President Khatami calls for Islamic civil society and understanding of western civilisation

Developing Just Leadership

Crescent International

Ramadan 02, 1418 1998-01-01


by Crescent International (Features, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 21, Ramadan, 1418)

Speech delivered at the recently concluded OIC Summit in Tehran, Iran.

‘I wonder whether to commence my words with a statement of woes and misfortunes that are, or with the joys and delights that should be. Is not a fundamental objective of the Islamic Conference to formulate common remedies for the woes and attainment by the Muslim countries of a stature and position befitting them? Is it not to achieve this lofty ideal that the present should be prevailed over and the misfortunes remedied ? No pain and affliction can be cured unless it is properly diagnosed in the first place, then the best solution is sought with discretion and reflection and finally, acted upon with resolve and firmness.

‘Our predicament is that the Islamic Ummah (Community), once a flag-bearer of knowledge, thought and civilization, has in recent centuries elapsed into weakness and backwardness and worse still, has even failed, due to the consequent painful state of passivity vis-a-vis the ostentatious dominant civilization of the time, to properly utilize the fruits of this civilization. Our centuries-old passivity is the outcome of the decline of a once shining humane civilization, whose achievements and remnants are still praiseworthy and to which the dominant world civilization is truly indebted.

‘Considering civilization as the product of humanity’s response to questions about existence, the world, and about itself and also as representing the sum total of his efforts in the way of meeting his needs, what is constant in man is his quest for knowledge as well as his need and longing. However, the form and content of the questions and needs change according to time and place. Civilizations continue to live as long as they possess the capacity to respond to ever-renewing questions and the ever-changing needs of man, otherwise they are doomed. As such, civilization, as a human affair, is subject to birth, development and demise.

‘The questions and needs of man in our time are in many ways different from those of our predecessors. Our passivity in recent centuries in the face of western civilization - which is itself a response to the quest of western man - is due to the fact that for various reasons we have ceased to ask. The absence of question leads to the absence of thought, which in turn leads to inevitable passivity and subjugation vis-a-vis others.

‘What is important, though, is to discern that such passivity and backwardness is not our preordained destiny. People who created one of the most glorious civilizations in history still enjoy the potential to create another, provided, of course, that they lend themselves to reason and reflection. This cannot be accomplished without the realization of the following:

‘1: Return, with reflection, to the historical self which on the one hand is rooted in the eternal Divine inspiration and on the other, carries a unique historical and cultural potentiality nurtured by the past.

‘2: Proper and deep understanding of the present. In this respect, it is imperative to discern that between the Islamic Civilization - more precisely, the Civilization of Muslims - and our life today, there stands what is called the ‘Western Civilization,’ whose accomplishments are not few, and yet whose negative consequences, particularly for non-westerners, are plentiful. This is the era of preponderance of western culture and civilization which we must understand. However, for such an understanding to be effective and useful, it is essetial to go beyond the superficialities and reach its theoretical basis and the fundamentals of its values.

‘Recognition of our past is equally imperative. Not because we wish to return and stay there, which is regression, but for the rediscovery of the essence of our identity and its refinement in the mentalities and habits hardened by time and place, as well as for the rational criticism of the past in order to find proper support for today’s honour and dignity and a platform to go beyond the present towards a more splendid future. We will only succeed in moving forward if we possess the requisite fairness and capacity to utilize the positive scientific, technological and social accomplishments of western civilization - a stage we must inevitably go through to reach the future.

‘We can move the present as well as future generations towards the new Islamic civilization through setting our eyes on horizons farther away, being together with understanding and helping each other as brothers. For this to become a reality, all of us must dedicate ourselves to the realization of the ‘Islamic civil society’ in our respective countries. The civil society which we want to promote and perfect in our country and which we recommend to other Islamic societies is fundamentally different from the ‘civil society’ that is rooted in the Greek philosophical thinking and Roman political tradition and which, having gone through the Middle Ages, has acquired its peculiar orientation and identity in the modern world. The two, however, are not necessarily in conflict and contradiction in all their manifestations and consequences. This is exactly why we should not be oblivious to judicious acquisition of the positive accomplishments of the western civil society.

