Anyone with half an eye on global events will not fail to see that the entire world, Egypt included, is going through what appears to be a period of unmitigated conflict and turmoil. All of which underscores the fact that only dialogue is capable of achieving peace and coexistence.
Dr Ali al-Samman talks to Watani on interfaith dialogue
In this respect, intercultural and interfaith dialogue have become, rather than option, an urgent and much sought-after necessity.
The authority on this subject in Egypt is Dr Ali al-Samman, president of the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC).
Meeting Dr Samman was a real joy for Watani. His words endowed the dialogue with an added dimension: he carried on lucidly from the restricted circle of the elite to the wider one of the general public. We began with the predictable question:
What is meant by interfaith dialogue?
Interfaith dialogue is simply an attempt by each side to understand and respect the ‘other’ who belongs to another religion, even as they realise they do not embrace it. The former Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the late Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, used to say that interfaith dialogue should steer clear of religious beliefs because discussing creeds is bound to lead to disagreement. Dialogue, on the contrary, is a means of communication, building bridges of respect and coexistence with the other. I insisted that these words should be written into the agreement between al-Azhar and the Vatican in 1998.
How about intercultural dialogue?
Intercultural dialogue is an integral component that goes hand in hand with interfaith dialogue. It has been the subject matter of numerous meetings and conferences I have attended over the past five years.
Two years ago, I asked to amend the basic law of the International Organisation for Interfaith
Dialogue to include intercultural and interfaith dialogue as well as peace education. It is my opinion that if we fail to establish intercultural dialogue it will lead to conflict between the followers of the different religions, especially where the radicals and uneducated are concerned.
Had there been any real intercultural dialogue at the time of the crisis that arose over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988 and the offensive Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in 2005, a lot of unnecessary conflict and trouble might have been avoided.
How do you see Muslim-Coptic interfaith dialogue in Egypt?
Since I was chosen as President of ADIC, I never used the word interfaith dialogue between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. I always saw interfaith dialogue as one that is made with the ‘other’ where the ‘other’ is foreign. But Copts and Muslims share the same homeland; dialogue between them is basically related to their everyday life and deals with fateful common interests and aims to achieve peace and coexistence. This definitely goes much deeper than the agreements and cooperation established with the Catholics in the Vatican, for instance.
I often speak about the responsibility of coexistence between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. It is a role I personally experienced all my life during which, aside from my Coptic neighbours, friends, and colleagues, I enjoyed excellent relations with the late Pope Shenouda III and many other Christian clergy for more than 20 years.
Whenever sectarian attacks took place against Copts, there were two important roles for me to play. Owing to the all-important role of the media I always say my piece boldly and fearlessly in the press. Then there is the role I play on a personal and institutional level.
An example is the rapprochement I managed to work between Pope Shenouda and Sheikh Mohamed Metwalli al-Shaarawi in the 1980s. Sheikh Shaarawi was a very well-loved and respected Muslim preacher with a wide following, but he had made several comments about the Christian religion that offended the Copts. I informed Pope Shenouda that Sheikh Shaarawi had gone to London for medical treatment. Out of his legendary love and tolerance, Pope Shenouda asked members of the Coptic clergy in London to visit the Sheikh in hospital more than once and to pray for his recovery. Once Sheikh Shaarawi returned to Cairo, a historical meeting between the two figures took place and resulted in a lifelong friendship and understanding.
Another instance was the joint statement in 2010 by Pope Shenouda and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, which had a great impact on diluting sectarian strife. To draft the final version of the statement I had to meet Pope Shenouda at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. It was 8:00am, right before he had to start dialysis treatment. It was at that time that I realised how dedicated the Pope was to the cause of peace and coexistence, despite his failing health and the pain he continued to sustain.
So, how can the followers of each religion respect ‘the other’?
I think that the seed can be sown by the media. Television must reach out to the less educated and deliver to them a culture of tolerance and love between the followers of different faiths. The material presented by TV must be informative and enlightening, because there is no greater threat to our nation than ignorance. Only when people are well informed about ‘the other’, only when they have the right religious notions promoting tolerance and love, can the seed flourish fruitfully.
Do educational institutions have a role to play in establishing and promoting this dialogue?
The role of the religious institutions is primordial; especially the ones concerned with religious education, because they support and add legitimacy to the dialogue. Yet it has to be supplemented by the school which is the basic provider of education.
