Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid

The Power of Dialogue

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, exiled Egyptian theologian, promotes renewed dialogue with the Islamic world – a dialogue that seeks to connect with representatives of moderate political Islam as well as the "silent majority" of the Islamic world. Mahmoud Tawfik reports

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, exilied Egyptian theologian, promotes renewed dialogue with the Islamic world – a dialogue that seeks to connect with representatives of moderate political Islam as well as the "silent majority" of the Islamic world. Mahmoud Tawfik reports

photo: Ikhlas Abbis
Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid

​​Since September 11, 2001, "dialogue with Islam" is in high demand. But this cultural approach has been overshadowed by terror attacks by Islamist groups as well as increasing resentment against Muslims. The situation calls for new forms of dialogue, or at least a revision of older forms.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, Egyptian expert for Islamic studies and literature, elaborated on his understanding of such a dialogue during a visit with the Deutsche Welle in Bonn.

More forums needed for exchanging views

"In a dialogue, it is not necessarily about convincing the other side of your own views. One of my dreams is that there be more forums for dialogue, for an exchange of views – and not forcing my opinion on someone and eliminating the other. If I only speak with those who accept my personal views, then I am not engaging in dialogue."

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid can hardly be called a heretic. But in his native country Egypt he has been branded as such – and not only by orthodox religious leaders. Back then, over ten years ago, Abu Zaid resisted an understanding of Islam that seemed to be getting increasingly monolithic and rigid.

He attempted new interpretations that would allow him to advocate equality for women in Islamic societies – not by denouncing the Islamic sharia, but by extrapolating on it according to its own inherent logic.

Denounced by religious zealots

The result of this was that the University of Cairo refused to grant him a professorship. An Egyptian court ordered a "forced divorce" to split up his marriage – according to traditional Islamic precepts, a Muslim woman may not be married to a "heretic."

This happened at a time when many in Egypt wanted to see Abu Zaid silenced, while in the West he was celebrated as an enlightened liberal.

Today he lives in exile in the Netherlands and is a professor for Ibn Rushd studies at the University of Utrecht. But his experiences in Cairo still occasionally haunt him: "It is possible that if Islamists come to power in Egypt, they would establish a non-democratic system and the name of the first one who would be sentenced to death is Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid."

Abu Zaid nonetheless advocates dialogue with those who have condemned him. This may not guarantee a better world, he says. But it is an alternative to violence. And violence, as history has shown, only produces counter-violence.

David winning against Goliath

His peaceful approach has already met with some successes in the Arabic world. Abu Zaid recalls a televised discussion with one of his most staunch opponents, the Islamic intellectual Mohamed Emara:

"Mohamed Emara was the star of the show, not me. Because he knows how to talk, he has charisma, not me. But something curious happened. Some of my friends told me that this show turned people's views around 180 degrees. In the end, I was the one who was sympathized with!" Abu Zaid triumphantly recalls.

The power of dialogue

Abu Zaid believes in the power of dialogue. Not necessarily in dialogue as a form of communication that creates solutions or a victory for one side over the other, but as a way of thinking that, with repeated use, will sink into the minds of people – thereby keeping them from becoming dogmatists who defend their beliefs with violence.

But he also believes in the power of dialogue to expose behavior that should not be accepted: "People watched the television show in order to get a look at this 'heretic,' Abu Zaid. People have a certain idea of a heretic – that they shout loudly, for example. But they noticed that it was Emara who got loud. I was, on the other hand, very quiet, I even smiled."

Of course it is possible, says Abu Zaid, that open dialogue with radical forces will initially increase their influence. For example democratic achievements in Arabic societies could be negated if Islamists form a new government.

But is it more likely, he says, that these forces, once in power, will be exposed as lacking a concept – and their polemics of sharia and a religious state will turn out to be propaganda that is ill-suited for daily politics. But under no circumstances, says Abu Zaid, should Islamism be fought with violence.

Dialogue, but not at any price

According to Abu Zaid, violent repression is the seed of terror and militant Islamism in the Arabic world: "If one is not in a position to change society through democratic means because these are lacking, then there is no other choice than using violence to impose your ideas on society."

He insists, however, on at least one important distinction. Dialogue with Islamists? Yes, but not with those who incite or practice violence. They are criminals and should be treated as such, that is, through legal prosecution.

Much more important than prosecuting the small number of radical Islamists is creating a dialogue with those who support terrorism through their silence, or those who create a breeding ground for it with their fundamentalist ideas.

If such people are given the opportunity to articulate themselves in a peaceful way, then in principle the backbone of terrorism has already been broken.

Mahmoud Tawfik

© Deutsche Welle/ 2004

Translated from tje German by Christina M. White

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