Dialogue among Civilizations:
Dialectics of the Challenge

Dr. Walid M. Abdelnasser

          These days witness the escalation of campaigns and counter-campaigns in the West as well as in the Muslim World regarding the question of the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohamed (Prayers and Peace of God be upon Him). The current tension and atmosphere of mistrust caused some people on both sides to cast doubts of the validity of the call for dialogue among civilizations, and to try to undermine its credibility. It brought back to the minds of many Arabs and Muslims all over the world previous campaigns by some circles in the West that have been trying to promote their thesis all over the world, namely that the victory of the West over the Arab and Muslim Worlds is inevitable and it will take place as a culmination of a confrontation between them that is taken for granted. The focus by some circles in the West on the violence that characterized some manifestations of anger and protest in several Arab and Muslim countries against these cartoons, while this violence is definitely regrettable, tended to ignore the original reason that gave rise to such reactions. This development only helped promote such mistrust, suspicion and bred further incitement on both sides. 

However, we believe that the regrettable incident of publishing these cartoons should only strengthen our belief in and commitment to the cause of dialogue among civilizations. This dialogue should be based on mutual respect, understanding and equality. The current situation provides ample opportunity to remind of the evolution and path of the call of dialogue among civilizations and the main initiatives that embody this call.

In fact, the significance of the call for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions and its links to international relations is not solely related to the events of 9/11 in the United States of America. The debate on such call started after the end of the cold war between the Socialist and Capitalist camps. That period witnessed both the end of the war between ideologies and the beginning of tensions among civilizations, as well as the increasing talk about the end of history and the worldwide triumph and prevalence of the western liberal democratic model.

          The crystallization of the attention for the question of the relationship among civilizations and its repercussions for international relations reached its first turning point with the article of Samuel Huntington, professor of political science at Harvard University on clash of civilizations, that was followed by a flood of reactions and the subsequent publishing of the original article and the feedback together with the follow up by Huntington himself in a book with the same name in 1996. The reactions to Huntington were numerous and included those who – fully or partly - agreed with his thesis, those who differed with it and those who opposed it altogether. The debate on Huntington and his book waned for a short period and strongly came back to the forefront of world attention after the attacks of 9/11 and the holding Arabs and Muslims holding nationalities of Arab and Muslim countries responsible for these attacks.

          However, the United Nations and other relevant regional and international organizations (UNESCO/Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) … etc.) took the initiative on the subject of dialogue among civilizations and its relationship to the reality and the future of international relations in the years separating 1996 and 2001. In this context, the United Nations General Assembly adopted – after a series of formal and informal consultations – an Iranian proposal – co-sponsored by many other countries including Egypt, Italy and the United States -  in 1998 to declare the year 2001 the year of dialogue among civilizations. However, with the 9/11 attacks in the United States the year 2001 turned to a year in which this call for dialogue was severely damaged. Moreover, the Tokyo-based United Nations University organized a series of seminars on the subject in one of which the author of this text was a panelist.

          As far as the OIC was concerned, a group of experts was founded in 1998 which included 19 experts in their personal capacity but while reflecting equitable geographical distribution. This group was mandated to study the question of dialogue among civilizations from the collective perspective of Muslim countries. The group’s work concluded with a report adopted by the intergovernmental bodies of the organization and was thereafter forwarded to the UN as its input to the dialogue.

          UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) also consecrated a good part of its activities since 1998 to the problematics related to dialogue among civilizations and their repercussions on the international order. UNESCO, as expected, focused more on the cultural aspect of the dialogue. It organized a set of seminars all over the world to publicize the subject. The important role of UNESCO in this respect was recognized worldwide to the extent that a number of heads of states, governments and Ministers of Foreign Affairs participated in a roundtable organized in New York in September 2000 attended by Iranian President Khatami and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa. That roundtable witnessed an informal and frank exchange of views on dialogue among civilizations.

          Going back to the 9/11 attacks and their impact on the call for dialogue among civilizations, we should mention that this call suffered a temporary setback on the global level after these attacks at the level of both governments and non-governmental organizations. This situation necessitated a new approach to address the question of dialogue among civilizations and its interaction with patterns of international relations and tens of initiatives were proposed by various governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and figures that demand respect at the international level. We can summarize the most important among these initiatives in the following four initiatives:

1-    The project of dialogue among ancient civilizations which started among four countries: Egypt (Pharaonic civilization), Iran (Persian civilization), Italy (Roman civilization) and Greece (Greek civilization). The project sought what is common among the civilizations of the ancient world with a view to formulating a joint set of guidelines that may positively affect international relations in the past and the present. That project went beyond the classification of countries of the world into Christian and Muslim countries. The project expanded from the governmental level to the levels of parliamentarians, academicians and scholars in order to enhance the legitimacy of the project at the popular and non-governmental levels. There were some attempts to expand the membership of the project to include other countries that represent ancient civilizations, such as China, Japan, India, and even some suggested adding Israel. However, all these attempts were not successful for the lack of agreement on the criteria of admission of new members.

