SPEECH BY ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA’IM

Linked with our presentation of ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA’IM – Sudan.

Noordwijkerhout, 4 July 2002 – Ladies and gentlemen, Thank you very much. I am honoured and delighted to be here today, to speak to this congress, and to acknowledge and affirm my shared commitment to the values that we all stand for. And I would like to make my remarks more in terms as a challenge to living up to these values than as a reiteration of the values.

And I find, actually, the opening statement for the conference papers is really the key. Which is not whether, but how to make a difference? How can we all contribute to making more of the humanization of the world? And we have to do that from our respective positions, who we are and where we come from. We cannot expect people to abandon who they are, and where they come from, what they represent, and what their life means, in order to join our shared cause. That is my challenge here. Because I think it is both the reality of our shared humanity and the reality of our difference. It is not that we have a choice in ceasing to be different. And I always quote the South African jurist who speaks about the right to be different and the right to be the same. And it is that paradox and challenge that I would like to pose to all fundamentalism, including humanist fundamentalism. Because when we insist that these values can only be subscribed to, can only be upheld from our specific perspective, be it humanist or religious, or ideological, or nationalistic, we are being as fundamentalist as the Islamic nationalist-fundamentalists that I would like to challenge today.

So for me it is a personal challenge and also a mutual challenge. Very much it is my ability to confront and to challenge Islamic Jihad – as it has been defined recently and acted upon recently by certain Muslims – that I have to challenge also nationalistic chauvinism, which is the other side of the coin of Jihad. We have heard references already to current events and, of course, we cannot escape that. Very much we struggle for the values we share in whatever reality we happen to be. And our global reality today has both local and far-reaching consequences for all of us.

In the opening remarks in the program you see a reference to September 11 and its aftermath. But it is not an inevitable aftermath. It is an aftermath that came out of choices that are being made as we speak. And it is never too late to change those choices. The previous speaker also spoke about how the choices that are being made regarding the so-called global campaign against terrorism are also impacting other parts of the world and being manipulated to promote other types of hegemonies and confrontations.

I very much stand in challenge to Huntington’s thesis of inevitable confrontation. It is not a clash of civilizations. Only so to the extent we allow it to be so. The reality of difference of civilizations is true. But that reality is not water-tight compartments or stagnant realities where people have no choice in what forms it takes and what objectives it pursues and what values it promotes. It’s a reality of difference that can include co-operation and not necessarily confrontation. I often refer to Huntington’s thesis as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we allow it to be confrontational, it will be. If we allow it to be co-operational, it will be as well. It is in that spirit that I challenge both September 11 and October 7. October 7 – for those who are wondering – is the beginning of the American campaign in Afghanistan. It was not inevitable that you pursue retaliation as a global superpower. It is not a reality that the sole superpower can act unilaterally and arbitrarily without our being responsible for allowing that to happen. And here, I do not in any way imply that the United States had no cause for response, or no cause of justice. But I just question whether the course of action it has pursued is as a course of justice or a course of undermining the possibilities of justice between and within civilizations.

So the question for me, therefore, is: as a Muslim, what do I do? How do I challenge Islamic fundamentalists and how do I challenge Islamic jihad – in the sense of unilateral, arbitrary, violent, non-accountable behaviour, or at least it seeks to be – without being equally able to challenge American exceptionalism as undermining international legality, as I will try to emphasize in the following remarks.

I am in agreement with the previous speakers. Globalization has the meanings it has been cited to have in terms of diminishing the impact of difference and distance and its tendency to be hegemonic. But the question for me is: on whose terms? Or rather, how to contest the content and implications of globalization, not its reality. For globalization can be a means of bringing people together for understanding. Or it can be a means for creating difference that is intended to promote hegemonies and exploitation. The reality of difference to me is not inevitably linking or leading to confrontation. But the difference in power is a serious concern that we have to take into account.

Sometimes I speak of the power of difference and the difference in power. And it is the difference in power that manipulates and exacerbates the negative consequences of the power of difference. And I would like to suggest to us here to consider that the power of difference and the difference in power is everywhere. It is not only between so-called East and West, North and South. It is not only between women and men, children and parents. It is also within this room. It is in everything that we do. It is everywhere. And it is actually the total understanding of the reality of difference, and of the difference in power, that should give us very clear guidelines and indications. Because very much I think for us the challenge in a conference of this magnitude is to reflect on practical strategies. Of course, affirmation of shared values is a step in that direction. But we have to affirm and also to pursue practical and pragmatic strategies.

I would like to suggest for us, therefore, to accept not only difference, but also to accept conflict as permanent and real. I came from Tanzania only yesterday morning. And here I am. And I see the difference in affluence. In practical things. So underdevelopment is real. And it kills. It kills through disease. It kills through poverty, and it kills through hunger. There is a line of conflict that we have to pursue. For me, it is not a choice between sustainability and security. Our previous speaker emphasized the dichotomy, or the apparent or alleged paradox between the two. But I would like to suggest that it is security in sustainability and security of sustainability. That’s why I feel that violent reactions to international crime against humanity like what September 11 is, violent reactions to that undermines the possibility of security that is sustainable.

For me, the question is: who is to act? I would say, all of us. Every single person has to act, every single person counts. It is not a question of whether we are powerful or educated. It is a question that we are profoundly concerned. And we are concerned for ourselves, as well as for others. Where and how to act? I would say, at all levels. Wherever we happen to be. At the local, at the national, at the regional, and at the global level. There is, however, I think, a correspondence between power and responsibility. Those who have the resources, those who have the voices, those who have the access, I maintain, have an added responsibility for that privilege, in diminishing the negative impact of differences in power.