‘While the western civil society - historically as well as theoretically - is derived from the Greek city-states and the later Roman political system, the civil society we have in mind has its origin, from a historical and theoretical points of view, in Madinat ul-Nabi. Changing Yathrib to Madinat ul-Nabi was not just a change of name, nor did the change from Ayyam-ul-Jahiliyah (Days of Ignorance) to Ayyam-Ullah (Days of Allah) represent just an alteration of designation. Madinah is not soil and territory just as Yaum-Ullah does not stand for time.

‘With Madinat-ul-Nabi and Ayyam-Ullah a moral geography and history comes into existence that ushers the beginning of a new outlook, character and culture, which once became a reality in the early days of Islam. This culture, with its unique and distinct view of existence and man and their origin, has for centuries lived in the depth of the soul and collective memory of Muslims. Now, more than ever before, Muslims need to take abode in their own common home.

‘However, the original singular human essence has over time acquired different semblances and flavors as a result of ethnic, geographical and social differences among Muslims. Nevertheless, Madinat-ul Nabi remains our eternal moral abode and Yaum-Ullah continues to flow in the present and through all moments of our lives, or they should. Madinah emerged from the land of polytheism and oppression just as Yaum-Ullah began as a result of a break with the time of Jahiliyah and an entry into the sacred realm of Divine Time and Presence.

‘Taking abode in the ôcommon Islamic homeö does not mean regression, rejection of scientific achievements, withdrawal from the modern world or seeking conflict with others. On the contrary, it is only after such a return to the common identity that we can live in peace and tranquility with other peoples and nations. Living in peace and security can be realized only when one fully understands not only the culture and thinking but also the concerns as well as the ways and manners of others.

‘Sophisticated understanding of the cultural and moral dimensions of other societies and nations entails establishment of dialogue with them. A meaningful dialogue can take place only when the parties concerned find themselves in their own genuine cultural sphere, otherwise the dialogue between an alienated imitator and others would be meaningless and certainly void of benefit. Seeking abode in the common Islamic home - Madinat-ul Nabi - is tantamount to the assuming by Muslims of their true position and securing their true Islamic identity.

‘In the civil society that we espouse, which is centred around the axis of Islamic thinking and culture, however, personal or group dictatorship or even dictatorship of the majority and elimination of the minority has no place. In such a society man, due to the very attribute of being human, is venerated and revered and his rights respected. Citizens of the Islamic civil society enjoy the right to determine their own destiny, supervise the administration of affairs and hold the government accountable. The government in such a society is the servant of the people and not their master, and in every eventuality, is accountable to the people whom God has entitled to determine their own destiny. In our civil society not only Muslims are considered citizens with rights but all individuals are entitled to rights within the framework of the law. Defending such rights ranks among the fundamental duties of government.

‘Respect for human rights and compliance with their relevant norms and standards is not a posture adopted out of political expediency or conformity with others. Rather it is the natural consequence of our religious teaching and precepts. Amir Al-Mu’menin Imam Ali (AS) enjoined his representative to observe the principle of justice and equity as regards all people and not Muslims only, for ‘They are of two groups; a group of them are your brothers in faith and the other are like you in creation.’

‘Our civil society neither seeks to dominate others nor to submit to domination. It recognizes the right of other nations to self-determination and access to the necessary means for an honourable living. Determined not to yield to force and coercion and in its drive to stand on its own feet, our civil society, as instructed by the noble Qur’an, considers itself entitled to acquire all requisite means for material and technical progress and authority. And the rejection of domination and subservience no doubt means the rejection of force and duplicity in relations with other nations and their replacement with logic and the principle of mutual respect in international relations.

