Learning through letters
After months of media debate over the morality of America's war on terrorism, US and Saudi intellectuals are planning to meet face to face. Rasha
Saad reports. Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Nov 11, 2002
The New-York-based Institute for American Values is working on a face-to-face meeting involving Saudi and other leading Arab and Muslim
intellectuals early next year.
The meeting is the culmination of an ongoing debate between US and Saudi intellectuals, initiated by the Institute in February, on the notion of having a just war and the means
A few months after United States troops entered Afghanistan, an open letter entitled "What we are fighting for", drafted by the
Institute for American Values and signed by a group of 60 US intellectuals, defended US President George Bush's war on terrorism as a just war.
The letter states that "reason and careful moral reflection
also teach us that there are times when the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it. There are times when waging war is not only morally permitted, but morally necessary, as a response to calamitous
acts of violence, hatred, and injustice. This is one of those times."
The signatories also argued that the notion of a "just war" has its roots in all religions. "Jewish, Christian, and
Muslim teachings, for example, all contain serious reflections on the definition of a just war," they wrote.
Among the US signatories are Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations and Francis Fukuyama author of The End of History.
In May, 153 Saudi intellectuals responded with a letter entitled "How we can coexist", which said that the 11 September attacks were unwelcome to many
people in the Muslim world because they violated the values and moral teachings of Islam. The Saudis suggested, however, that injustices in US foreign policy, with particular regard to the Palestinian issue and
Iraq, were the root cause of the 11 September attacks.
"The United States, in spite of its efforts in establishing the United Nations with its universal declaration of Human Rights and other similar
institutions, is among the most antagonistic nations to the objectives of these institutions and to the values of justice and truth. This is clearly visible in America's stance on the Palestinian issue and its
unwavering support for the Zionist occupation of Palestinian land and its justification of all the Zionist practices that run contrary to the resolutions passed by the United Nations. It is clearly visible in how
America provides Israel with the most advanced weapons that they turn against women, children, and old men, and with which they destroy people's homes. At the same time, we see the Bush administration mobilising its
military strength and preparing for war against other countries like Iraq, justifying its actions with the claim that these countries are perpetrating human rights abuses and behaving aggressively towards their
Late in October, 67 US intellectuals responded to the Saudi letter. In their correspondence entitled "Can we coexist?" the US thinkers highlighted points on which they agreed with their Saudi counterparts, points which were misunderstood and finally, points on which they disagreed.
According to them, the most important point of disagreement with the Saudis "is that nowhere in your letter do you discuss or even acknowledge the role of your society in creating, protecting, and
spreading the jihadist violence that today threatens the world, including the Muslim world".
They concluded that the problem is the Saudis' "tendency. …to blame everyone but your own society for the
problems that your society faces".
While the exchange of letters seem to have highlighted more differences than understanding, the dialogue was generally welcomed as a positive step towards better
understanding between the Arabs and the US.
While acknowledging such differences, David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and one of the signatories of the US letters, remains
optimistic. "So far, the differences stand out more than the agreements, but this is only the start of dialogue. Ultimately I believe that what unites us as human beings is bigger and more important than what
divides us," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abdullah Schleifer, director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, believes that the general idea of exchanging
letters is both valuable and thought-provoking. "It is certainly better than what I call the knee-jerk reactions which characterise both sides of the debate, be it Saudi-American, American-Arab or
American-Arab-Islamic. The Americans exhibit knee-jerk reactions by blaming everything on Arabs and Islam, and the Muslims exhibit knee-jerk reactions by blaming everything on the Americans."
intellectuals also came under fire from Schleifer who believes that the correspondence is subject to certain limitations, one of these being that the dialogue is conducted specifically with Saudi intellectuals.
"It is a pity, because in the entire realm of Islam - Arab Islam, Central Asian Islam, Indonesian Islam - the intellectual premises of Islam in Saudi Arabia are probably the narrowest and shallowest to be
found anywhere," he said.
Schleifer also believes that both sides missed the real problem which, he maintains, is the point at which religion becomes an ideology. "I believe the problem is
that in a world in which the spiritual dimension of religion is minimised and [Islam] is increasingly politicised, people can turn their religion into an ideology like fascism or communism. And neither [side] seems
to have recognised that," he said. He also maintains that the Americans are not familiar with the notion of political Islam and the Saudi intellectuals do not even entertain it.
