WRMEA, April/May 1997, pgs. 96-97

Special Report

French Islam et Occident Conference Stresses Muslim Moderation, Tolerance

by Dr. Antony T. Sullivan

Nowhere else in the West is there currently the intensity of anti-Islamic feeling that exists in France. In southern France and especially in the Marseille area, where nostalgia for Algeria before independence abounds, populist demagogue Jean-Marie le Pen relies especially on the refugee colon community as the hard core of his surging popular support, which now approaches 20 percent of the French electorate.

To the north, and notably from bases in the crime-ridden and drug-infested “suburbs”thebanlieuesof Paris, Islamist terrorists have undertaken bombing campaigns in the Parisian subways that have led to widespread popular hysteria, and even to demands that deportation be undertaken of native-born French citizens who happen to be Muslim. Above all, the nightmare that haunts many in France is possible inundation by a sea of refugees fleeing north from Algeria in the wake of an Islamist takeover there. With one in four Frenchmen already of North African background and the Muslim community in France increasingly disposed to assert its cultural autonomy, only greater understanding of Islam in France, and new opportunities for meaningful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, would seem to offer real hope that worsening social and political polarization can be avoided.

Fortunately, there is good news as well as bad.

Islam and the West (Islam et Occident), an independent French public policy organization established in Paris in 1982 and directed since its inception by Francis Lamand, labors specifically to counter such polarization and provide a venue for precisely the sort of dialogue which may assist Muslims and non-Muslims together to construct a common future. To this end,Islam et Occident organized a conference in Paris on Jan. 8 and 9, 1997 on the topic, “Islam and the West:Bound to Cooperate.” This conference, held in the largest amphitheater in Paris, assembled speakers from around the world to address many of the most contentious issues. The meeting was supported financially by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), and attracted substantial media attention, especially in the Muslim world.

Among participants at the conference were individuals from France, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Iran, England, Palestine, Spain, the UAE, and the United States. Speakers included Professor Pierre Chaunu (Sorbonne), Henry Bonnier (secretary-general of Islam et Occident), Abdullah Ibn Abdul Mohsin Al-Turki (Saudi minister of Islamic affairs), Abdullah Umar Naseef (vice president of the Saudi Shura Council), Amadou Mahtar M’Bow (former director general of UNESCO), Ahmad Umar Hachem (rector of Al-Azhar University), Abbas Maleki (vice minister of foreign affairs, Iran), Muhammad el Hachmi Hamdi (editor, The Diplomat, London), Mukhlis al Hammouri (Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, Palestinian National Authority), Jordi Pujol (president of the Catalonia State Assembly), Bakary Dramé (director general of the Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahayan Foundation), Louis Cantori (professor of political science, University ofMaryland), and Graham Fuller (The RAND Corporation). Islam et Occidentintends to publish the proceedings of the conference as a book.

Conference Principles

Explaining the principles on which the conference was based, director Francis Lamand said it constituted a “challenge to fear” between civilizations and a “challenge to ignorance” of the sort derived from portions of the European Orientalist canon. Above all, Lamand asserted that the meeting had been conceived as a “challenge to all those who deny the common heritage of People of the Book,” and who reject the commonality of those Abrahamic values which offer a solid basis for Muslim and non-Muslim rapprochement and understanding. Westerners, Lamand observed, need especially to be reminded that Islam has always been a cosmopolitan and tolerant faith, distinguished by its incorporation of and according of formal recognition to a startling range of religious and cultural traditions. The sophistication and diversity of those assembled by Islam et Occident in Paris, and the common themes which characterized the papers delivered, suggest that both in France and elsewhere a new beginning may indeed be possible in Christian-Muslim relations.

A majority of the conference participants emphasized how necessary it is for Muslims and non-Muslims both to respect and to seek to project positive images of the other. In this regard, creation of special educational institutions designed to accomplish these objectives was proposed. Considerable attention was given to how economic cooperation across the Mediterranean might be increased, and to how Europeans might be enlightened concerning the sort of “humane economy” which typified Islamic polities before the eruption of socialism and statism after World War II. For the West, emphasis was placed on the importance of a revival of a sense of community, reinfused with a new recognition of the domain of the sacred. Several conferees noted the importance of protecting religious minorities in the West as well as in the Islamic world. All agreed that violence and terrorism, wherever they may occur, must be condemned immediately and without qualification.