‘The civil society which we aspire to establish is based on our collective identity whose attainment requires the continuous and ceaseless endeavours of intellectuals and thinkers. It is not a treasure that can be unearthed overnight; rather, it is a fountain of life and morality from whose constant effusion we will benefit. Therefore enjoyment of this treasure is gradual and dependent on scrupulous cognizance and re-examination of our heritage as well as our doctrinal and intellectual tradition on the one hand, and sophisticated, scientific and philosophical understanding of the modern world on the other. Hence, it is the thinkers and men of learning who are pivotal in this movement. Our success along this path depends upon politics serving thought and virtue and not acting as a confined and restrictive framework for them.

‘What I have just stated is not an exercise in imagination but the panoramic outlook of a future situation, whose achievement is possible and for whose realization it is our urgent duty to strive.

‘We believe that movement along this clear path has commenced in Iran, thanks to the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the honourable people of Iran are pursuing their way with self-confidence and through perseverance in the face of difficulties, struggling against internal restrictive and regressive habits and mindset on the one hand, and external pressure and conspiracies on the other. Along this path, they extend their hands, in fraternity and cooperation, to all Muslim peoples and States and also to all peoples and States who are committed to the principle of mutual respect.

‘Regaining Islamic honour and dignity, which God has discerned for us, and acquiring the requisite capabilities to claim our due share in the present world and in the creation of a new civilization, or at least, active participation in the genesis of the civilization that will inevitably replace the existing one, Muslims should rely on two important factors: one, wisdom and reason, the other, unity and solidarity.

‘In order to realize these two prodigious marvels can there be anything for us but recourse to the noble Qur’an - the eternal heritage of the glorious Prophet of Islam? Which Divine Book or Message emphasizes reasoning, meditation, reflection, contemplation and deliberation, on existence and on the world and on learning from the fate of past peoples and communities so much as the Qur’an?

‘Furthermore, against all racial, ethnic, linguistic and even religious differences, the noble Qur’an is the most trustworthy grasp and anchor of bond and unity among Muslims, provided we appreciate it and rely on it with wisdom, and enlighten, with its bright rays, our life today as well as our future horizons. This must be done without rigidity of habit and a sense of inferiority vis-a-vis others.

‘I briefly present to the distinguished audience the priorities that Muslim countries need to address and find remedies for, on which I seek assistance from the Conference.

‘1: Towards a New and Just World Order:

Despite the efforts of American politicians to impose their will on others, as the one remaining pole of power around whose interests the world should gravitate, international relations are in transition from the former bi-polar system to a new stage of history. A new order based on pluralism is taking shape in the world that, insha’Allah, will not be the monopoly of any single power. What is imperative for us - Muslim countries - is that while valiantly resisting all kinds of expansionism, we should strive to secure our proper position and stature in contributing to the shaping of the new world political order and new international relations. This entails understanding, planning and common endeavour.

‘It is imperative that Muslim countries engage in a careful evaluation of their position and capabilities, and after an objective assessment of their external environment, proceed to adopt appropriate policies to arrive at political solidarity and consolidation of all their internal resources, and thereby strive towards necessary grounds at world level to ensure effective participation in international decision-making. Initially, relying on principles, common heritage and interests as well as on negotiation, we should strive to bring our views closer together in all areas and then, create a chain of well-connected complementing possibilities through proper utilization of such capabilities.

‘2: Security and Peace in the Region and the World

In parallel with joint efforts towards fulfilling the historic mission of the Islamic world in contributing to the shaping of a new and humane world order, complete co-operation of Muslim countries towards the provision and preservation of world peace is an undeniable necessity. However, provision of security and lasting humane peace in the world entails that the cold-war paradigm which was based on the necessity of the existence - for public opinion - of an actual or imagined external enemy be cast aside. It is unfortunate that certain expansionist tendencies in the world are seeking to create an imaginary enemy of Islam. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us all to strive, through effective and continual participation in the promotion of peace and security at regional and global levels, to strengthen confidence, reduce security concerns and render ineffective the wrong inculcations by the enemies of Islam.

