Q&A: ‘People Who Work Every Day For Harmony Do Not Make Headlines’

Interview with Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini

VENICE, Nov 28 (IPS) – The daily work of ordinary people committed to building dialogue both within and outside their communities make for less spectacular news reports than stories about communities at odds, says Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini. These ordinary people are the majority, and they are more open to productive communication with the West than we generally believe, he says.

Pallavicini, vice president of the Italian-Islamic Religious Community (Comunità Religiosa Islamica Italiana, Co.Re.Is.), is an Italian citizen who was born a Muslim to a Japanese mother and an Italian father. He is member of the Italian minister of the interior’s Council on Islam in Italy and Imam of the al-Wahid Mosque of Milan.

Pallavicini is also president of the higher council of the Islamic Organization for Education, Science and Culture in the West (ISESCO) — the first Islamic NGO recognized by the European Union — where he also serves as ambassador for relations with the Vatican. In this role he has played an active part in numerous inter-religious dialogues and peace initiatives representing Italian Islam.

“To strengthen internal and external dialogue and respect toward diversities, religious leaders have to bring the messages of Muslim doctrine nearer to today’s challenges, without losing the ancient teachings,” Pallavicini told IPS correspondent Sabina Zaccaro in an interview.

Some excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What could religious leaders do keep their communities away from dangerous fundamentalism and to promote dialogue? Could you give us an example?

YSYP: The network of 138 Muslim religious leaders who recently wrote a letter focusing on inter-religious dialogue to all the religious authorities of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity. What they are trying to do is to build a group working for dialogue and respect inside the Muslim community and outside.

This is exactly the responsibility that religious leaders must renew in these times — both in the East and the West — fostering the culture of respect and actualising the message of masters and prophets so as to enlighten people’s hearts, minds and actions. Only by renewing the intercultural dialogue can we achieve a new social cohesion, turn over prejudices and lack of trust, and effectively isolate political totalitarianisms, economic individualisms and violent fundamentalisms.

IPS: While signs of the clash of civilisations are so evident, it is difficult to perceive signs of alliance. Is this really feasible? What is specifically being done to achieve it?

YSYP: Clash is noisy, provokes pain, and represents — from modern communication’s perspective — a sensational aspect which is far more attractive emotionally than positive images of cooperation and dialogue among cultures. This does not mean that these latter do not exist. On the contrary, the latter represent the majority of women and men who work every day for harmony. They do not get the headlines.

I would like to mention three recent examples of concrete initiatives focusing on the Alliance of Civilizations. The first one is international, intercultural and inter-religious: we signed, translated and disseminated the important document on dialogue written by 138 wise Muslims leaders, as the starting point for a new cycle of interchanges.

The second initiative has a national, intra-cultural and inter-religious nature. As Italian Muslims we have committed to promote and strengthen the dialogue among religious minorities — particularly the Jews — through hospitable exchanges at synagogues and mosques. We are organising public meetings between Imams and Rabbis in the most important Italian cities, and supporting regional institutions in the implementation of measures to promote integration and prevent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Finally, we have committed to foster dialogue within our own community . . . to fight psychological barriers and work towards a more mature relationship among old and new generations and a better understanding of the approach and the rules of the post-modern Western world. A solid alliance is also built by strengthening internal bonds.

IPS: What are the moderate Islamic communities living in Western countries doing to respond to the most common external expectation — to isolate fundamentalist currents?

YSYP: What fundamentalists want to challenge is the unity of Islamic communities, the modernity of the Western world, and the peaceful co-existence of different faiths. We react to this by working with the young generations of European Muslims, to help them conciliate the Muslim doctrine with the social and technological modernity of the society they live in so they can become modern European citizens.

IPS: You recently wrote a book titled “Within the Mosque”, recounting the life of Muslim communities in Italy.

YSYP: “Within the Mosque” describes the function of a minority of Western Muslims who can represent a pioneer example of what has already happened — with the first Jews, the first Catholic, Waldenses and orthodox Christians — showing how it is possible, with patience and intelligence, to build a new intercultural religious community.

IPS: In your book there is a chapter titled “Women’s voices”. Does Islam listen to the voices of women?

YSYP: Both in its doctrine and its civilization, Islam has always promoted the respect and development of men and women, and the symbolic bond they form together for the harmony of family and society. Major feminine figures of high spiritual quality and social commitment can be found in the history of Islam in different regions of the world. Unfortunately, a puritan and fundamentalist current has brought violent psychological and physical discrimination of women. This cannot be other than strongly condemned.

IPS: The report of the U.N. High Level Group for the Alliance of Civilisations talks about good governance, law, and democracy, as essential conditions to narrow the divide between societies. However, in many countries — often Muslim countries — citizens do not experience democracy and cannot defend their rights. Is there any dialogue with totalitarian regimes, particularly regarding cases of discrimination against minorities and violation of fundamental human rights?

YSYP: There is a dialogue but there is also the risk of it being superficial and formal — thus becoming a conventional exchange of monologues. Good politics, respect for the law, an efficient democratic process, and the respect of human rights can only be met when institutions and politicians manage their power ethically — when national interests do not coincide with the greed of a few, but with a long-term and conscientious vision of humanity’s actual condition.

IPS: What do you think is the place of dialogue in the international political agenda?

YSYP: The problem we should focus on and solve is that of increasing the quality of dialogue — helping the application and effects of dialogue — so that it is not exhausted at the theoretical level, or in abstract and narcissistic good intentions.

My meetings with Moroccan king Hassan II, with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, with Sephardic Rabbi Bakshi Doron from Israel have contributed to teach me the sacred science of dialogue as a communion among people.

** Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini is among the keynote speakers of the Inter Press Service Annual Conference addressing ‘The role of communication in the alliance of civilisations’ (Venice, Nov. 29).

The U.N. — stressing the role of communication in overcoming stereotypes and dangerous generalisations — has identified the key reasons for the growing divide between Muslim and Western societies as not religious, but political.

The 2007 Conference will host communication professionals, academia, civil society, government, faith communities, and international institutions for a reflection on the key role of media and communication in bridging the gap between peoples.