Equality and a quest for justice should characterize all human relations.

Perhaps the most moving of all of the papers delivered was that by Henry Bonnier. Proclaiming himself a “Westerner and proud of it,” Bonnier opened his remarks to the assembled representatives of the Muslim world by requesting their forgiveness. “I ask your forgiveness for the Crusades,” he said, “and I ask your forgiveness for imperialism. I especially ask your forgiveness for more than 130 years of French colonialism in Algeria.” To begin to alter present realities, Bonnier urged Muslims to call neither Christians nor Jews unbelievers, and counseled Christians to desist from thinking of Muslims as heretics. Every human being, he reminded all present, is unique and a creation of God, and should be dealt with on the basis of recognition of that basic reality.

Of all the speakers, Saudi Consultative Council Vice President Abdullah Naseef articulated the fundamental message of the conference in the greatest detail. Relying largely on citations from the Qur’an, he emphasized the Islamic imperative to “respect the other and his beliefs and customs.” Equality and a quest for justice should characterize all human relations, Naseef maintained, and all religions should be accorded respect. He endorsed pluralism and invoked moderation as the essential basis of life in society. Implicitly responding to the plea of Henry Bonnier, Naseef emphasized the Qur’anic injunction to forgive those by whom one feels wronged. As for the future, Naseef asserted that it must be built on precisely the kind of common principles being developed at the conference. Concerning the viability of any such effort, he professed himself to be very much of an optimist.

No conferee denounced violence more categorically than did Naseef. In particular, he condemned those who “claim to be Muslims but commit acts which directly violate divine commands.” He noted the on-going terrorism in France, and observed that the perpetrators of this violence are criminals whose deeds should be understood as “direct attacks on Islamic interests.” These comments were warmly received by all present.

A Seamless Web

The personal representative of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Mukhlis Hammouri of Hebron, argued that there is a seamless web linking Islam with political toleration, individual liberty, religious freedom, and social peace. Muslims who truly understand their faith, he maintained, comprehend this reality. Sadly, Islam in the occupied territories is circumscribed in its ability to foster such values, Hammouri observed, because of continuing Israeli repression. He emphasized the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims everywhere, deplored the frequent Israeli closures of the city to West Bankers, and insisted that Jerusalem must become the capital of an independent state. To move forward, Hammouri called both for new attempts at serious dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel/Palestine and for the establishment of an international forum to organize dialogue among representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths. Despite all current problems, he, like Abdullah Naseef, expressed optimism concerning the future.

American Graham Fuller explored the sources of contemporary tension between the West and Islam. On the one hand, Fuller observed that Westerners are burdened by a growing fear of radicalism and violence which they understand (or are encouraged to believe) issue primarily from the Middle East. On the other, Muslims are convinced that they are both manipulated and exploited by a West which often appears to rampage through Islamic lands with the ferocity of a rogue elephant. Underlying everything, Fuller argued, is the imbalance of power which has existed between the West and Islam for two centuries, and which was directly responsible for 19th-century European imperialism. Nevertheless, Fuller noted that Muslims and non-Muslims alike now suffer from many of the same problems of late modernity. By addressing those problems together, he suggested, a new reality may be created as stereotypical fears in the West are diminished and the painful historical memories of Muslims vitiated.

Social and ethical decay, irresponsible government, the management of change, and the preservation of community, Fuller observed, are all challenges which today confront Muslims as urgently as they do Europeans and Americans. In particular, the problems of economic restructuring, changing moral values, the defiance of authority, and the loss of a sense of belonging have become common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Only a common response, based on shared spiritual values, Fuller suggested, offers much hope that these and related difficulties may be lessened before a new century dawns. “We are all now forced to live on a very small planet,” Fuller remarked, “but we do have an historic opportunity to work and learn together.”

Those interested in obtaining additional information may contact Islam et Occident, 147 Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris, France (tel. 011-33-12- 46- 34-76-29, fax 011-33-1-43-54-72-88).