Building on the efforts of the Dialogue Among Civilizations, a panel of 20 cultural leaders under the banner of the UN released today a final report outlining a set of recommendations that they believe will help bridge the West-Muslim divide. The report sketches the crucial dilemmas of our globalized era – the rising inequality, the unavoidable inter-connectivity, the diffused complexity that is generating mutual suspicion – which it sees as the root problem of many misunderstandings and prejudices between the Western and Muslim worlds. The report is the first major attempt to create a framework for policy-makers worldwide to address the difficult issue of cultural and religious integration, and for this it should be welcomed and praised. But, like all mega-projects, especially sponsored by the UN, when observed more closely it reveals some crucial limitations.
Behind the grand statements advocating mutual tolerance and respect, the report fails to highlight (and therefore address) some more divisive questions. In its Guiding Principles, for example, it reiterates the central role that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights should play in any attempt to bridge said divide, without recognizing the fact that framing the rights discourse in individual (as opposed to collective) terms is itself perceived by many civilization as a manifestation of Western cultural dominance. Moreover, how is a multilateral framework of justice meant to be implemented when countries like the US, China, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Israel (to name but a few of the key ones) refuse to endorse the International Criminal Court?
While reassuring us that all world religions are peaceful and just, the report warns us that
[…] in democratic societies, when groups sharing a history of discrimination or victimization make claims for equal rights and political participation, they may be addressed peacefully through, for example, affirmative action. In political systems which offer no channel for grievances to be heard, political and militant groups often emerge, advocating the use of violence to achieve redress. [page 6]
The two controvertial counter-questions to this statement would be:
- Why are certain groups seemingly more prone to violence, while others are not, despite both living in the same socio-political environment?
- Which political system should people turn to when they perceive their problems as originating from global economic and social structures?
In fact, in its commendable attempt to defuse tensions and promote mutual understanding, the report doesn’t really help us understand the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7.
Underlying the entire report is the fact that religious identity is reasserting its role in international politics and this – it appears – is not so bad after all. The return to religious values and principles is described as a response to the attack on cultural identities perpetrated by globalization over the last few decades. The historical precedents of these resurgences are seemingly dismissed. If anything, however, history teaches us that – whether or not manipulated by people with particular interests – religious differences in shared social spaces have a tendency to be more divisive than any other cultural difference.
Most bizarrely, the report states as its first and foremost recommendation the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While we can certainly all agree that this is long overdue, I am not very sure how this will address the problems of identity, poverty, inequality, cultural domination, etc. that have been blamed so far on globalization. If the root problem of the clash between the Western and Muslim worlds is the way globalization is connecting them in an uneven manner, why are the policy recommendations aimed at addressing this imbalance deemed of secondary importance, and outlined in very generalistic, even shallow terms – a renewed committment to multilateralism, respect for human rights, etc.?
Thankfully, part 2 devotes a lot of attention to the crucial issue of education, which should certainly be at the centre of any resolution and policy implementation. In particular, and rightly, the report stresses the importance of cross-cultural youth events and educational exchanges to prepare the future generations to a global world. It also makes important points on the issue of migration, which is certainly one of the most contentious and politicized, but usually also misinformed. Which obviously leads to the hot issue of the media and the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to limit the media’s irresponsible approach to many contentious issues.
Overall, a first step in the right direction.