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“Rouhani” case: a “code of conduct ” for dialogue with Islam

The “Rouhani case” in Italy and the “possibility” of dialogue. Stefano Allievi and Paolo Branca have drawn up a “Code of conduct ” for dialogue with Islam: from the importance of welcome, to limits dictated by “common sense”, to a certain amount of creativity and imagination needed to solve problems that may arise. However, we must never “stop at the formality of smiles and good manners." True dialogue always requires “a deep act of communication and sharing.”

Hospitality, common sense, deep knowledge of our interlocutor, respect and mutual esteem along with a certain amount of “creativity” and “imagination” that in some cases can help solve problems linked to complex relationships. “Experts” in dialogue with Islam have shared their view on the Capitoline statues obscured by white panels for President Rouhani’s visit. We asked them to compile a sort of “code of conduct ” of appropriate manners in the dialogue, notably with representatives of the Islamic world. It’s an “impossible” endeavour, our interlocutors pointed out, given the large number of nuances pertaining to individual cases. However, they accepted the challenge and some interesting proposals were made, resulting from years-long experiences with realms that are very different from our own.

“The word hospitality has an enormous value, especially in the Islamic world.” Stefano Allievi is probably one of the first Italian scholars who deepened their knowledge of Islam. Today he chairs a Master program on Islamic Studies in Europe at Padua’s University. “Hospitality is a cornerstone of Christian-Muslim dialogue. And for the purpose of hospitality it is possible to make some adjustments.” The first is to “renounce a certain form of cultural imperialism that leads us to believe that our civilization is superior to others.”

“The limit is dictated by common sense.” Renouncing a latent feeling of cultural superiority doesn’t mean surrendering to the culture of others. “What happened in Rome – pointed out Professor Allievi – was a huge mistake. It would have been enough to opt for a different exhibit hall. It would have been much easier, instead of removing one of our halmarks.”

  • Being creative and solving problems with a pitch of imagination. “It always depends on the circumstances – Allievi said – and in order to so do it is necessary to see things through the lenses of our Muslim counterpart. I have interviewed women who converted to Islam and those from a Muslim family who would not shake hands with men. It’s their choice; it’s their problem. However, in some cases, before a male who warmly extends his hand as a gesture of welcome they decide to respond, while other times they keep their hands behind their backs. And they explain why. But this doesn’t only refer to Islam. We also tend to adopt the custom of bowing down when we meet Japanese or Indian people.”
  • The rule of hospitality and common sense requires “the knowledge of others, to which must necessarily be added our self-knowledge.” Enough with “superficiality” and “collective infantilism.” “Diversity unquestionably raises a set of questions, but it’s an occasion to reflect and to learn that the rules of civil coexistence are artificial and lack authentic foundations.”
  • The rules of hospitality are subjective. “A code of conduct must not become a bon ton guide that is valid for all”, Allievi remarked. “The context is extremely important and the person standing in front of us makes the difference.”
  • “Making others feel comfortable when they are with us.” “Moreover, this rule – said Paolo Branca, Professor of Arab Language and Literature and of Islamic Studies at the “Cattolica” University in Milan – applies to all human relations. In the dialogue it’s important to let the other person know: ‘I respect you and I consider you at my same level’, especially when different sensitivities are involved. A relationship is always based on equal grounds, shunning from superiority drifts.”
  • The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The professor is referring to the episode in the Gospel when the centurion shares the feelings of Jesus and doesn’t want to cause him discomfort. “This form of sensitivity is the one that should be taken as a role model, which doesn’t mean to abjure but rather to empathize with the other person. In the case of Rouhani it would have been enough to opt for a different tour and there would have been no problem, for him and for us.”
  • Being oneself, being sincere. “If we have the opportunity of tackling specific issues we must say what we think. We should communicate these thoughts serenely, without renouncing our opinion. We shouldn’t say: ‘yes, you’re right’, only to avoid arguments.”
  • No to a dialogue “made by formal smiles.” “If we lay the foundations for mutual respect, esteem, understanding and trust – Branca concluded – we will be able to take the next step, which is to be sincere and open about what we think. If, instead, we display our diversity from the start, our relationship will inevitably remain at the level of formal smiles and good manners, preventing the onset of deep communication and sharing, which authentic dialogue requires.”

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