School textbooks must be purged of material that violates the principles of love, respect and tolerance. This is an issue I focused on when I established the Egyptian branch of ADIC. Professor Zeinab Radwan presented a working paper discussing the importance of the textbooks in promoting dialogue. The paper had a great impact among the circle of intellectuals; contacts were made with many of the previous ministers of education to join our cause, but our efforts were unfortunately halted by the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Recently, a new initiative was taken in partnership with the Swedish Institute in Alexandria to prepare for a convention that would take place before the end of the current year discussing the issue of textbooks.
Does this mean that efforts at interfaith communication in Egypt did not bear the desired fruit?
First, I have to confess that efforts to promote interfaith communication in past years have been minimal. We must also admit that we haven’t succeeded in changing the nature of these dialogues from ones restricted to the elite to ones reaching out to the average population and the public opinion. This can only be achieved when all the institutions of society combine to serve the same purpose. In a nutshell, the role of the elite must combine with the role of the house, the school and the media, especially television, which I usually call the public educational institution.
How can we establish a North-South dialogue that would include dialogue between the West and the Arab world?
Dialogue between the North and South is established and practised in real life on both interfaith and intercultural levels. For instance, in 1998 an agreement was signed between the Vatican and al-Azhar. At the time this event had an enormous impact on the Western public opinion because it sent a clear message of al-Azhar’s wish to coexist with the other religions. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the North and South must also be intercultural. To accomplish this purpose, I have participated in the organisation of the Monte Carlo forum which convened for the last time in 2011 in Doha and focused mainly on the Mediterranean region.
As for my organisation (ADIC), we signed an agreement with the Alliance of Civilisations organisation in New York and Madrid which focused on enriching intercultural dialogue.
How do you see the return to interfaith dialogue with the Vatican?
This dialogue was halted when Pope Benedict XVI took the helm of leadership at the Vatican. Unlike his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, whom I met five times, and who was a model of an open mind and heart, the current Pope Benedict XVI used language that offended most Muslims. My opinion on this matter contradicts the opinion of my fellow thinkers who belong to al-Azhar. I believe that when visions contradict, freezing dialogue is not exactly the best solution. On the contrary, new attempts must be made to start new dialogue on new grounds. My personal motto is “No despair with dialogue.”
So will you kindly tell us about the role ADIC plays in this respect?
The actual role of the ADIC is to try to spread its mission as much as possible in Egypt in cooperation with cultural institutions such as the Swedish Institute in Alexandria and Spanish organisations. We will also try in the coming period to activate an agreement that was signed with the institute of peace learning in Andalusia. On our agenda are several meetings to gather together young people of different ethnicities and religions over a period of one week for the purpose of discovering one another. The first meeting will be held in Luxor in cooperation with the Swedish Institute and will be followed by another meeting in Alexandria.
How do you see the current efforts of the hardline Salafis to implement an extremist version of Islam, which more often than not involves offence to Christians and seculars? These efforts appear diametrically opposite to efforts to promote interfaith respect.
The Grand Mufti of Egypt has given statements against hardline practices and attitudes. Those who claim they want to live in peace and coexistence should not speak or act against people belonging to other faiths.
This behaviour is based on the sharia rule: “You have your faith and I have mine,” which can also be complemented by these words of the Qur’an: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” I wish that the followers of all faiths should abide by the words of wisdom in their sacred books. I also wish they would realise that their choice of words and ideas most often reflects not only widespread ignorance, but also hatred. This is the major enemy of peace and coexistence.
Dr Samman in a few lines:
• Born in 1929
• Bachelor of Law, Alexandria University, 1953
• Diploma of Higher Studies in International Law, Grenoble University, France, 1956.
• Diploma of Higher Studies in Political Science, Grenoble University, France, 1957.
• PhD in Law and Political Science, Paris University, France, 1966
• Director of Middle East News Agency (MENA) for Western Europe, Paris (1967 – 1974)
• Advisor to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar for Interfaith Dialogue (2000 – 2006)
• President, Committee for Interfaith Dialogue at the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs of Egypt (1996 – 2011)
• President, International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC) for Europe and Egypt, current
• Awarded a letter of appreciation by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his fruitful efforts in promoting interfaith dialogue, September 2004.
2 September 2012