How to Deal with the “Other?”
“During the heated discussions that took place in the main hall of the hotel as the participants sought to arrive at a clear definition of the “Other,” Dr. Saleh al Hasseen, head of King Abdul Aziz Center for the National Dialogue Initiative said: “The goal for defining and describing the ‘Other’ is to enable us to learn how we should deal with such a person.”
The reporter for Al-Sharq al-Awsat emphasized the generational gap that separated the adult participants from the young students who felt no need whatsoever for a nuanced definition of the “Other.” They reached a consensus: there was no reason at all to depart from the age-long outlook that had defined all non-Muslims, as “Others.” In other words, they saw life in terms of black and white.
For example, “an eighteen year old student from a school in Mecca who participated in the training sessions said: “the ‘Other’ is anyone who differs from us in religion; so the purpose of our dialogue must simply be to ask him to embrace Islam. We should accomplish that through kind words coupled with an exposition of the principles of the Islamic Shari’ah.”
The author of the report went on to explain: “This third preparatory meeting in Jeddah was related to the coming Fifth National Dialogue Initiative which is to take place at Abha, in the Province of ‘Asir. As mentioned above, the students did not have the same outlook as the adults who participated in the discussions. Their differences may be the result of two contrasting milieus that surrounded their upbringings: the older generation having grown up within a conservative community. Now, some of them [who may have studied or lived overseas] would prefer to liberate themselves from the grip of the traditional restrictions that had governed relations with the “Other.” At the same time, the young generation who grew up in the space-age [and as a reaction to the allurements of modernity] believes that the proper way [to deal with the subject at hand] is to return to the [traditions of the past.] It is this conviction which leads them to [regard] the “Others” as objects of Da’wa, i.e., the duty to invite them to embrace Islam. [Unlike the adult intellectuals and business people who have to rub shoulders with many “Others,” both at home and abroad], these young adults are not the least interested in being ‘accepted’ by those classified in the Shari’a as Kafirs or Infidels.”
“The adult group at the Jeddah meetings recommended that a special Information Center be organized to examine new concepts and expressions [that appear in our contemporary Arabic vocabulary] in the light of the unchangeable principles of the Shari’ah. One businesswoman suggested, that the information media should be strengthened and enabled to ward off all ideas that are incompatible with Islamic moral standards. “Finally it must be noted that the young group disagreed with their seniors by insisting on the necessity of an information policy whose unique task is the Islamic Da’wa.”
The reporter ended his article by asking some crucial questions:
“Is the next generation in Saudia to entertain the same thought pattern that surfaced among the young adults, namely that dialogue with the “Other” should take place within the restrictions of the Shari’ah? [In other words, dialogue for the young students always equals Da’wa.] Are there no grounds to consider the thoughts and deliberations of the adult conferees? [For example, we may ‘invent’ a classification that would place the “Akhar” in a neutral category, thus eliminating the stigma of Kafir.]” Or, is the Shari’ah door to remain the only one open for all and any discussions and relations with “Others”? In other words, may we expect some changes in the status quo?”
Thus far, I allowed the reporter to share with us his musings. It is quite evident that two divergent points of view appeared in this report. One view is rather encouraging; as it indicates that some intellectuals and business people in Saudi Arabia are actually attempting to do something rather dangerous: re-opening the door of Ijtihad. They are suggesting the need for a new hermeneutic in the interpretation of the Qur’an, Hadith, and the Shari’ah. But this door has been closed for 500 years, and every attempt to
re-open it since then has eventually failed.
With respect to the projected meeting at Abha, in Saudi Arabia, for the discussion of the “Other,” may we entertain any hope for the eventual resumption of Ijtihad in a milieu that has been dominated for decades by the Wahhabi school of interpreting the Sacred Law? If we take seriously the conclusions of the young students who participated in their own sessions, the outlook for any basic change vis-à-vis the “Other”, the “Akhar” remains dim. I am afraid they represent the vast majority of Saudi opinion. I may be wrong in this conclusion, but I have very little evidence from my study of past attempts at reforming Islam, that real change is coming soon. I am sorry to forecast a tempestuous future for our world brought on mostly by Islam, exactly as Samuel Huntington predicted around ten years ago in his “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.”*
* Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996