolution.
The inquisition courts are one example, before which every individual accused of heresy was degraded to the subhuman level, with intelligent thought subordinated to religious categories of the permitted and the forbidden, the thinkable and the unthinkable. Reason was silenced, all that is human was negated.
Through all this, monotheism – in the interpretation underlying such destructive striving for power – has been akin to a fixed star in the firmament of history. As if it were only moving in order to brutally suppress, wasting its entire energy on putting paid to all living things and all free thinking.
Theology as fantastic-fictional reality?
For the twentieth-century writer Jorge Luis Borges, theology was a branch of fantastic literature. Yet if he could see the state of theology in the Mediterranean region today, he might well be tempted to define it as fantastic-fictional reality.
He would see how the monotheist theological imagination is entering into a fantastic-fictional fusion with will to power and brutal, almost lustful power ambitions. Yet despite all this, he would probably make out a glimmer of hope.
This hope lies in that very characteristic of humankind that distinguishes us from all other living creatures – our ability to question things. Thus, we will inevitably continue to pose critical questions, we will question the monotheist religions, free ourselves from them and contradict them.
It is a question of liberating ourselves from the hegemony of monotheist interpretations and the political forces that represent them, as they threaten to suffocate humankind rather than redeeming us, as they claim. They repress rather than elevating humanity and kill it rather than resurrecting it. The inhabitants of the Mediterranean region are thus helplessly at the mercy of their fate, shattered by the hammer of theology on the anvil of politics.
It is no longer permissible to criticise forms of racism, social exclusion and negations of all shades, dictatorships and ethnic-based ideologies, as these deplorable phenomena are taboo, just as religious fundamentalism is taboo if we do not adopt a critical and fundamentally novel interpretation of the monotheist worldview.
Tolerance instead of disrespect for "others"
In this context, I would like to address two central themes of Islamic culture, as they are directly related to this understanding of theological hegemony. And a dialogue can only take place if we break down and push aside these two constructs. I refer first of all to Islam's relations to other faiths, and secondly to the idea of eternal truths.
On the former, the now widespread practice of accusing "others" of absence of faith drains every relationship and every dialogue of its purpose.
If one disparages "the others", particularly non-Muslims, as unbelievers, one thereby rules out any possibility of building humane relations on an equal level with them. Anyone who accuses "the others" of lack of faith robs them of their humanity, consequentially denying them the ability to make use of their intellect and their liberty.
And anyone who declares "the others" heretics in the name of a "holy" scripture is appointing himself sole interpreter of this scripture and God's spokesperson. Yet this goes against human nature.
The second problem is that the Islamic revelation constitutes the final and eternal truth for Islam as a monotheist religion, so that – according to the prophecies and the prophet of Islam – no further truths may follow.
Only Islam holds the truth and the true prophet. Hence, every possibility of renewed examination and critical review are ruled out from the very beginning, not only in dialogue with non-Muslims but also and especially in debate with other Muslims.
According to such a dogmatic view, truth is inherited in the manner of material possessions, which in turn denies the existence of the intellect and thereby humanity itself.
Civilisation's hell on earth
To turn to the second main hurdle, to which the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry called our attention: knowledge, particularly in its scientific-technical form, can become equally a crime against ourselves and against "the other".
In this context, torturing our fellow men appears to give the world more security, massacring them appears to donate more life. The so-called western civilisation is building a paradise on earth – and at the same time a hell that threatens to swallow up the entire world.
Generously allowing one country to hold nuclear weapons, with the blessings of a human organisation at the top of the world's ladder, while another country is not permitted these arms, is a derision of humanity as a whole. It adds not one iota to mankind's security, increasing avarice and destructiveness, on the contrary, even further.
Law, freedom and justice are being globally monopolised in the name of universality. This paternalism judges and penalises the whole world, and is more contemptuous of humankind than any dictatorship. Yet we were not given our freedom for the sake of random destruction. Crime and evil grow out of bondage and oppression, not from freedom and equality.
The third main barrier for dialogue lies primarily in the fact that the Arabs have not yet succeeded in building civil societies modelled on the West, with state power integrated into the whole and human rights clearly defined for men and women.
An elementary incompatibility in terms of civil society and legislation forms a gulf between the Arab Mediterranean states and their western counterparts. The Arabs are trapped in fossilised tribal-theocratic societal structures, their apparatus of power and government essentially theocracy-bound, no matter whether they present themselves at times as revolutionary or "mass-led".
The Arab leaders do not genuinely represent their respective peoples, but in fact usurp them by means of a kind of tribal-religious identity deeply rooted in the soil of Arab-Islamic history.
This is yet another level on which the Arab and western Mediterranean states are incompatible. And how should two irreconcilable parties enter into a dialogue, to say nothing of a union as the French president Nicolas Sarkozy imagines?
No dialogue without a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict
The fourth main barrier for dialogue is the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis. What we are experiencing in this conflict is a war on humanity, not just against certain ideas, convictions and interests. The only historical comparison might be the annihilation of the Native Americans by the English-speaking conquerors.
This is a war waged on the Palestinians by the Israeli state. I expressly refer to the Israeli state to emphasise that many Jews do not condone this policy.
Once again, a humane, sincere and constructive dialogue can only take place once the Palestinian issue has been solved – no matter what the EU's northern Mediterranean states want to believe.
In the absence of a way out of this misery, the various forms of current dialogue will remain merely a new form of western hegemony, implying that a certain policy is being forced upon the Arabs.
And there is another, more complex aspect of the cultural definition of the Mediterranean states to be taken into account: is the occidental side of the Mediterranean European, or is it now actually Euro-American? Is the oriental part more Arab or Arab-Islamic? And where does Israel stand? Is it part of the Occident or the Orient?
Aside from that, the Occident or the West is now more than just a geographically defined space, but a form of society, a community of values and views on faith that have shaped its history and shore up its hegemonic ambitions. To put it differently: a civilisation. Where do the Arabs stand in this civilisation? Who are they in this structure?
Unfortunately, the religious, political, economic and cultural dialogue between the Occident and the Orient has tended to promote primarily dictatorial systems, reactionary religious forces and aggressive forms of capitalism, supporting Israel's politics of power and violence.
The greatest paradox of all is the fact that the undemocratic Arab regimes generally acknowledge Israel's rights, yet "democratic" Israel by no means grants these rights to the Arabs, in particular the Palestinians.
Thus, this dialogue is more than a question of religious, political, economic or cultural issues. It is also a matter of admitting to ourselves that "the other" is a partner and an indispensable element of our own selves.
© Adonis / Qantara.de 2009
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Adonis was born in Syria in 1930 under the name of Ali Ahmed Said Esber. He studied philosophy in Damascus, holding professorships at various universities. As a young poet he submitted pieces to a magazine, with no success. It was only when he sent a previously rejected poem under the pseudonym Adonis that it was published after all. He has used this pen name ever since. Adonis was awarded the Goethe Medal in Weimar, Germany, in 2001. A Lebanese citizen, he lives in Beirut and Paris.