Dialogue Among Civilizations: Contexts and Perspectives

Seyed Mohammad Khatami
An Article by Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the fifth President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, published at UN Chronicle on October 1, 2012

Although dialogue has been a human idea since ancient times, “dialogue among civilizations” became a pervasive and inclusive theory and emerged as a symbolic asset due to its proper and timely presentation. Even the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks of 9/11, which took place the same year which had been designated as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations and which caused the discourse of violence and war to overshadow the discourse of peace and compromise, did not stop the world from pursuing the dialogue of cultures in various practical fields. When the existing paradigm is one of war, domination and violence, the world needs to hear the voice of peace, dialogue and compromise. The widespread acceptance of the proposal to designate 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations by the United Nations General Assembly was of high importance. The fact that the proposal was accepted by consensus indicated that in their depths of conscience, the powers, whether oppressor or oppressed, considered the international political situation worrisome. More importantly, the positive response of public opinion, particularly intellectuals, thinkers, academic and political as well as social circles to this proposal was impressive.

One can say that dialogue among civilizations has been one of the few initiatives able to create such a considerable, if not the greatest, wave during the past decade. This includes the formation of dialogue institutions, the writing of books and theses in this field, the establishment of academic chairs, and the holding of numerous international conferences in the West and the East, in the Muslim and Christian worlds. The fact that all governments approved this proposal and, more importantly, that the scientific, human rights, academic, social and political societies paid attention to it was outstanding. However, upon closer inspection, it is not so surprising why certain remarks are sometimes heard and sometimes not. Due to public concerns, the world responded to that calling at that particular time when it was first presented. That is why dialogue among civilizations became widespread— the time was ripe for raising this issue. Despite all problems, today dialogue among civilizations is still a prominent issue and continues to exist. Though the spread and promotion of the idea seems to have decreased, it is still of importance and appealing in the depths of man’s thought and history, and I think it is a light that will never go out.

Two Governments, one Western and the other Eastern, Spain and Turkey, later on raised the issue of the “alliance of civilizations”. As 1 of 18 high-ranking groups that the United Nations Secretary-General had chosen, I announced that dialogue among civilizations was not over and that the alliance of civilizations could not replace dialogue. The civilizations must first be able to talk and find their commonalities while maintaining their own identities.

The idea of alliance of civilizations, in the sense that all civilizations merge together as one, is different from the idea that has been promoted all these years. Imagine that all civilizations completely set aside their issues and focus and cooperate on certain subjects; this is a job for governments and politicians. It was, nevertheless, a welcomed initiative as it indicated that the idea of dialogue among civilizations was still centre of attention.

Dialogue among civilizations is not a philosophical or political theory per se. We presented the issue as a paradigm; as a desirable model and example for relations among humans, societies and different groups. In the current era, but particularly in the twentieth century, the dominant paradigm was that of war. On one hand, there was the Cold War, regional wars, military and revolutionary conflicts with unaccepted regimes, while on the other hand, there was the matter of occupation, oppression and two world wars. The existing paradigm reflects what really happened.

Despite the Charter of the United Nations and organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization which focused on culture, dialogue, increasing awareness and man’s spiritual growth while attempting to remove poverty and racial discrimination, and despite efforts to promote human rights, justice and freedom while resolving differences through logic, reason and justice, force regretfully prevailed. In addition, the right to veto was adopted at the United Nations. Why should a few countries have privileges because they won the last world war and have more power, and why should they be able to use the institutions and tools created in the United Nations for promoting peace and understating to impose their demands and interests?

The fact that dialogue among civilizations stands in opposition to the clash of civilizations has been a topic of debate. The idea that clashes among cultures and civilizations will replace political and military confrontations, as part of man’s destiny, was further complemented by the “End of History” theory.

I was not trying to explain the philosophical and theoretical basis of dialogue among civilizations so much as pointing out that the prevailing paradigm and model for relations in today’s world, particularly in the twenty-first century, is a very dangerous one. An alternative criterion and model can be introduced that will
resolve many existing problems.

