OP-ED: Who Is the "Other"?

By Wafaa Al-Rasheed

Translation provided by Tony Badran (The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies)

June 25, 2005

During the preparatory meetings for the fifth National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia, it has been decided that the term "kafir" ["infidel, apostate"] will be substituted with "the Other" or "non-Muslim" in all levels of [the country's] Islamic and cultural discourse. The aim is to undercut those who use education and sermons to call for war and hatred against non-Muslims. The statement is a great achievement: only those who have lived in Saudi Arabia can grasp its power and importance. It could indicate a drastic change in the local way of thinking, and a clear-cut stance to counter anyone who might seek to breach this position in the future.

Recently, the dangers that many of us have been warning about have been exposed, and today the state is seeking to launch a debate [about tolerance] through the National Dialogue. It allowed a call for change in the legal establishments, whether in the judiciary and the legislature, and in the religious and educational forums, to compel a move away from this ostracizing stance which has incited violence, hostility and xenophobia.

One bold proposal is to discuss allowing non-Muslims to practice their religious rituals. Prohibiting such practices over the past years has created a psychological barrier, between them [non-Muslims] and Islam on the one hand; and between them and other citizens, on the other. At a time when we are asking the 'Other' for a dialogue to understand our true Islamic religion, we isolate the 'Other' and forbid him from practicing his beliefs on our soil. This only further widens the gap between us and the outside world.

But the real question is: what do we really mean by the 'Other'? Arabs have defined it two ways: first, as the tyrannical colonizer; and second, as the one whose culture is different from our own.

Today the first definition is the dominant one, on the psycho-sociological level among the Arab peoples, as well as In the contemporary cultural discourse. We still hold a view of the 'Other' as our opposite, from whose culture we should not borrow anything and which we should not allow him to promote. In doing so, we reject our own history, and how we, Arabs, have built our own culture as a continuation of other older cultures, be they Roman, Greek, Persian or Indian.

One of the greatest paradoxes is that many Arabs today are more hostile to those who have not colonized them (the US and others), and closer to those who have (France and others). There is a big difference between rejecting hegemony and closing one's self to the other's culture. The most dangerous position among some of us today is one that confuses the two, rejecting everything that comes from the West on the premise that it is a Trojan horse aimed at corrupting our minds and subjugating us. By doing that, we are making enemies out of a civilizing source and a modern culture.

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