2-    The German initiative, promulgated by the former German President Herzog and was adopted by succeeding German presidents, was confined to a call for dialogue among the Islamic and European Western civilizations, but was more broadly representative than the previous initiative. This initiative also incorporated non-governmental intellectuals and thinkers in addition to officials. The dialogue started with eight countries, four representing the European west led by Germany and four representing the Muslim World including Egypt. This initiative later expanded in membership after a summit level meeting, also attended by famous thinkers from the member states, held during the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland in January 2000. The meeting was attended by the Algerian President, the former President of the Czech Republic Havel and the famous Egyptian thinker Dr. Ahmad Kamal Aboulmagd.This broad participation led to enlarging the membership of the initiative to 12 countries,: two additional Muslim countries and two Eastern European countries. It also included both officials and intellectuals.

3-    The Japanese initiative for dialogue of civilizations between Japan and the Muslim World was launched by the former Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yohei Kono in January 2000 in the course of his tour in a number of Gulf states, and more specifically during a lecture he gave in Doha, Qatar. This initiative was characterized by having two pillars, one that deals with intellectual concepts and cultural activities and the other was consecrated to specific projects of technical and scientific nature such as cooperation between Japan and Muslim countries in the Gulf region in the field of desalination of the Gulf water. The first tangible outcome of this dialogue was holding a conference on the civilizational dialogue between Japan and the Muslim World hosted by the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bahraini Center for Research in Manama in April 2002. The conference was attended by officials, academicians, intellectuals and public figures from Japan and the Muslim World, including three figures from Egypt: again Dr. Ahmad Kamal Aboulmagd, Dr. Mohamed Elsayed Selim, director of the Center of Asian studies of Cairo University, and the author of this text. The specificity of this initiative lies in the fact that it has taken place between one country that represents an ancient civilization but also affected by the modern western civilization and numerous countries, experiencing differences among themselves, but all representing the Islamic civilization. This initiative has dealt with similarities and dissimilarities between the Japanese and Islamic civilizations and their contemporary implications, as well as examining venues of cooperation between them at the bilateral and multilateral levels on the basis of what is common between both civilizations, as well as examining how both civilizations interacted with the modern western civilization. What is interesting about this initiative is that it was conceptually based on the Japanese side realization that it needs to study the Muslim World directly, rather than through the eyes of the West and its orientalists. The japans wanted to engage the Muslim World in a direct dialogue without mediators, and also to provide a better picture to the Muslim World on the Japanese civilization and experience in building compatibility with the modern Western civilization. In the first session of this dialogue in Manama, the participants not only included officials, university professors, journalists, media figures, scholars and intellectuals, but also medical doctors, engineers, and businessmen. This was definitely an element of enrichment of the dialogue and further strengthened its civil society dimension. However, the dialogues still lacks balance between its two parties: Japan is an economic giant with a western-type liberal democracy and a homogeneous culture among its population, while the Muslim party has its internal diversities at the levels of thought, practice and experiences, whether political, economic, social or cultural.

4-    The initiative adopted by Turkey for a dialogue among civilizations of an institutionalized nature between the European Union (EU) and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the city of Istanbul hosted the ministerial forum on this subject in spring 2002. Despite the fact that the labeling of that forum reflected an official nature, it was characterized by several specificities, first that most sessions were open for a broad-based attendance, second that panelists were not confined to officials, but also included academicians, experts and civil society personalities from the participating states. For example, one panel included former Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmad Maher ElSayed, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, the American professor Bernard Lewis and the Egyptian philosopher and thinker Dr. Hassan Hanafi. The third specificity of Istanbul Forum was the frankness and transparency that characterized its proceedings, particularly when addressing issues that raise the suspicion of each side towards the other, such as the issues of women status, minorities, religious fanaticism and the claim of absence of civil and political rights and democracy as raised by the West towards the Muslim World, and the issues of political hegemony, economic looting, civilizational prejudices, monopolizing the international political and economic decision-making process as well as seeking to impose the western model as raised by the Muslim world versus the West.