How to act? I say we all act by upholding the same values. Of respect for humanity. Of taking each other seriously. For accepting each other for who we are. That’s why I challenge fundamentalist humanists that claims that religion cannot have a voice in the shaping of those values. In the least, I do not claim an exclusive role for religion. But I do say that religion, for believers, has a critical role to play. And we have to acknowledge the humanity of believers, as well as challenging believers for their inhumanity. Religion has been responsible for a lot of suffering and inhumanity. So have secular, or so-called atheist or agnostic ideologies. It is not a question of arguing over who is responsible. It is a question of challenging both equally. To challenge the believers and to challenge those who choose not to believe (or at least not to believe in religion). So we have to develop those values and to articulate them.

And the thesis I present here is, of course, the familiar philosophical notion of overlapping consensus. This implies that it is a consensus that emerges from different perspectives. The same values that I’m subscribing to affirm my right to do so as it affirms your right to do so from your own perspective. And the overriding consensus idea requires promoting the possibilities of dialogue within, as well as between or among.

I resonate very much with the previous speaker about the role of culture. Again, if we see culture in terms of static, rigid, watertight compartments, we can imagine irreconcilable differences and confrontation. But the reality of culture is as contingent and contestable, that no culture is unanimous or uniform, the values that cultures articulate are values that people uphold. And it is to the extent that people are willing to change and challenge, we will have the possibilities of promoting those values, global universal values of human rights and human dignity, within cultures as well as among and between cultures. For me, therefore, it is a question of process. It’s a question of institutional framework. And that’s why I am so opposed to the unilateralism of the United States that undermines international legality.

It has to be through an institutional framework which is the United Nations. There is no viable alternative for bringing us all together institutionally and normatively except in something like the United Nations. And since we have the United Nations – we have had it for longer than this association has been existing – therefore we have to invest in the credibility and sustainability of the United Nations as a global institutional framework for coming together and sharing resources and responsibilities for our lives. And, also, we have our regional organizations like the European Union where, those of you who are of this part of the world have to act to uphold those values as well. You have your national politics. And wherever you happen to be, you have the responsibility of upholding those values in your national politics. It goes all the way to your family and your community. Always.

But for me, it has to be grounded in accountability for all actors. Because it is through accountability to the shared values that you can promote the practical implementation of those values. And, for that reason, it has to be accountability of the so-called Al Quaida, as much as it has to be accountability of the United States and its coalition. And the most recent act of defiance of international legality, and defiance of the possibilities of coming together in a shared humanity, is the United States’ veto of the application of the statutes of the international criminal court in the Bosnia situation. And one more time you see how it occurs, from walking out of international conventions like the United Nations race conference in South Africa, or acting in this manner by vetoing the possibility of accountability for crimes against humanity.

And, after all, one can hardly understand how can a superpower, how can a civilized nation like the United States, which it is, how can its foreign policy be so irresponsible. Except through the failure of the American public to hold its government accountable for its foreign policy. The message that I have carried everywhere is to challenge the American public to hold its government accountable for its foreign policy, as much as it holds it accountable for its domestic policy. And, if anything, September 11 has shown the ambiguity of the distinction between the so-called foreign and domestic policy. After all, was September 11 a domestic event for the United States, or was it a foreign policy event for the United States and many others?

Please excuse my passion if you feel it touches some nerves. But I also challenge the complicity of the international community in not challenging illegality and arbitrariness and violence from whatever source, be it Al Quaida violence in the United States or the United States counter violence that is touching many others. But also the Palestinian-Israeli situation. And again I see the same sad and tragic pattern of indifference and a complicity. Because the fact that we are unable to uphold these values against our friends – if we cannot challenge each other on these values of humanity, of decency, of respect for human life and self-determination – discredits our ability to uphold them against our so-called enemies. And, of course, ultimately it is a question of how can we claim these values for ourselves, when we deny them to others. That is the scale of the challenge I would like to pose. But ultimately for me, as a Muslim, as a believer, the challenge is to my own religion, to my own tradition. What you can do to support me in sustaining that challenge, and making it credible, is to undertake your country’s challenge to your respective demons. We all have our demons.

For me, let me emphasize, for those who are not aware of it, that the resources for a humane, co-operative, peaceful Islam are tremendous, both historically and contemporary. We tend to jump to the stereotype and we tend to find comfort and solace in the stereotype because it relieves us of our responsibility to think and to act critically. Because if we were to think and act critically, we would realize that there are twelve hundred million Muslims around the world. There are more than 55 to 57 (if you count the Palestinian Authority) members of the International Islamic Conference, which is an inter-state organization among Muslim countries.

And yet we see that the dominant headlines and focus is on the negatives about the Muslim world and the Islamic societies. Not about the positives. Not about the realities of co-existence, and the humanity that is shared between Muslims and with non-Muslims. Muslims and non-Muslims sometimes have more in common than with some other Muslims. Muslims of the Indian sub-continent have more in common with the Hindus and Sikhs of the Indian sub-continent than they would have with Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa or Muslims of the Middle East. It is to see these overlapping identities that was also referred to in the opening statement, to understand that a Muslim is not nothing but a Muslim. She or he is many other things at the same time. And here I am, as a Muslim, with you, on the values that you all uphold. And I do so from my perspective. So the challenge for me and the resources exist. And the challenge for you and the resources do exist as well.

Please let us act in solidarity and not just simply lament the reality of violence and confrontation in the family, in the community and globally. Let us please uphold the institutional framework, and make it more democratic, so that no power, however great, can veto the collective will of the whole of humanity which is reflected in the international criminal court statutes and also in the peacekeeping initiatives of the United Nations.

For me, as I was trying to speak to Muslims in Tanzania about issues within their communities, I was always challenged about the global difference in power and global abuse of that difference in power. For that reason, I plead, please let us all take responsibility for who we are, where we are, and act accordingly. Thank you very much.

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