Spotlight: Dialogue In a Divided World

Our world is tragically divided, and we need dialogue. On these things, we in the peace-oriented community agree. But what kind of dialogue is up to the challenge of bridging the various divisions in our world? That was the question that guided a seminar held at the Ikeda Center in 2009 to honor the publication of social anthropologist Nur Yalman's book-length dialogue with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda, A Passage To Peace. On hand for the discussion were a number of Professor Yalman's friends and colleagues on the Harvard faculty: Islam scholar Shahab Ahmed, Divinity School professors Leila Ahmed and Harvey Cox, Divinity School Dean William Graham, and law professor Noah Feldman.

The discussion was marked by a concern for the limits or shortcomings of dialogue. For example, Professor Cox pointed out how practioners of interfaith dialogue, mostly liberals, sometimes ignore the harder task of dialoguing with the more conservative members of their own faith tradition. Professor Leila Ahmed said that while there is certainly value in the erosion of our differences globally, the resulting common ground is, by default, usually indistinguishable from “American ground” – therefore Americanization by another name. And Shahab Ahmed clarified that one of the original forms of humanism, the “Renaissance humanism” of Western Europe, was inherently biased and has long fueled the West’s attitude toward the Muslim world as somehow less than human.

Nevertheless, Professor Graham insisted that there are “humane possibilities for dialogue across power.” As the end of the session neared, Graham warned against throwing the baby of humanism out with the bathwater, so to speak. Despite past failures of the humanistic project, it would be dangerous, he said, to lose the notion that our humanity is more fundamental than anything. He urged everyone to uphold “the intrinsic value” of human beings across all categories. Professor Yalman concurred, saying that valorization of human life is the key, adding that we should understand that all killing is unacceptable, even when it appears justified. The path forward, said Yalman, must keep “right in front of us” at all times Andre Gide’s injunction that “the individual is the most irreplaceable of beings.”

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[Posted by M. Bogen, 12-11-15]

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