Egypt and the Arab and Muslim world, as well as humanity at large, recently lost an outstanding thinker who was a renowned authority on international and constitutional law and an equally famous proponent of modern interpretations of Islamic thought.
Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd also served in the first half of the 1970s as minister of youth and minister of information under late president Anwar Al-Sadat.
Many commentators have written about the different aspects of the life and thought of Abul-Magd, as well as his intellectual contributions and the important stands he took in public life to defend the values of peaceful coexistence, justice, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.
I will confine myself in this article to addressing certain aspects of the global role he played in the area of the dialogue between religions, cultures and civilisations. I personally witnessed some of what Abul-Magd had to say.
In the last decade of the last century following the publication of US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilisations in 1996, the world witnessed the proliferation of initiatives aimed at reinvigorating dialogue between religions and cultures.
Egypt was involved in some of these, particularly one on the “Dialogue among Ancient Civilisations” involving Greece, Iran and Italy as well as Egypt, and another on “Western-Islamic Cultural Dialogue” initiated by then German president Roman Hertzog.
Abul-Magd was called upon as one of the main contributors to these initiatives.
At the same time, the World Economic Forum, better known as the Davos Forum, often invited Abul-Magd as a main speaker at its annual January sessions in Switzerland.
In his speeches and other interventions, Abul-Magd elaborated on a number of themes that if they had been listened to could have saved humanity in general, and the Muslim world in particular, heavy costs, both human and material.
Abul-Magd addressed issues relating to inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue, but he also tried to help elaborate a new value system and set of criteria to govern the world order including tolerance, mutual respect and understanding.
He saw these things as forming the basis for a spirit of coexistence as well as for positive and constructive cooperation among a fraternal and united humanity.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and what these entailed in terms of complications in the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, Abul-Magd played an even more active role on more than one front.
In addition to his continued participation in the Davos Forum, he was invited by then UN secretary-general Kofi Anan to take part in a group of world experts assigned the task of producing a report to be issued by the secretary-general on ways to overcome the global civilisational divide that had manifested itself in the 9/11 attacks.
This was because of Abul-Magd’s outstanding qualifications and accumulated experience, particularly in the areas of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. The report went out as planned and received worldwide praise and appreciation.
In April 2002, I had the pleasure of being a member of the Egyptian delegation to the launch and first round of the Japanese-Islamic Civilisational Dialogue held in Manama in Bahrain.
Abul-Magd chaired the Egyptian delegation, which was composed of myself and late professor Mohamed Al-Sayed Selim, then the director of the Centre for Asian Studies at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University.
The Manama round was the first of several, and it was expected to see the laying down of the foundations of this new initiative. The contributions made by Abul-Magd proved vital.
He provided much advice of both a general and a specific nature in order to make sure that the initiative would have a solid point of departure and would be appealing and beneficial to Japan as well as to its various partners in the Muslim world.
Eight years later, I had the opportunity to participate in another round of the Japanese-Islamic Civilisational Dialogue in Tokyo, where I discovered that the same roadmap laid down in the first round in Manama, largely thanks to the contributions of Abul-Magd, was still guiding the initiative and holding it together.
A few years later, Abul-Magd was invited by the Catholic Centre in Washington DC to a high-level international conference on inter-faith dialogue.
I had the opportunity to accompany him and to listen carefully to his valuable contributions that enriched the conference proceedings and reflected a perspective that would have been missing had he been absent from this eminent international gathering.
One important argument he developed that I will never forget was that the Muslim world is not in need of more people, as the number of Muslims is not what counts, but that it needs to pay more attention to the quality of those Muslims in terms of education, healthcare, living circumstances and intellectual capabilities and products.
I have tried in this short article to provide just a few examples of specific cases, some of which I personally witnessed, where the late Abul-Magd played a prominent role in elaborating and advancing the cause of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue at the global level and particularly as far as Islam, Muslims and the Muslim world are concerned.
*The writer is a commentator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Kamal Abul-Magd and inter-faith dialogue