In light of the abovementioned accumulated developments related to the call for dialogue among civilizations in the past few years, one can argue that the challenge of promoting this call depends on resolving or managing a number of problematics of a dialectical nature in their composition.

First, there is the need to realize a stage of balance between the dialogue based on equality, equity, mutual respect among different civilizations, and dialogue on the same bases inside each civilization among different sub-civilizational paradigms. While we witness an increasing number of initiatives on dialogue among different civilizations such as the Islamic, Western, Indian, Japanese and Chinese civilizations, there were relatively limited calls, in their number and impact, for conducting dialogues within each civilization out of an awareness of the presence of differences and variations within each civilization due to the diversity of models within each civilization and the ways of implementing them. For example, within the Islamic civilization, the debate has been going inside the Muslim world since the 18th century – occasionally through peaceful dialogue and less frequently through confrontation – on whether civilizational Islam provides a prescription for a detailed system that is ripe for all times and places and that covers all aspects of life, or that it simply provides an overall general framework of values, ideals and principles and a limited number of specific provisions, which in turn enable that system to be  valid for all times and places. It has not been resolved yet which model is more relevant today, between those who talk about the relativity and particularity of the truth and those who opt for its absoluteness and claim its monopoly. Also regarding the Islamic civilization in Egypt, it can not be denied that Egypt has enjoyed multiple civilizational dimensions (Islamic, Pharoanic, Greco-Roman and Coptic) and such multiplicity enriched Egyptian interaction with the evolution of Islamic jurisprudence.  In this context, Imam AlShafei reviewed and revised a number of his doctrine’s provisions after moving to Egypt through molding it in a flexible and moderate fashion. Moreover, this civilizational diversity in Egypt's character positively affected Egypt's current handling of the issue of dialogue among civilizations and enabled Egypt to enrich dialogue among civilizations and link it to the pursuit of the goal of democratization of international relations. The people of Egypt with their pluralistic cultural heritage have been always characterized by tolerance and moderation, with very limited exceptions in terms of individuals and time. Furthermore, any observer of student of western civilization would realize that aspects of this civilization and its patterns of development have varied between Europe and North America due to differences in the surrounding social settings, variations in the value systems, the historical evolution and the different experiences. Also in the context of other cases such as the Indian one, internal diversity is of conflictual nature between religious and secular elements due to the overlap between religion and culture. This conflict was witnessed in Europe centuries ago, and some even argue that it is still not definitely resolved and is still hanging around until today, and even escalated the last few years whether in Europe or in the United States, bearing in mind the increase in numbers and percentages of non-Christian non-Western populations, including Muslims. In addition, within each civilization there have been inputs by individuals and groups who do not belong to the dominant religious and doctrinal paradigm of this civilization. For example, Christians and Jews – particularly in Andalusia – contributed to the flourishing of the Islamic civilization in a lot of its aspects, and many Muslims contributed to enriching the modern Western civilization. I do not mean here solely the aspects of Islamic civilization that were copied by the West to help its modern civilizational renaissance, but also inputs by contemporary Muslims who have lived in the West and contributed to its civilizational progress.

Second, there is a need to achieve some sort of a formula that ensures the balance between the limited nature of participation in numerous specific initiatives calling for dialogue among civilizations and the need for a worldwide umbrella for this dialogue that would guarantee both transparency and universality, as well as mitigate against the rise of blocs of civilizations and cultures allying with each other with a view to confronting other civilizations that defeat the very essence of the call for dialogue among civilizations and hinder any potential positive results of this dialogue on the development of international relations. In this respect, we notice for example that although the United States – the only superpower in today's world – is not a party to any of the specific initiatives calling for dialogue among civilizations that have limited membership, while the United States is a co-sponsor of United Nations resolutions on this dialogue.

Third, It has become clear with the passage of time and in light of current international developments that there is a need for a genuine worldwide partenariat among all relevant actors in the global drive towards dialogue among civilizations. These actors include governments, international organizations, civil society organizations, business sector, universities, think tanks and media, whose participation would ensure the grass root support for these initiatives and not limiting them to the governmental level. The developments that followed 9/11 attacks, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq further damaged the mutual perceptions between the West and the Muslim World and strengthened a confrontational approach on both sides at the expense of the spirit of dialogue and debate. However, these developments have also led to enhancing the role of non-governmental organizations and the civil society both in the West and in the Muslim World to engage in an informal dialogue based on equitable bases to be parallel as well as supportive to the intergovernmental dialogue among civilizations so as to enhance the latter and add to its credibility and help maintain the momentum of the dialogue.

