East-West Dialogue


Transcription of Sadig Al-Mahdi’s Speech

East West Dialogue 2005

November 17th,

 Barcelona, Spain



Thank you Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am grateful for the occasion to address you on this very important subject.

In 1989, I was behind bars and wrote a book titled “The Challenges of the Nineties”, in which, I predicted that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a possibility of Western hegemony, being confronted in our part of the world, or generally, by fanatical reactions, and that the two (hegemony and reactions) between themselves, could lead the world into a new Dark Age.  And that this particular collision can only be avoided if enlightened opinion in both sides of the divide pull their act together and work towards an enlightened, fraternal relationship.  Since then, the idea of the Dialogue between Civilizations has become very popular.  However, I think the word civilizations is too diffuse because you cannot through it, pick representatives, nor conduct a given dialogue.

Therefore, I would like to dissect it and talk in terms of the proper International Agenda that could lead to the same fraternal result, especially when I have noticed that the civilization identity has been somewhat highjacked by cold warriors who, through the civilization identity, would like to resurrect the Cold War, in terms of two conflicting positions. The theoreticians behind this are several but I would like to pick two: in the West, Bernard Lewis and, in the other side of the divide, Muhammed Qutb. The general ideas of Bernard Lewis come to the effect that as far as Muslim civilization is concerned, there are no particular reasons why they are against the West, they are against the west: period. Also, Muhammed Qutb says the same thing in different language: The West is against us not because of any rational reason but they are against us: period. Such logic is active now with its many exponents, and deserves to be called “the resurrected Cold War”:  Because, of course, from Bernard Lewis to the new conservatives, there is a direct line or lineage.  Also, between Muhammed Qutb and the extremists of Islamic violence, there is a direct link.


I think that the proper focus points for the dialogue are ten:

Last but not least, I shall speak about democracy but the ten, I should mention only briefly.  And they are the points that warrant, justify and allow proper dialogue.


First: The issue is Religion.  Now, many people speak about the West as being non-religious or irreligious. I beg to disagree.  I think that, as far as someone like me who lived in the West and who have many Western friends, what has disappeared is not Christianity. Christianity is embedded in their conscience.  What has disappeared is churchianity; what has disappeared is priestianity; what has disappeared is theocracy but otherwise, they are very Christian.  You may be secular in a political sense but we must not forget that secular people like David Ben-Gurion established the State of Israel which is a Jewish State.  So, this talk about secularism should not mare the point that there are very genuine religious differences that should be addressed and also, there is a very genuine revival of all religions.  In 1988, a study conducted by the University of Chicago (Fundamentalism Observed, edited by Martin E Marty & R. Scott Appleby) addressed this fact elaborately: that there is a revival of fundamentalism in all World religions.  However, I say that the issue of religious dialogue should not be left to the religious leaders. Paraphrasing Churchill’s utterance about war “Religious dialogue is too important to be left to the Theologians”.  It has to involve everyone else in order to achieve results.

Second: The issue between modernization and traditional society.

Third: The issue of globalization and cultural specificity.

Fourth: The economic factor.  Unless there is understanding over this issue, we cannot look up to better International relations.  This should involve the trade imbalances, the aid for development, etc.  Unless and until the richer part of Humanity takes it upon them to help develop the poorer part of the world in the same way they did to their underprivileged classes at home, which is a great feat of achievement, we will get nowhere. The issue of economic development is very important to International Understanding.

Fifth: The legacy of the past, which comes through education. I have looked through many textbooks which involve so many errors about different other civilizations even in very prestigious institutions like Oxford University. So, we need to review our texts in a way that will purify them out of the ideologically based history.

Sixth: The need to address the festering points of the decolonization in Palestine, in Cashmere, you name it: festering points that have been left by the decolonization process. Again, this is something very important and very relevant.   Recently, a book titled “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” came out, written by Robert Pape, who discussed the issue of suicide bombing and said that there were, between 1980 and 2003, about 315 such suicide bombings.  He discussed, inter alia,  the Tamil Tigers (a communist movement  in Sri Lanka), and the suicide bombing in the Middle East and said it had nothing really to do with Islam.   It has a lot to do with foreign occupation, so it is a protest against foreign occupation rather than anything to do with Islam particularly.  Anyway, we need to address the issues of the festering points left by decolonization.

Seventh: The media. We need to dispel all aspects of demonization of the other and satirization of the other, in a real way, also, to look up to a more internationally guided media. Today, about 1 billion people are subscribing to the Internet. The cyberspace of the internet is controlled by the United States. And the coming conference in Tunisia is going to simply endorse this anomaly without any change.  This is mistaken.

Eighth: The issue of injustice to minorities both in the developing and the developed World.  This is so important.  Unless there is an enlightened minority policy that recognizes and includes rather than excludes and marginalizes the other, we get into great trouble, especially when politicians in both part of the divide use minority issues for political game. I have been surprised to hear now Mr. Nicholas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, who is one of the enlightened leaders, calling the people who have engaged in the riots in France “scum” and gaining from this, and of course, not to be outdone, the employment minister Mr. Gerard Larcher went further and blamed the riots on polygamy. The rioters have not enough employment or funds to marry one woman, let alone protest about their need to marry two. They are generally bachelors who are out or who went out because of the deprivation of their predicament.  This is part of rioting that has taken place let’s say in the 60s in the United States and in the 80’s in Britain, protests about marginalization.

Ninth: The UN system.  We have got to reform the system, to make it more democratic and more universal and to avoid unilateralism. Even in the question of weapons of mass destruction, you cannot resolve the problem of weapons of mass destruction by the methods of being, in any way, applying double standards.

