Thursday, November 13, 2008

Interfaith "dialogue"?

In my Conflict Resolution class last semester, I ran a short exercise for a session on religion and conflict. I pretended to be a fictitious theocratic leader who wanted to engage the students in a "dialogue" about how to reform my country. As we began to talk, I slowly introduced a series of completely unacceptable norms about how the dialogue should proceed -- for example, women were not allowed to speak, any reforms had to be consistent with my extremely masogynistic sacred text, etc. Needless to say, the dialogue didn't go so well.

Since AU IPCR students love dialogue (for good reason), the exercise was designed to show some of the limitations and tensions inherent in the concept of dialogue. Most people realize the "realist" limitation -- that some leaders use dialogue simply to manipulate people and increase their self-interests. But more philosophically, if you're going to have a Habermasian or Hans Kung-style dialogue, you have to assume a common normative foundation to begin with. Everyone has to agree on the basic terms, standards, and reference points, or else people will simply be talking past each other.

Now it seems that life may be imitating art. Saudi Arabia, a systematic violator of religious freedom, is leading a UN-sponsored forum on interfaith dialogue this week. The fox is leading a dialogue in the henhouse. So my question is, What kind of situation is this?

1) "Realist" Saudi Arabia is putting on a show to keep the dollars flowing in?
2) A theocracy wants to talk about faith, but because of a lack of agreement on basic norms, people will be talking past each other?
3) Through an ongoing dialogue, some basic norms can be agreed upon, moving Saudi Arabia and other nations further in the direction of reform and secular democracy?

1 comment:

joehumanist said...

Or 4) Realist Abdullah is trying to distance the Saudis from Western perceptions of fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Iran?

If that's the case, they would measure the outcome by the participants and the press releases, not by actual constructive dialogue.