Fourth, events and developments ever since 9/11 and their implications have proved that dialogue among civilizations is neither a luxury nor an intellectual exercise divorced from reality, but to the contrary dialogue among civilizations should be translated into tangible projects and activities to be felt, practiced and benefited from by the people, as well as into principles and practices in international relations that reaffirm the principles of equality in sovereignty among states, interdependence, respecting the specificity of other states, non-intervention in their internal affairs and seeking a world order characterized by democracy, both in its patterns of relationships and in its institutional setup. All parties have to realize that no single civilization, no matter how advanced it is, could solely face and provide answers to the problems and challenges suffered by humanity today. The world needs cooperation among peoples and countries belonging to different civilizations while ensuring a just share for each of them in the decision-making process related to these problems and challenges on democratic basis, whether these decisions are taken in existing international organizations or in other multilateral for a that are specifically established to face a certain challenge. This reaffirms the need that all such fora should come under the umbrella of the United Nations and submit to international law and legality so as to protect the rights  of small states and medium size powers that some of them could be representing humanly deep-rooted schools of thought and civilizational heritage, and may therefore help the world at large reach solutions to its global challenges or at least to know how to constructively manage them. We should bear in mind that both proponents for clash of civilizations and dialogue among civilizations count in their calls on a selective reading of history that extract facts and interpretations that fit their positions and bring them together in a new invented paradigm in line with its ideological bias.

Fifth, each civilization is composed of more than one tribe, city, nation, race, ethnicity, religion or group. In all cases, the outcome is the unity of mankind in its entirety, and here we can notice a significant overlap between civilization, religion, ethnicity, nationalism, language, and even some difficulties in defining all of them. Another interpretation is to consider civilization a multi-dimensional phenomenon with religious, linguistic, cultural, social, political, economic and strategic aspects. However, the current reality, as well as that of the last four decades, has witnessed a considerable rise in the relative significance of religion when classifying cultures and civilizations and highlighting the prevailing element therein. This is only normal in light of the religious revival process that was experienced virtually by all religions and their roles were enhanced in domestic, regional and international politics. In this respect, we passed through the war in Afghanistan, the events in former Yugoslavia among other developments that only complicated the problematics related to the role of religion and its interaction at the global level and its overlap with the role of culture and civilization.

Sixth, in the context of each civilization there has been a competition between absoluteness and relativity, and between different interpretations varying between intolerant ones that claim to hold final and correct answers to all the posed questions, and the ones who are open-minded towards the “other, flexible and tolerant towards those who differed with them. In the same context, there is competition between religious and secularist elements and in-between trends within each civilization count on religion as its main component.

Seventh, the relationship between Islamic and Western civilizations is definitely not in its best condition, as some sacred religious beliefs intervened with cultural and even political concepts. Some describe the Western civilization as Christian, while others deny its religious nature. In all cases, there is a worldwide quasi consensus that it is the victorious and prevailing civilization at the global level. But this does not mean the defeat or disappearance of other civilizations. However, this feeling of victory could negatively affect any effort to achieve democratization of international relations.

Eighth, on the practical level, there is a role that should be played by Muslims and Arabs who live outside their heartland, particularly those who live in the West. These have a particular responsibility to act to overcome the negative repercussions of the events of 9/11 in terms of political and social discourse, legislative and legal amendments, daily practices, academic and media policies that contravene the essence of freedom and democracy whatever is the angle of viewing and defining these developments and their frames of reference.

In conclusion, the call for dialogue among civilizations should not be perceived as a defensive or preemptive tool promulgated by some, particularly in the Muslim World, in the face of the calls for clash of civilizations and some provoking calls in some circles in the west that call for hatred towards other civilizations, particularly the Islamic civilization. In fact, the call for dialogue among civilizations is a call for defending the value of democracy in international relations at both conceptual and institutional levels. It is also a call for mobilizing all human efforts to reach agreement on a common set of minimum agreed parameters based on mutual respect and understanding, paving the ground to finding solutions, on equitable and democratic global bases, to the challenges faced by mankind and threatening its very existence, continuity, universality and humane nature. 

Dr. Walid M. Abdelnasser is author of: Dialogue among Civilizations and the Challenge of Globalization, published by AlAhram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Cairo, Egypt, 2006)

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