He believes that the
American document is extremely rich and universal, and that the Saudi document tends to be shallow. "I mean, it says very nice things and it correctly quotes passages from Qur'an and Hadith. But beyond that the
document tends to be very shallow and defensive."
Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor-in-chief of the Jeddah-based Arab News newspaper, maintains that the Saudi letter was not defensive but rather reflected
an attempt to reach a level of mutual understanding and coexistence. He believes that the Saudis are sincere in their dialogue, going so far as to welcome meetings with the Americans despite expecting criticism.
Schleifer also points out that the US letter "constantly makes note of self criticism which basically tends to be missing on the Arab side of the debate".
But self criticism is not a concept
which is ignored by Saudi columnist Daoud Al-Shorian. In his daily column in Al-Hayat, Al-Shorian more than once adopted a critical tone and highlighted a lot of problems within Saudi society. Referring to the fact that 15 of the 19 perpetuators of the 11 September attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Al-Shorian told the Weekly that "we [the Saudis] should blame ourselves in the same way we blame the US because in our Arab and Islamic rhetoric we avoid admitting what happened or at least acknowledging the gravity of what happened."
Al-Shorian also maintains that not a single activist in any Saudi Islamic group has ever criticised Osama Bin Laden or has spoken out against acts of terrorism which use religion as a pretext for its
actions. "If we do not admit that we have a problem, the problem will escalate." He also said that Islamic rhetoric at this stage must make clear statements on the crucial issues.
attributes this dilemma to the domination of certain groups within the Saudi kingdom which adopt political Islam and "refuse to admit its faults". He also added that the failure of the Arab and Islamic
regimes to make decisions on crucial issues was helping these groups to remain dominant within the political arena.
But is there a real lack of understanding between the Arabs and the Americans or is there
simply a conflict of interests which takes the issue beyond the cultural and ethical issues discussed in the letters?
According to Blankenhorn, part of the disagreement does indeed stem from different
interests and political priorities, particularly with regard to the Israel/Palestine issue. But he also believes that the disagreements stem from divergent ideas and the way each side interprets and acts upon those
ideas. "As intellectuals, we can only make limited changes to the former, but we can do a lot about the latter," he argued.
Khashoggi acknowledges that misconceptions exist and that some forces work
towards deepening them. He also believes that there is generally no conflict of interest between the Arabs and the US, adding that the only bone of contention is the Palestinian issue. "If the
Palestinian-Israeli struggle was resolved, there would be no conflict of interest."
The Saudi response to the Americans did not go unnoticed in the conservative kingdom. The letter was heavily debated
and criticised by some of the Saudis as taking a mild stance on the Americans. "The right-wing powers in Saudi Arabia criticised this dialogue initially and demanded that we take a hard-line stance with
the Americans. These powers adopt and seek to maintain the old hard-line notion of relationship between us and the Americans, one which is based on Islam versus infidelity and peace versus war. We should fight
against this type of pressure," said Khashoggi.
This is easier said than done, it seems. Sources have reported that some intellectuals who were involved in the letter have yielded to pressure and
withdrawn their support.
The Ministry of Information in Saudi Arabia also banned the edition of Al-Hayat newspaper which published the latest response of the US intellectuals. The reason for this remains unknown. But Blankenhorn pointed out the positive side.
"I regret the censorship, but on the other hand, censoring the letter has probably meant that more people will read it and learn about it. Most of the letter was read live on Al-Jazeera, for example. In an age of satellite TV and widespread access to the Internet, keeping people from reading a letter or a book is no longer really possible."
While the letters were heavily debated in the Arab media, observers were surprised that the letter elicited little attention in the US. Blankenhorn explained that, because the US is a large country and a
superpower "we [Americans] often tend to be a bit insular, and not as interested as we should be in the views of others. Part of the reason for writing the letters is to show that Americans can also listen to
others and communicate respectfully and honestly in the intellectual arena which, unlike military or economic affairs, is a level-playing field where all that matters is the integrity of the ideas."
But to what extent can letters change political realities?
According to Al-Shorian political realities are complicated and it will take more than dialogue between intellectuals to affect change. He believes
that Arab intellectuals have neither political nor social weight. "Only the [Arab] political regimes can change political realities."
The full text of the US and Saudi letters can be found under: www.americanvalues.org
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