Finally, the tenth point that I am going to speak more about is the issue of democracy. Because all this Dialogue is going to be meaningless unless it is a Dialogue between the Free, unless the participants in this Dialogue are free people, which cannot now be guarantied because of the pervasive situation –in some parts of the World- of authoritarian, totalitarian, and dictatorial governments that neither represent the people, their interests nor their aspirations. This leads me to speaking more about democracy.  Democracy represents human dignity, human values, human respect and human rights, all of which are Universal Rights. No one wants to be maltreated or unjustly treated. Democracy is the institutionalization of such universal values, nothing more. I have written several books to expose what many say, for instance, that the Universal Human Rights are not consistent with Islam, in these writings I have stood for the fact that there are universal human rights, which the political principles of Islam subscribe to.  Many interested parties, because they are interested in despotism and denying the other, speak about cultural specificity to deny the universality of democracy. I challenge this and say that unless we accept this fact, in fact, we are talking about different levels of humanity. Humanity does have an imperative consequence of being human with human dignity, institutions of governments or governance that are based on participation, accountability, transparency, and the rule of law.  No one, anywhere, would challenge such principles as being dear to the hearts and minds of people.  In the West, this used to be challenged by certain powers for their own interest because they are allying with dictators or because they think other societies are not suited to democracy or because they are underdeveloped and so on.  Underdevelopment argument has been blown sky high by the Indian experience. As far as Islam is concerned, so many Muslim countries have adopted successfully democracy.

The fact is: now, those who were cynical about democracy in the West have changed their minds after the 11th of September because they saw the link between the frustration of several groups in despotic countries and the resort to violence. As to the rest of the World, it is also now clear that the debate about democracy has narrowed.  Because the vindication of democracy has come to be established in Africa, so many African countries now have gone democratic: Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, which now has surprised everyone by the election of a Lady for president which is a breakthrough in terms of change.  As to the Arab World, there is now a highly respected report  (the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2002), which has been written by Arab experts and which has called for the need for democracy as the only means of achieving human development in the Arab World.  Now, as far as democracy is concerned, it cannot be taken for granted, it has got to be built, it has got to be constructed. For this, there are push factors and pull factors.

The push factors are internal:

  • Cultural reformation, the need to remove any kinds of cultural attitudes that are against democracy,
  • The construction of civil society organizations because democracy has got to be owned by certain social forces, political parties, trade unions, non governmental organizations (NGOs), because, without being owned by specific social forces, it cannot be born.
  • The issue of poverty. Again here, unless there is a mitigation of the poverty issue, democracy cannot be entertained.
  • The need to eliminate armed conflicts because without peace, there could be no democracy. The need also for transitional justice, and the need for the armed forces to be reigned in.

Those are push factors that are the responsibility of the political movements in different societies.

The Pull Factors:

However, there are pull factors, which we can see how they have been articulate, in pulling Spain for instance, by the EU, now the same in pulling Eastern Europe.  We have to entertain the existence of pull factors because in the past, external factors have frustrated democracy in many countries including my country.  The external climate now is more conducive for the pull factors.  We have the Barcelona Process in 1995, we have the greater Middle East Initiative, we have the Partnership for the Future, which has also come recently, we have the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The climate has changed to be positive towards democracy.  Even now, there is a democracy fund in the United Nations.

However, unfortunately, so far there is a lot of barking, very little biting. All these very praiseworthy principles and declarations have not really had enough impact on reality. And this is a position that has to be addressed: How can we make these processes work? Because so far they do not.

The dialogue about the future political reform has got to come out from the present dialogue between the governments of the developing World & the G8 to have a tripartite dialogue which involves civil society and political parties as the third partner, because, many States in the Developing World are not really interested in political change.  They are most interested in preserving the status quo. And they will only engage in such discussions to avoid change and give lip service to it. There needs to be now a realization that unless a charter of togetherness, a charter of partnership indicates what should be done, nothing much will come out.

Now, I say that it is no longer a question of compassion, nor idealism, unless there is change in the deprived world, there are non governmental agencies that will be pursuing agendas that are agendas of mass protest: terrorism, illegal immigration, population irresponsibility, drug cultivation, health irresponsibility, even the spread of weapons of mass destruction, irresponsibility about the environment. Such factors are now going to be engaged in by non-governmental agents who will spoil the World, unless something serious is done to redeem the situation. I think that the culture of transformation has now grown so much that we can look up to a kind of democratic development manifesto that should indicate what we need to do, that should describe the problems of transformation and study them, that should coordinate the efforts and achieve follow up in terms of what needs to be achieved.

In fact, the diverse activities now, which are taking place, do require a kind of organized follow-up mechanism. I think the best way to find this, is to establish in the reform of the United Nations system, an alternative Security Council that would be dealing with coordination and follow-up on the matters of social, political and economic development and the transformation needed.  A security council that deals with this particular aspect would recognize the fact that there are different areas so that the whole purpose of transformation will also be regionally based, because the problems of transformation in different regions are different and we must cater for them.

Is it far to expect that the coming Barcelona +10 Summit in two weeks time will look into the failures, not of the Barcelona process itself, but how it failed to achieve its aims? And see how to incorporate some of these ideas in order to bite rather than simply bark.

I look up to this and look up to our conference to be fuelling such ideas that may be adopted by different World Forums so that the universal value, the universal aspiration of democracy will be adopted by all the agents involved and so that the wisdom we have acquired, in terms of the culture of democratization and the need to regionalize this culture in the establishment of Forums in different areas, Forums of Democratic Transformation, to see to it that this particular target is hit in the bull’s eye.



Thank you.