‘We should be vigilant, however, that what is most threatening to our security is the trend of increasing threats against the very political, cultural and economic existence of Muslims, particularly because the extension of the range of these threats and their orientation towards the historical and doctrinal identity of the Islamic Ummah unfolding in the form of widespread cultural onslaught has placed us in a very sensitive and critical position. No differences should stand in the way of our solidarity in resisting this fundamental danger and threat.

‘In the interdependent world of today where the security of different regions is indivisible, striving towards the promotion of mutual trust and the establishment of peace is considered a universal responsibility. Cultivation of confidence is the first and most appropriate strategic approach to ensuring security. Preparing the

ground for establishing mutual trust and alleviating or reducing security concerns should be placed at the top of the bilateral relations between Muslim countries, and should be accorded a high priority in the agenda of the OIC.

‘Relations between the Islamic world and others suffer from mistrust, misunderstanding and misconceived perceptions, which are partly rooted in history and partly due to hegemonic relationships or are a consequence of the fanning of chronic misunderstandings by the hegemons. In this connection, through providing the necessary grounds for dialogue among civilizations and cultures - with the people of intellect taking a pivotal role - we should open the way towards a fundamental understanding which lies at the very foundation of genuine peace which is itself based on the realization of the rights of all nations, and thus neutralize the influence of negative propaganda in public opinion.

‘The world needs peace and tranquility. It is obvious, however, that for peace to be lasting it should be just and honourable. History shows that no peace has ever embraced success without justice and

consideration for the aspirations of the people concerned. As the crisis in the Middle East has made it abundantly clear, genuine peace can be established only through the realization of all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the inalienable right to self-determination, return of refugees, liberation of the occupied territories, in particular Al-Quds Al-Sharif. It is a fact, though, that the hegemonic, racist, aggressive and violent nature of the zionist regime, amply manifested in the systematic and gross violation of international law, pursuit of State terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction, seriously threatens peace and security in the region.

‘In the sensitive and strategic Persian Gulf, the regional States themselves should undertake to preserve security and peace. In our view, the presence of foreign forces and armada in this sensitive area serve not only as a source of tension and insecurity but also of tragic environmental consequences.

‘What is happening in the dear land of Afghanistan is indeed a massive human tragedy as well as a fertile ground for foreign intervention and disruption of security and stability in the whole region. Muslim countries, and for that matter the OIC, should insist that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem. Their painful predicament should be resolved, initially through negotiation with the parties involved and finally, by the Afghan people themselves. The OIC should invite and encourage all the parties involved to engage in negotiations and thus help guide this country towards peace and tranquility.

‘The situation in Iraq, particularly in the north, is also distressing. While inviting Iraq to cooperate properly with the United Nations, we believe that foreign intervention, particularly conflict and war in the northern area that has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, has created grounds for widespread insecurity in the region. We attach great importance to the territorial integrity of Iraq and declare our readiness to under take all humanitarian measures in this important country of the region.

‘The dangerous designs for foreign infiltration and penetration, particularly by Israel, in various parts of our region is a serious cause for concern, underlining the necessity for vigilance by all countries of the region. We welcome the active and self-assertive presence of the States of Central Asia and the Caucasus in the process of independence and development towards the honour and dignity of the Islamic world. At this point, while welcoming the trend of peace in the friendly and fraternal Tajikistan, I deem it necessary to express our gratitude to President Imomali Rakhmanov and Mr Abdullah Noori, Chairman of the national Reconciliation Commission, for their cooperation in the establishment of peace. Towards further consolidation of peace and tranquility in Tajikistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran invites the OIC to exert its utmost efforts in order to prevent the spread of ethnic differences as well as to strengthen the process of peace in this country.

‘Many Islamic countries are currently facing foreign threats and conspiracies and are burdened with difficulties due to internal differences. The OIC in general and Islamic countries in particular should declare their solemn support for the independence and interests of these countries as well as their respect for the wishes and aspirations of Muslim nations. Moreover, the Islamic Conference should act and move in a manner and direction that Muslims everywhere in the world, including Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries, find in the Organization a source of confidence and assured support.

