Vinoth Ramachandra

Dialogue: Just Another Power Game?

Posted on: June 26, 2009

In a letter to U.S President George W. Bush in May 2006, the Iranian President Ahmedinejad invited him to a dialogue on international issues. He urged that they begin their conversation by expressing their mutual respect for the prophets and their message of justice. Then he raised this astonishing question: “ Will we be given a role to play in the promised world where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him) will be present? Will they [the prophets] even accept us?”

The goal of the Iranian revolution of 1979 was to put into place a political order that emulated that of Muhammad in Medina before his triumphant return to Mecca. The beloved leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, fled the rule of the infidels in Iran under the Shah’s regime, just as Mohammed fled the infidelity of the Meccans. Then, like Muhammad, in due course the Imam returned to Iran, victorious over those who had opposed him. Under his leadership, all areas of society have been brought under the demands of justice in anticipation of the return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi (Saviour) who will extend the peace of Islam to the whole world. He will return with Jesus who will defer to his leadership as they work together to usher in a universal rule of peace and justice.

The Iranian Revolution is predictably unravelling, and its “just society” claim was falsified decades before the current post-election agitation. Ahmedinajad himself will soon join Bush in history’s growing list of “wannabe saviours” , and both will be long forgotten when the true messiah comes. But the note of anxiety, even uncertainty, that has crept into his language contrasts with the self-assured rhetoric of most American presidents. This is ironic, since it is dictators who are normally considered to be dogmatic and unyielding, not leaders of democracies. And the way this Shi’ite Muslim seamlessly blends universal political justice with Jesus Christ must embarrass many American Christians (who never talk of Jesus and justice in the same breath!) as well as American secularist politicians (who also exclude Jesus from any discussion of what constitutes justice!).

President Obama took it upon himself to address “the Muslim world” in a speech at Cairo University recently. The speech was hailed in some sections of the Western media as epoch-making, the dawn of a new relationship. In truth, there was nothing that he said that Bush had not already said; and no political proposals that went significantly beyond what Bush had himself proposed. But what few commentators picked up was the sheer oddity of an American president, the elected spokesman of a clearly defined nation-state, trying to engage in dialogue with an amorphous “Muslim world”. If by the latter term is meant nation-states in which Muslims form a majority, these number over 50 states and represent a diversity of cultures and political systems. If the “Muslim world” includes all who profess to follow Islam, then it includes around 5 million American citizens and 10 million Europeans. Who was Obama addressing? And whose response is taken as representing “what Muslims think”?

Muslim heads of state are happy to dialogue with US and European heads of state. But never with Muslims within their own nation who oppose their policies, let alone the minority Christian and other communities. Ahmedinejad writes to Bush, and his Mahdi clerics invite American scholars to formal theological dialogues, but never will any of them invite Iranian Christians to such conversations. This is a dialogue of the powerful, and it reinforces their sense of power. It does little to break down prejudices, caricatures and stereotypes between peoples. While diplomacy between states obviously requires dialogue and meetings of heads of states are necessary, they do not represent the “dialogue of civilizations” that truly makes for lasting peace.

In the course of our daily lives we interact and collaborate with Muslims and others on projects of various kinds, from a housing committee to a parent-teacher association. This is the normal context in which opportunities for dialogue emerge.  Personal friendships matter far more than formal debates. We should be promoting informal gatherings of Christians with people of other faiths to discuss issues that affect our common life in society. It is often in the course of such discussions that questions can be raised that take the discussion onto a more searching, personal level, where peoples’ worldviews are disclosed and the basic assumptions on which they conduct their lives opened up to loving and searching critique.

We do not know what we really believe, let alone how far our lives match up to  what we claim to believe, until we engage in serious dialogue with others, especially those who are profoundly different to us. We need the “other”, including the critique of the “other”, to discover ourselves.

What, then, can each of us do to promote this dialogue of the relatively powerless?

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2 Responses to "Dialogue: Just Another Power Game?"

Vinoth,

Excellent reflections on the politics behind dialogue. A few comments in response to what you wrote.

I agree with you that President Obama didn’t say anything new but I do think his tone (and if I am allowed to say it, his motivation) was different. Only time will tell what the real outcome of the speech is for the geo-politics of the Middle East and international relations in general but I am hopeful. When I asked my university Muslim friend from Pakistan about the speech he was deeply disappointed that Obama did not say more to expose or condemn the authoritarian undemocratic state of Saudi Arabia.

Having worked for a mega-evangelical missions organization, I agree with you that ‘Jesus and justice’ don’t easily go together. But I have to add that there are ‘little’ people on the margins of this organization who do do justice in Jesus name. I know an American Christian living in Chennai who washes the hands and feet of lepers every day.

Your point about ‘the dialogue of the powerful’, while I agree with it in principle, it seems to suggest that there is a clear obvious line separating the powerful from the powerless. I am not sure about this… I don’t believe everybody who holds a position of power has a Machiavellian worldview. Here I am thinking of the president of the 63rd session of the UN general assembly Mr. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. While he holds this powerful position for a year, his life so far has been about being there for the ordinary common people.

Finally, I would add to your point about ‘the dialogue of the relatively powerless’ the experience of eating and drinking together. Down through history the powerful and powerless don’t eat at the same table. In India we know that a house maid never eats with us at our dinning table, actually she would eat her meal sitting on the Kitchen floor much after the family have eaten their meal. Maybe she is ‘the other’ we must engage with and her critique of the world can bring transformation to our souls.

The eschatom vision of the banquet of the nations where the powerful and powerless eat at the same table gives me hope….

humility

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