Keynote Address

r Anwar iBRAHIM


At the Inaugural Session of the Conference "Inter-Civilisational Dialogue in a Globalising World"
organised by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi

April 8, 2005



It is an immense pleasure for me to speak at this conference. “Inter-Civilisational Dialogue”, especially after September 11, is a mighty discourse. But it is also a subject very close to my heart, even long before the tragic event. Dialogue among civilizations, for our world today, is a global imperative. We live in one global village and interconnected village. All living civilizations are crammed into this village. So, we cannot talk to one another. Nor can we talk down to one another. We must talk to one another and we must talk as equal.


My interest in it is both intellectual, as well as practical. The country I come from, Malaysia, is made up of three major ethic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians. And each ethnic group, in its own way, represents at least one great Asian civilization – the Islamic civilization, the Chinese civilization and the Indian civilization. My country is like a great cauldron, or perhaps a great ocean, fed by three rivers of great civilizations. So one has to know one another, and must talk to one another. For this reason, when I was deputy prime minister I persuaded the University of Malaya to organize a conference on civilization dialogue between Islam and Confucianism. I would have organized one conference on dialogue of civilization between Islam and Hinduism if I was not sent to an extended vacation. Nonetheless the conference led to the establishment of the Centre for Civiliztional Dialogue at the university.


The influence of Indian civilization to my region – Southeast Asia – is profound as it was enriching. The two greatest monuments in my region, the Borabodur in Java and the Angkor Watt in Cambodia, are creative and aesthetic response of Southeast Asia to the impulse of Indian civilization. In its formative stage my region is often described by historians as part of the “Greater India” and its polity as “Indianised states of Southeast Asia”. Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are part of our folklore. In Kelantan (Malaysia), often described as a most puritanical Muslim state, traditional performing arts are all creative improvisation of themes from these great epics.

However, the impact of the Indian cultural energy is not only something of a distant past. It is a living force. One of my greatest regret in the last months of my tenure in the government is not being able to organize an international conference on the universal significance of Rabindranath Tagore, as a continuation of a series of international conferences on the Asian renaissance. The underlying motivation of this series of conferences was to honour the precursors of the Asian renaissance such as Togre, Muhammad Iqbal, Jose Rizal, Lu Xun and several others. Not merely to honour them sentimentally, but to learn from their intellectual and cutlural adventure, and to carry on from where they left.


I believed during that time, I still do, that Asia will have a great future. It has a great past. And I thought if it could renew itself Asia will again contribute towards the enrichment of global culture. It was also a time of Asian jingoism, especially among the so-called economic tigers and economic dragons, a few years before the Asian financial crisis. In their obsession with economic pursuit these jingoists were presenting a truncated vision of Asia. No matter how successful, Asia cannot be defined in economic terms alone. In fact no civilization can be defined or reduced to its performance in providing economic wellbeing. It is important to be economically successful so that people will not suffer the pain of poverty and destitution. But it cannot be the all and one all. So the Asian renaissance conferences sought to remind the world and Asian themselves that Asia is a civilization, or Asia contains several civilizations. Not only Asia has to talk to the West, Asia also must talk among themselves. The Muslim must not only talk to the West, Muslim must also talk to the Hindus, to the Buddhist, to the Taoist, to the Confucian and others. As Asian we must celebrate diversity. Let Huntington conjure a spectre of clash of civilization, but Asian will partake in a feast of civilizations.


To partake in the feast of civilization one has to love civilization. To love civilization one has to love ideas. One cannot live without ideas. Primitive societies became a civilization because they produce ideas – ideas about man, about society, about truth, about justice, and about beauty. We recognize a civilization because they produced men and women who live, in what is called by Hannah Arendt as “the life of ideas.”


We cannot think of the classical Greek without thinking about Plato. We cannot think of India without thinking of Shankaracharya or Ramanuja, or Islamic civilization without thinking Ibn Sina or Ibn Khaldun, al Biruni or Waliullah Dehlawi. We cannot think of China without thinking of Wang Yang Ming or the great reformer Wang An Shih. These thinkers, or men of ideas, produce ideas for their civilizations. These ideas differentiate their civilization with other civilizations, but also ideas that connect one civilization with others.


One of the greatest mind of the twentieth century, Alfred North Whitehead, said that the decisive moment when man progressed from barbarity to civilization is when man move from reliance from the use of force to reliance on the use of persuasion. From force to persuasion, this is the decisive mind of man, but they did not do it through armies. They do it through persuasion. They do not conquer by the might of arms, but through the arsenals of their arguments.


This particular idea of Whitehead, an American philosopher, is profoundly relevant in our time, especially as a commentary to initiative to promote democracy. Undoubtedly democracy is one of the greatest human achievements. Democracy is about freedom and choice, to be free from tyranny and oppression about participation in governance. Of all political organization known experimented by man, democracy is the only system that rely on persuasion rather than force. As such it is troubling to any passionate democrat that democracy as a political system that is defined by persuasion could be introduced by force. It is a contradiction in terms, at least theoretically, that you can spread freedom through occupation.


I believe that man by nature wants to be free. To be un-free, be it under slavery, or colonialism, or dictatorship, and other forms of political tyranny are unacceptable. We want to make our own choice. We do not want to be forced to make our choice. We want to make our choice freely.


We have the recent experience of Indonesia where the transition to democracy is truly liberating. It comes from the will and fortitude of the Indonesian, which is the biggest Muslim nation in the world, to free themselves from three decades of military dictatorship. It also comes from the desire of the Indonesians to resume their experiment in democracy, begun in 1945, but sabotaged by Sukarno’s “guided democracy”, and later supplanted by Suharto’s New Order militarism. The new Indonesian experiment has rendered the debate whether Islam is compatible with democracy or not completely irrelevant.


Even here in India, the experience in freedom and democracy is no less enriching. India remains and will remain the biggest democracy in the world until the Chinese decide to join the community democracies. It is also in the Sufis and the Yogis, philosophers and panditas, exchanged ideas, intellectual discoveries and spiritual experiences. Some three hundred years ago Prince Dara Shikoh described this dialogue as the “meeting of two oceans” – maja’ ul bahrian. The translations of Hindus texts into Persian which he commissioned later on facilitated the Western discovery of Indian thought.


Be that as it may, India also faces grave challenges. The challenges of India – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – are not for India alone. India must face these challenges on behalf of Asian democracies. Deeply religious society have fanatics in their midst. As such India has to battle fanatics and obscurantists on the fringe that intend to subvert its democracy. Only through a continuous and vigorous dialogue of civilizations India could prevent its democracy being hijacked by religious fascists. India has its cultural richness, intellectual profundity and spiritual depth. If it could employ these resources, through persuasion rather than force, in battling the madcap on fringe India could pave the way towards a new global covivencia, a life of tolerance, understanding and mutual enrichment.


Even the West will have to learn something from this. The coming of Enlightenment in Europe in the eighteenth century sought to free man from superstition, fanaticism and bigotry through the instrument of reason. The light of reason which has grown dimmed in the Islamic and other Asian civilizations, gained a new source in the West, and eventually persuaded the rest of the world to rediscover this miracle called human intellect. It is an enigma to the Asians, who are still re-learning to be rational, to find out that the residue of fanaticism and bigotry in the West has gained a new vigour. As such the battle against bigotry and religious fanaticism and fascism is not only the concern of the East. The West also must have the resolve to battle their own fanatics.


Thanking you.