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Dialogue beyond the discourse of geography

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A weary Farish Noor, after attending one inter-religious dialogue too many, takes a critical look at such pageants during which illuminories of all religions come, shake hands, state their differences, smile politely and then return home.


Last week I found myself in Leiden, the Netherlands, where I was invited to speak at a symposium that dealt with the topic of ‘Everything Under Control?’. Needless to say, the Foucauldian theme was of interest to me, and I was happy to attend the symposium and to speak on the subject of Religion and Social control.

But that is not what I wish to address here, for related to the theme in a tangential way was the related concern about Multiculturalism and the so-called ‘problem’ of Muslim minorities in Europe. During a debate that I co-chaired with the film maker Eddy Teersaal and the discussions we had before, during and after, the theme of dialogue and the difficulty of building bridges between Muslims and Europeans came up time and again. My response to the queries directed at me were the same time and again, so I reproduce them here to state what I think is the root of the problem and why we – global citizens – are constantly in the grip of a problem that we have invented ourselves.

Firstly, let me state that I believe that inter-religious dialogue (as well as inter-ethnic, inter-communal and other forms of dialogue) is a useless, pointless, expensive and ultimately superficial excercise. The reason behind my own scepticism over the issue lies in the fact that I have been in this dialogue ‘business’ (and it is a business, mind you) for more than 15 years now, with no tangible results. As a consequence of having attended more than 50 conferences during this period, I have had the privilege of meeting the Pope, the Ayatollah of Iran, hundreds of Prime Ministers, Presidents, Ministers, Deans, Rectors, Professors and public intellectuals – but with little to show for it. The inter-religious dialogue industry has become a law unto itself, driven by its own infernal logic and political economy that ultimately benefits only the owners of five-star hotel chains who are happy to host such events.

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During all these encounters, we see the same pageant enacted time and again: illuminories and illuminati of all religions come, shake hands, state their differences, smile politely and then return home. Everyone agrees that all religions preach peace and love, but as soon as they return they declare war on their neighbours. None of the really sensitive thorny issues- such as freedom of belief and conversion – are ever discussed, and all we have are platitudes and commonsensical bits of pedestrian wisdom dressed up as soundbites to be taken up by the media. In the meantime age-old differences and prejudices remain intact and nobody really wants to be honest about our collective hypocrisy.

Secondly, the reason why such dialogues fail is that they are often meant to be a meeting of bridge-builders and peace-makers. This invariably frames inter-religious differences in terms of an oppositional dialectics where the Self is contrasted positively to the negative Other, and from these dialectical premises we are meant to reach a consensus and a great communal love-in. To expect such results from such flawed premises is silly to say the least and yet another waste of time and financial resources.

Thirdly, these dialogue processes – because they take off from the premise of oppositional dialectics – are already couched in a discourse of geography, or specifically territoriality. We talk of ‘bridge-builders’, ‘frontiers’, ‘borders’ and ‘domains’ as if the plane of inter-religious dialogue was already a contested territory (which it is, by default). But we fail to note that WE have introduced these territorial considerations by the very language we use to frame such dialogue in the first place. To even suggest that Islam and the West requires bridge-builders is to assume that there is a gulf between the two, and that this gulf has been there all along. But has it?

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The fact is that both the Western and Muslim worlds share the same Abrahamic roots, the same civilisational sources and that both have been the oldest civilisational neighbours to each other. In our attempts to be politically correct and to recognise differences (thanks to the skewered logic of identity politics) we have invented divisions that were not there (or perhaps were not so pronounced in the past) and amplified them instead. Having stated that we are suspicious of each other, we naturally become suspicious of each other. And instead of accepting that neither the Western nor Muslim worlds are homogenous, we perpetuate the febrile fiction that the two are distinct and therefore need representation and representatives.

Here then lies the self-invested and self-imposed dilemma of Western defenders of multiculturalism today: in trying to ‘dialogue’ with Muslims whom they suddenly regard as the strangers within, they are now on the lookout for ‘representatives’ and ‘spokesmen’ for ‘true Islam’. But who has the right to speak for Islam in the West, or anywhere else for that matter? The Muslim feminist student? The Muslim gay activist? The Muslim Osama-wannabe Mullah?

And let us now turn the tables and reverse the equation: If Muslims wanted to speak with ‘representatives’ of the West, who would it be? Le Pen of France? Geert Wilders of Holland? The taxi driver who picks me up at Heathrow airport? Or my drinking buddy from the pub? If Europeans do not see the need to represent Europe in essentialised terms, then why the hell do Muslims need to be reduced in the same manner?

Dialogue’s primary conditions are respect for the Other and the acceptance of the possibility that as a result of dialogue our own settled assumptions may be put to the test. Thus far in all the instances of inter-religious dialogue I have attended, neither conditions have been achieved. Both sides come to the table with a host of prejudiced presuppositions under their jackets; and neither side is willing to concede that they may be wrong in some matters. Both continue to exteriorise the Other, and cannot accept that the Other may be intimately woven into their identities already. If we cannot get past this first hurdle, I might as well give the conferences a miss and head straight to the first pub I see…

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Therefore my only advice to my Leftist-democrat comrades in the West is this: dont waste our time with such pathetic dialogue in a vain attempt to play to the politically correct gallery. As defenders of citizenship and the freedom of the individual, the Left has a duty to defend the values of citizenship, secularism and democracy. We are not missionaries or apologists, and we should seek our allies with like minded democrats in all communities. If we do not dialogue with the Le Pens of the world, then why should we dialogue with the Le Pens of the Muslim world too?

The duty of the democratic state is to defend the public domain and to maintain its culture of universalism and secularism. That is our ambition, motto and purpose. Our comrades are to be found in all religious and non-religious communities, and we must regard them as allies, brothers and comrades rather than the ‘good Other’ to be kept within arm’s reach. All else is mere apologia to the tyranny of political correctness, and to go down that path means that we will have to tolerate what we will find intolerable among ourselves. Respect for alterity and difference does not entail a free ride on the democratic bandwagon or a licence to do anything in the name of faith, creed or ethnicity. Democracy’s great service to humankind is its guarantee that we can all believe or not believe in what we do; but it is democracy that guarantees that, and not some parochial politics couched in the compartmentalised logic of communal territories or religio-ethnic parochialism.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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