CAIRO: “How can some sense be restored to the word ‘humanism’?
German philosopher Martin Heidegger tried to answer this question in his famous 1946 “Letter on Humanism. After attending “Humanism in Islam: an Intercultural Dialogue, a three-day conference recently held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the question is still pertinent.
The symposium was jointly organized by the Bibliotheca and the Goethe Institute as part of a project called “Humanism in the era of globalization – an intercultural dialogue on humanity, culture and values .
Director of the project, Jorn Rusen, said that the cultural gulf between Europeans and Egyptians might not have been so wide in the distant past.
“Even though we presumed that the ancestors of our Western culture were the Greeks, this is changing. It is becoming clear that Egypt had such a huge influence on Western civilization, he said.
Rusen also stressed that currently the world is facing a new order where cultural differences between nations are shrinking, and that it is best for citizens of the world to share a common basis – the fact that we are all human beings.
In doing so, he continued, we must not only celebrate our similarities but also embrace and weigh up our differences.
In a comment more controversial than his Arabic Booker award-winner “Azazeel (Beelzebub), Youssef Ziedan, director of the manuscript center/museum at the Bibliotheca, claimed that “there is no humanism in other religions, only in Islam.
Judaism, he said, offers no notion of the human but rather of the Jew.
“The golden chance to establish humanism in Christianity was lost, he added, “when the son of God image of Jesus Christ won over the image of the son of man.
Ziedan’s argument didn’t focus on the humanistic character of the teachings of religions other than Islam, but rather with their theologies.
Taking a more skeptical approach, Kadry Hefny, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, doubted the ultimate benefit such conferences may bring. “These conferences bring together moderates and individuals who fundamentally agree with each other, but the street picture is something else.
Many Quranic verses were used as a reference by the Arabic speakers to demonstrate the peaceful message Islam has to offer. But Hefny pointed out that since the dialogue is never between religions but rather between the followers of religions, it must be noted that verses are sometimes distorted and twisted to meet the questionable goals of those who abuse.
Ali El-Samman, president of Dialogue and Islamic Relations Committee of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, took the point one step further to proclaim that “there are no religious battles, there are only political battles taking religion as hostage.
Throughout the conference, the shadow of 9/11 loomed over a large part of the discussion. Michael Kemper from the University of Amsterdam said that European provocation of Islam’s image through media, citing last year’s highly controversial Dutch film “Fitna as an example, are futile.
Kemper pointed out that a thorough understanding of Islam through daring forms of Quran translations is a promising endeavor for building a real bridge between the West and the Muslim world. He cited the Iraqi-Dutch writer Qader Abdallah, who took a lot of liberty in rephrasing to get the message across and illustrate the inherent beauty of the Quran.
Rusen reminded the conference guests of Roman philosopher Cicero’s famous words: “Why do we need the idea of human dignity? Because of human fragility. Because we all make errors. Rusen also warned against concentrating solely on the three major monotheistic religions and ignoring the other faiths.
“Seeing only the positives in belief but ignoring the negatives can be a form of self-deception, he added.
Humanism has been traditionally defined as a philosophy which puts the human being at its center of focus. Because of this, it has sometimes been associated with secular, socialist, and even atheist currents. With absolute concepts like that of “the human being becoming impossible to define in today’s postmodern philosophy, it seems that humanism now aims to put not the “human being but rather all human beings at its center of focus.