After the tragic massacre of the school of Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania in September 2004, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel and one of the most important Arab liberal thinkers, wrote: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that most terrorists are Muslims.” This is one of the main reasons why interfaith dialogue with Islam is so important today.
We need to know that there are Muslims who can be trusted. At the same time we must also recognize that the term “dialogue” can be misleading if the premises are wrong and the partners we choose are wrong. The first mistake that the West tends to make is to believe that more than one billion Muslims have a recognized and accepted authority that represents them. In other words there is no Pope in Islam. The reality is that there are as many “Islams” as there are Muslims. The second mistake is to believe that a dialogue with Muslims can only be established through the clerics of Islam, usually people with a beard and a turban, ignoring the liberal and secular voices of the Islamic world.
A few examples can clarify what is outlined above. Italian government, as other European countries such as Germany and United Kingdom, has tried to establish a Council for Italian Islam in order to have Muslim partners to discuss with. Most of the members were secular, coming from different countries, but the only valid partner to the Minister of Interior seemed to be the President of the so-called Union of the Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy, ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. This happened simply and unfortunately because “Union of the Islamic Communities and Organizations” (Ucoii) sounded more representative than the name of a single person. What European governments have not realized yet is that the “Unions of Islamic communities” and the “Federations of Islamic associations” are simple groupings founded with this name in order to mislead people. In Italy, for instance, there is an association called “Young Muslims of Italy”, the young section of Ucoii, always invited in inter-faith dialogues, that counts about 300 members. However, in Italy there are at least 17.000 young people only of Moroccan origin. It is obvious that this association has no right to be considered representative of young Muslims in Italy, as it actually does.
Even the letter entitled “A common word” sent by 138 “moderate” Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI last October poses some problems and has been welcomed as a first step towards a true dialogue, even though the list of signatories includes Tariq Ramadan, known for condemning terrorism but accepting Palestinian and Iraqi “resistance” through suicide bombings and for condoning stoning of women. We also find Yahia Pallavicini, the only Italian representative, vice-President of Coreis (Italian Islamic Religious Community), who was the first Muslim to publicly criticize the conversion of a Muslim, my husband, Magdi Allam, to Catholicism last Easter arguing that there was no need to convert since “Jesus is a prophet even for Islam” and adding that “apostasy was not considered positively in Islam”. Until that moment Pallavicini was considered a “true moderate” and a reliable partner
Here is another mistake. The West usually seeks dialogue with the so-called “moderate” Muslims, where moderate usually means a person who does not kill people and does not place bombs. However we should be more careful and realize that on one hand “moderates” like Ramadan and Rached Ghannouchi do not usually cut heads, but tend to cut tongues, making no jihad by weapons but jihad by court against Western journalists and scholars and liberal Muslims. And on the other hand “moderates” like Pallavicini tend to say that Islam does not consider “in a positive way” apostasy instead of saying that in Islamic doctrine the apostate has to be killed.
These are just a few - but not isolated - cases which raise fundamental questions: what is the correct approach to interfaith dialogue? The Vatican’s response to the letter of the 138 Muslim scholars makes some valid suggestions. In his letter, Pope Benedict XVI praised “the positive spirit which inspired the text”, but at the same time argued that we do not have to ignore or downplay “differences between Christians and Muslims, we can, and therefore should, look to what unites us.”
The key word here is “difference”. A true and sincere interfaith dialogue does not have to ignore differences, starting from the first and fundamental one: all three monotheistic religions believe in one god but not in the same god, since each of them has different characteristics. A true dialogue has to respect diversity, by positioning all parties on an equal level to ensure that no one has the duty/right to “protect” the others and no one is superior to the others. A true dialogue has to recognize the believers’ freedom of faith. A true dialogue has to be between people who may use different languages but share the same set of values. For a true interfaith dialogue the West has to open its eyes and look for valid partners such as liberal Muslim intellectuals who are less organized than political Islam, who are threatened by political and radical Islam, but are reliable, trustworthy and need to speak out.
Valentina Colombo holds a Degree in Arabic language and literature from UniversitÃ Cattolica of Milan and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Istituto Orientale, Naples. She is a research fellow at IMT School of Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy. Her studies focus on the role of women in democratisation processes and contemporary Arab liberal thinkers. She has published many books on Arab women writers and liberal intellectuals. Next March she will publish “Islam. Istruzioni per l’uso” (Islam. Instructions for use, Mondadori, Milan).