The term dialogue is used with meanings such as“to confer,”“to give,”“to meet,”“to exchange views” or “to negotiate.”In a religious context, this term implies the idea of reasoning upon the reality of divine truth. In anthropological dimension,dialogue has the power of forming togetherness. By attributing importance to the partner from the beginning, I change my problems and his problems into our problems. Therefore, dialogue can be defined as a conversation of human with human about the essential matters of man for the sake of man.
Dialogue is different from debate, in which representatives of each religious tradition try to prove that the position of their communication is right and others wrong. Leonard Swidler analyses various definitions of dialogue and concludes itis “a conversation between two or more persons with different views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that he or she can change and grow.” It is to be noted here that debate is about wining; dialogue must hold the possibility of transformation.
Dialogue in Islamic perspective is one of the most important means of understanding. In the presence of Da’wah and Missionare a dimension of human consciousness and a category of the ethical sense. It is the altruistic arm of world religions such as Islam and Christianity and their reach beyond themselves.
Dialogue is the removal of all barriers between men for a free intercourse of ideas, where the categorical imperative is to let the sounder claim to the truth win. It disciplines our consciousness to recognise the truth inherent in realities and figurations of realities beyond our usual ken and reach. Dialogue, in short, is the only kind of inter-human relationship worthy of man. Dialogue is a state of mind, an atmosphere, an opening, an attitude of friendship or of comprehension. Muslim communities need this comprehensionmuch more urgently.
Islamhas long lived within “safe boundaries,” but in today’s new circumstances it can no longer afford to remain isolated. Thus, dialogue for Islam is first and foremost a necessary and vital re-establishment of contact with the world at large.
There is much agreement today that what all faiths and civilisations share is more important than their differences. The vision of “clash of civilisations” and the final worldwide victory of Western civilisationhave not met with general acceptance. It is time that through initiatives such as the Secretariat of World and Traditional Religions ofthe Republic of Kazakhstan,we must give ourselves a chance to restore modern world history and to avoid any fatalistic comparison. Differences of civilisations could be considered the reason of breeding clashes or it could be treated as a unique characteristic of human life in the context of the cultural and religious diversity in which we have to live. Kazakhstan’s initiatives are based on the uniqueness of this diversity.In his speech on October 17,2008 on the eve of the ministerial conference “Common World: Progress through Diversity,”the President of Kazakhstan said:
“In the current environment, it is imperative to stave off the division of the world along civilisational, cultural and religious lines and to promote an understanding of commonness of the modern world and the need to unite in front of the common threat to humanity.”
Disagreements and differences of nations are symbols of diversity and the need forconversation emerges from them. Conversation can take place only when there is some disagreement, either of a negative kind in which someone knows something and the other does not, or of a positive kind in which there is a difference in thinking and assertion. If there is complete identity of thinking, there can be no real conversation but only a confirmation of agreement, reciprocal recitation and mutual silence or boredom. Dialogical conversation provides the opportunity forfree exchange of ideas, which can be beneficial to all. The primary objective of dialogue is to remove barriers and to increase the amount of good in the world by a free exchange of ideas.
The President of Kazakhstan has rightly noted that “without dialogue, the cultural diversity of our planet can be threatened. Dialogue should prevail over discord and reasonableness over insanity.” As a Muslim, I feel that Muslims’ participation in dialogue may generate another dialogue at various levels within the Muslim community. This type of dialogue could play the role of shaking Muslims out of their false sense of security and could make their hearts and ears more attentive to the message of God.The precise purpose of dialogue, whatever the circumstances, is to constantly reanimate our faith, to save it from tepidity and to maintain us in a permanent state of Ijtihad,which is a state of reflection and research.
Dialogue plays an important role in buttressing our own faith.Exclusivity, inclusivity, parallelism and pluralism are referred to as dialogical attitudes, but only pluralism is most appropriate for successful dialogue. In dialogue, a person encounters another person from another religion in whom he sees the mark of authentic faith, piety and wisdom and even on the highest-level, sanctity. To reject that as being untrue or unreal causes a danger for the person to lose his or her faith.
All religions are in a deeper sense interrelated and therefore instead of fighting against each other, it is better for them to discover their transcendence. The followers of all religions need anunderstanding of the faith of other people without weakening their own.
