From the 14th to the 17th of April 2006, a conference on Danish-Muslim relations was held in Abu Dhabi. As an academic and someone who had already written on the issue of the cartoons controversy, I was invited to attend.
Gatherings of this nature have tended to be ones that inflamed Muslim and nonMuslim public opinion on the issue without providing for positive outcomes. But this seemed different. Entitled “Lita ‘arafou”, the goals of the conference were linked to a Qur’anic verse (49: 13):
“O humanity, We (God) created you
from a male and a female
And made you races and tribes.
That you may know one another
So it came to pass that the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi had invited a group of Danish youth, and non-Danish youth from the Muslim world. The first conference that managed to put individuals like Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri of Yemen, Sheikh Sa’id Bouti of Syria and Sheikh Jihad Hashim Brown of the USA to speak on the same platform as Danish intellectuals and scholars like Thomas Hoffman, Mogens Mogensen and Karen Lise Karman, in a political climate that was charged to say the least. A climate where Muslims set the frames of reference: rather different than what has often been the case in such conferences.
It was difficult not to attend.
Three days of events, including twelve speeches, two long sets of workshop sessions, three excursions across the United Arab Emirates and a generosity of food and hospitality unmatched by any conference I have been to. And a different vibe from the outset; this was not a place of debate or relativising difference. This was a place to “facilitate channels of dialogue and discussion … in an effort to live and interact with one another based upon mutual respect despite our different pers- pectives and worldviews.” It was not a place to argue; it was a place to exchange, understand and increase one’s awareness of “the other side” .
The Muslim delegates came from literally around the world. Converts, and born Muslims; men and women; Danish Muslims and American Muslims; Egyptians and Syrians, Singaporeans and Malaysians, Britons and Swedes; it was truly a multi-national affair. Aspiring academics, journalists, students; there was a plethora of people there. The nonMuslim delegates had all been chosen and nominated by the Danish Youth Council: seasoned public players who were undoubtedly on their way to become some of their country’s future leaders.
The conference left few stones unturned. Freedom of expression. Integration of Muslim European communities. The notion of the sacred. Media and its role in the world; the difficult questions were not avoided, but taken on, head-on in the speeches of the scholars invited to speak from Muslim and non-Muslim perspectives, and then explored in the various workshops.
Then, away from the spotlight, in those workshops, in the dinners and the lunches, in the desert excursion and the art exhibition, in the shopping (we were so close to Dubai!) and the coffee breaks, something happened.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered” – NELSON MANDELA
For many of the non-Muslim delegates, this was their first time in a Muslim country, and the first time for them to experience a part of Muslim life. For many of the Muslim delegates, it was their first opportunity to thoroughly engage with non-Muslim Danes who gave them a personal perspective into Danish society.
They came with a desire to learn, and with a desire not just to ask but also to ask the right questions. Some of the delegates came with preconceptions and preconceived ideas. But they left with something different than what they came with.
There was an overabundance of remarkable occurrences that are worthy to note from those few days, but two events stand out. The first was Habib ‘Ali’s heart-felt and emotional statement of how he felt about the Prophet Muhammad. The nonMuslim delegates had already grown fond of this speaker over the previous couple of days through his munificence. They sat there in amazement as he proclaimed that he would prefer that his whole family die, rather than any harm come to the Prophet. This was a deeply sincere expression that affected the delegates; first hand they could see the gravity and significance that the Prophet had in the lives of Muslims, centuries after he passed.
The second was the departure of the delegates. The “other side” was no longer some sort of faceless “other”, but characters and personalities. These were people, not “camps”; these were individuals of different stories, not opposing groups. “The Muslims” were not a monolithic “other”, but a part of the world in which Danes inhabit, and a part of the Danish reality; a part non-Muslim Danes might not always agree with, but which they recognised as a part of themselves. “The Danes” were not a mythical, homogenous mass which hated the Prophet and Muslims, but people of principle that needed to be engaged with and respected. Many members of both delegations cried because members of the other delegation were leaving.
On an emotional, personal level, the delegations left Abu Dhabi with some fresh understandings as to what the “other side” was all about. They may not all have agreed with each other, and this is reflected in the final declaration that was put together at the end: but they respected each other as individuals, and as holders of certain perspectives. No one was demonised, or participated in demonising other people’s values or cultures.
No political points were scored or boundaries drawn. People left changed in some way and went back to their own places, which remain as they were.
“To be a spiritual person is to get rid of what is in your head; imagined truths, preconceptions, conditioning, and to open oneself to what can happen.”
– ABU SAID ABU-L-KHAYR, a 10th-century Turkmen poet]
The cartoons crisis has just about died down now; another crisis, another time. But perhaps through this conference, even if in some small way, people found the opportunity to find good in a difficult time. To open themselves to the possibility of a world where people could say they really did know one another. Many promised to stay in touch and explore further opportunities for earnest dialogue.
If nothing else happened, that would make any conference like that worthwhile.