My main concern was whether we can have a better world. This better world can be realized through changing viewpoints. For example, we should not measure Islam by its military power, and the power of the West should not be measured by its industrial, technological and military progress. Can things be viewed in this new way? I believe it is possible. Dialogue among civilizations is searching for the bases and concepts of the civilizations, in order to define new policies and power and create a new set of relations. It can certainly not ignore politics. By using the criterion of dialogue, we can criticize policies, not justify them. Thus, dialogue among civilizations would have a constructive effect on politics.

The relationship between civilization and people’s identity and whether identity is an obstacle or a facilitator on the way of dialogue is of high importance. Identity is a double-sided sword; if considered in a wrong way, it can cause the highest level of violence, opposition and otherness, but if presented in the right manner, it can lead to closeness and understanding.

One defines his or her identity by drawing a line around his or her historical, emotional and religious personality, and decides who belongs within this circle and thus, who is familiar, and who stands outside the circle and thus, who is a stranger. If you are biased towards your circle, the number of outsiders or others increases; others, who must not exist, must accede to you or dissolve in your identity. History is full of wars, conflicts and violence caused by such closed identities. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a person without an identity. Stripping personality from identity is like taking away humanity from humans. Dialogue among civilizations can resolve our problem regarding this issue. Can we raise the issue of identity in a way that does not lead to contradiction, conflict, violence and elimination, and ensure the compatibility of different identities?

Closed and completely separate identities are a result of violence, conflict and elimination. However, if we could define identities in a way that they intersect while maintaining their own personality, then they will have common attributes. For dialogue among civilizations to be achieved, these diverse identities must be recognized. Extremist and fanatical identities claim themselves in sole possession of truth and equate their existence with the elimination of others. These identities think only of violence which leads only to violence.

Such issues existed in the Muslim world just as they did in the Western world. It has been said that the modern world freed mankind from the yoke of two tyrannies: tyranny of the sacred and of political power. Political tyranny existed in political powers before the emergence of modernity and democracy. The tyranny of the sacred, which was mainly an issue during the Middle Ages, can be defined as a situation when an institution that is the formal custodian of religion, such as the church or other religious institutions, determines the divine decree and everyone must submit to it. No one could challenge the authority and decree of the centre that considers itself the sole custodian of the sacred. The situation in Muslim countries, although similar, was less severe and cannot be compared to the Christian world during the Middle Ages. Despite the existence of political tyrants, the Muslim world enjoyed more cultural and intellectual liberties than the Western world.

However, we should make a few corrections. We must say that mankind was freed from the tyranny of the non-sacred disguised as sacred, which is a significant and praiseworthy freedom. The main problem during the Middle Ages and in many ideological countries was that non-sacred disguised as sacred was imposed on people. Why should we believe that the interpretation of some religious institution is the complete truth and no one can challenge them despite undergoing changes in human societies, people’s needs and situations?

Regretfully, in the modern world not only the non-sacred clothed as the sacred was eliminated from the scene, but the sacred itself was omitted or ignored. A world without the sacred is a lifeless place and full of hardships. I do not believe the West and the East were ever more worried about humanity than in the contemporary era.

Religions, such as Islam and Christianity, believe in the sacred, but considering as sacred the socially and historically constructed interpretation of religion, and imposing it on society and thus hindering thought and progress causes hardships. We must instill in ourselves some kind of flexibility so that we could talk to the rest of the world while remaining committed to the sacred, so that we could tell the modern world that we consider this development in their history, the profanization of the non-sacred, as promising, though we find the claims that the sacred does not exist or is out of reach, or one cannot connect to it, objectionable and disputable.

In my view, the level of violence noticeably increased after 9/11 and dialogue and understanding were overshadowed. However, I also believe that a promising movement towards freedom, understanding and against violence has emerged from the abyss of violence in the world. I believe a common objective must be defined for dialogue: namely, fighting extremism and dangerous prejudices that may be found in any religion, culture and civilization in the East or the West.

What we are witnessing now in the Middle East is truly progress—revolutions without resorting to violence. Now, the dangerous attitudes of powerful governments or factions and movements that only believe in force and violence are being rejected. This demonstrates that non-violent methods, peaceful approaches and also the importance of dialogue and understanding are, once again, emerging from under a crust of prolonged violence. I am, therefore, more optimistic about the future of the world.

Published at: http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/chronicle/home/archive/issues2012/dialogueamongcivilizations/dialogueamongcivilizationscontextsandperspectives#