Every year finance ministers and commerce ministers of scores of countries gather under the auspices of World Economic Forum (WEF) to discuss commerce and trade issues that affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide. National contingents include bureaucrats, activists and endless number of national and international NGOs.
The discussions here, conducted by government leaders and civil society organisations, lead to major changes that concern the economic prosperity and social security within and among nations. Keeping that in mind it is rather strange that few people know it has an extremely significant programme of dialogue between the West and the Muslim world.
WEF has begun to publish an annual report on the state of the dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. It is encouraging to know that despite mutual suspicions and tensions the dialogue has deepened over the years, thus reducing uncertainties and fears.
Right from the moment of the September 11 attacks the question has been constantly asked in the West as to why there was so much of anger against Europe and America in the Muslim world, especially in West Asia.
According to the report of the WEF dialogue (Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue-2008) long periods of Western colonial domination over the Muslim countries and their continued political and economic dominance even after the dismantling of European empires is one of the reasons of resentment. Other irritants include American occupation of Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the eruption of civil strife in Iraq as a direct result of the occupation.
An important factor that necessitates such dialogue is the tension in Europe because of the fast growing population of Muslims and denial of full citizenship rights and equal opportunities to them. The report says full citizenship rights to Muslims in Europe are crucial to such dialogue that would lead to stability.
The report cautions against looking at either Islam or West as a monolith as there is immense economic, social and political diversity within each of them. Still there are certain characteristics which make each of them a unit distinct from the other. Monotheism, belief in Muhammad's (PBUH) prophethood and the Quran as the word of God is common between all Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia, thus providing a common thread that binds the immense diversity of the Muslim world together.
This year's report (which highlights the activities and achievements of 2007) says that there is a lot to be optimistic about many aspects of the dialogue, but there are other aspects which require more effort. Among the points that promote optimism are: dialogue between Muslim and Western intellectuals and the meeting between the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the Pope in Vatican last year.
According to the report the West-Islam dialogue aims at increasing mutual respect between the two sides. It defines the West as Europe, North America (especially the United States), Australia and New Zeeland.
There are certain amazing facts in it taken from a Gallup poll. According to the poll the preponderant majority in Muslim countries feels that there is no point conducting dialogue with the West. However, in Pakistan and Bangladesh a majority of Muslims feels such dialogue is in the interest of the two sides and that an Islam-West understanding is a worthwhile objective.
Another amazing point is that a preponderant majority of Whites in Europe thinks that any increase in interaction with Muslims will be "dangerous" but as many as 70 percent of Americans feel such interaction will be helpful. This is contrary to the Muslim perception. Because major European powers like Germany, France and Russia were opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Muslims have a general perception that Europeans are more friendly to Muslims than Americans. On the level of people that certainly is not the case.
The report says behind the strained relations between Islam and Europe a major factor is the negative role of media. European media focuses too much on violence between Muslims and acts of terror committed by persons who happen to be Muslims. On the other hand there is little or no mention of the positives, like some of the top names in French art, literature, fashion design and sports being Muslims who bring glory to France with their excellence.
A major reason for Europe improving relations with the Muslim world as well as with European Muslim is the 4.3 percent population of Muslims in European Union's 15 countries. By 2025 this population is expected to rise to 10-15 percent. This demographic scenario itself necessitates continuous dialogue, integration and empowerment of European Muslims and more just and balanced relationship with the Muslim world. According to the report the European governments are sincerely working on more meaningful dialogue. Naturally, the Muslim world has to reciprocate. g