‘We should remain vigilant vis-a-vis visible as well as invisible sources of threat against our security. We believe that the Islamic countries have reached the requisite stage of maturity to undertake, through understanding and conclusion of collective agreements and treaties, to preserve their own security as well as that of the region they live in. In this connection, the Islamic Republic of Iran, while emphasizing cooperation among States in the Persian Gulf region for the preservation of regional peace and stability, considers the establishment of regional security and cooperation arrangements with the participation of all the States in the Persian Gulf an assured step towards the establishment of a lasting security in the region and towards the defence of the common interests and concerns of all the countries and nations concerned.

‘3: Comprehensive, Balanced and Sustainable Development of Islamic Countries Development constitutes another propitious basis for the preservation of security and stability and sustainability of independence of the Islamic societies as well as for the honour and dignity of Muslim nations. In our view, proper and preferred development is comprehensive, balanced and sustainable; it should ensure participation of all individuals, groups and segments of the society, including women and the youth, in the process of progress. In development defined as such, the human being is the central factor; whose enjoyment of the material and spiritual blessings of life constitutes the very fundamental objectives.

‘In order to achieve such a development, we should, first and foremost, define and devise proper patterns of development compatible with the particularities of our respective societies and the Muslim world. We should also acknowledge that no country can successfully overcome all the hurdles of development on its own. Further, it is imperative that Islamic countries undertake a comprehensive, precise and scientific assessment and evaluation of their capabilities and capacities, and help create - through utilization of their respective comparative advantages - a ring of interconnected links of complementing developmental undertakings across the Islamic world. Simultaneously, they should also properly exploit their God-given assets and resources, through efficient management and reliance on knowledge, technology and manpower, as well as through suitable cooperation and exchange in such fields as scientific, technical, economic and specialized and skilled labour. The Muslim world will undoubtedly develop into an important pole of power, progress and authority in the present as well as the future world through adoption of these steps and measures.

‘The existing religious bonds, spiritual affinities and common cultural heritage among Muslim countries, once complemented with scientific, economic, political, technical and cultural interaction and exchange, will certainly provide the requisite material and non-material pillars for the establishment of a progressive, and tranquil society and will bring them collective development and security.

‘4: Reassessment of the Role of the OIC

The OIC, as the only universal multi-lateral organization in the Muslim world, plays an important role in the accomplishment of the afore-mentioned and in general, the realization of the fundamental objectives of ‘participation, dialogue, security and development.’ In light of the steadily growing role of religion in general and Islam in particular in recent decades in explaining and shaping human relationships, Muslims all over the world have the right to look upon the OIC as a refuge and source to meet their supranational Islamic and human needs and aspirations.

The OIC, with 30 years of experience, enjoys the requisite potential resources for a more effective presence at international level. Hence, it is natural that we now take up the question of looking for new approaches and mechanisms to strengthen its organizational structure as well as to make more efficient its decisions and ensure their implementation.

‘Under the present circumstances, the OIC must assume a more active and innovative presence in international equations, particularly in the resolution of current conflicts among Member States or the crises imposed on them from outside. The Organization’s initiative in defending the rights of the honourable people of Bosnia stands out as a good start for a serious change in the Organization’s approach to international crises. Preservation and continuation of such sensitivity and active support towards the rights and interests of Muslim societies and Muslim communities and minorities in non-member countries, along with constructive engagement in finding a solution for such chronic cases as that of Kashmir, is imperative for the institutionalization of a more prominent role for the Organization.

‘All of us should help the OIC so that it can strive, more assertively, forcefully and unequivocally, towards a sincere and compassionate resolution of differences within the Islamic world. We should also support the Organization, financially as well as politically, in discharging its mandate. At the same time, more vigorous attention to the fundamental and pressing problems and issues of the Islamic world on the part of the Organization, along with the enhancement of the content of its decisions and further reinforcement of its plans and activities, will certainly make it more energetic and dynamic.’

Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1998

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