The dialogue provides the opportunity forparticipants so that they can learn from each other, can change and grow. However,this “understanding” and “learning”is not possible without tolerance. The dialogue is not proselytising, but is the clarification of one’s perception of the position of others in order thereby to clarify one’s perception of one’s own position and engage in more realistic and authentic relationship. The dialogue needs the respect and equality of all participants. His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, has said in this regard that,“There is no such thing as big or small cultures in the world or strong or weak religions. They are all blended into an integral whole. The modern world is like a mosaic: if one peace is missing, the whole picture collapses.”
In spite of the importance of all these prospects of dialogue, human beings are still not able to benefit from it because the world is not fully prepared for dialogue. The present movement of dialogue has still not matured and there are many problems that are threatening its worldwide success.There are still many challenges to dialogue such as extremism, mistrust, misconceptions, weakness, lack of proper representation and authority.The dialogue among faiths in general and between East and West in particular has been continuing for many centuries. Trade, wars, situations of conquest, occupation and colonialisation were different kinds and shapes in which dialogue among civilisations continued through the centuries. There has been a lively exchange of knowledge and technology, a flow from East to West and from West to East. But it is a reality that until a short time ago, there were little efforts made towards real understanding of others. The serious efforts of dialogue for mutual understanding are comparatively-recent phenomena, but these efforts are still facing many problems.
No doubt that calls for greater intercultural and interreligious understanding isa growing phenomenondue to initiatives such as those of the Republic of Kazakhstan. International, national and local dialogue initiatives range from long-term efforts with a global scope to pragmatic responses to specific community problems.
At the same time, media coverage of issues at the intersection of various cultures and religions, particularly Islam and the West,is still based on many misperceptions. Unfortunately, monologue often dominates over dialogue. Awareness of parallel efforts is weak and opportunities for synergies are missed. The media and public opinion focus too often on violence and terrorism and reinforce polarised perspectives and crude stereotypes.The fragmentation and low visibility of dialogue efforts areexacerbated by deep-seated and long-standing knowledge gaps evident at the level of international diplomacy, as well as in national and local affairs.
Many dialogue efforts are designed to demystify, enlighten and build knowledge of the unfamiliar. Others seek out areas of common ground anchored in core religious and civic values. Some involve pragmatic, material efforts to identify and help address specific problems. Common,too, for many of them is the vision of a common future grounded in ideals of equality and respect.
In mapping the many different kinds of dialogue unfolding around the world, we will be forced to realise the significance of the initiatives of Kazakhstan in interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Since 2003, theCongress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has been a hub of interaction, understanding and dialogue among leaders of the world’s religions. The congress has been successfully able to change differences into diversity. This is a sustainable, long-term dialogical initiative that is now bringing fruit. Kazakhstan’s efforts haveresulted in promotion of constructive interaction among various cultures and civilisations. The multi-dimension steps of Kazakhstan are also addressing many challenges to dialogue withinthe framework comprised oftolerance, respect, sincere preparedness and loyalty to the faith. The success of interfaith dialogue depends a great dealon its agenda. Due to the constructive, long-term and consecutive efforts of Kazakhstan under the direct supervision of its founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leaders of world and traditional religions have usually agreed on the common points of the agenda such as universal truth, trans-culture values and spiritual satisfaction. The President of Kazakhstan is of the view that there are threats that are common to all cultures and civilisations without any exceptions. The threats can be faced only through dialogue.
The present development in science and technology requires parallel progress in the relationship of followers of different religious and cultural traditions. Without this, sustainable peace and development are not possible. The time has affirmed the continuous need for joint efforts by all major civilisations to promote a culture of dialogue on the basis of difference, diversity, plurality tolerance, mutual respect, freedom of expression and sincere readiness at grassroots levels. Agreement on the agenda on the basis of common interests like spiritual satisfaction, trans-cultural norms, justice and submission to the creature of the universe will lead to successful dialogue. The dialogue aimed at peace and development is the only hope for saving the world from the clash of civilisations; otherwise, worldwide conflicts and violence will continue in the future, taking religious dimension after feeding from misconceptions, misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
The confidence of human beings on the movement of dialogue will push us ahead and we will be able to talk on other matters that are important to all nations, like ecology, holy places, medical ethics, food technology, etc. Worldwide efforts against hunger, disease and natural disasters can be unified only after there is better understanding and harmony among faiths and civilisations through dialogue.
The author is a professor of Islamic Law and Director General of the Islamic Research Institute at International Islamic University. He is a member of the core group of the Secretariat of World and Traditional Religions. He is an adjunct senior fellow and professor at the Edward B. Bruggmen Centre for dialogue at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA and is also working as a fellow at the King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna.