Dialogue is the Essential Precondition for Achieving Peace

Dialogue is the Essential Precondition for Achieving Peace

Address by H.E. Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at the thirtieth session of the General Conference of UNESCO,  October 29, 1999

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Madam President of the Thirtieth General Conference,

Mr. Director General,

Mr. President of the Executive Board,

Ministers and representatives of the Diplomatic Corps,

Delegates and Observes,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the pleasure on my own behalf and on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran to speak in the last session of the General Conference of Unesco in this century. My visit to France has created an opportunity for me to comply with the invitation of Mr. Federico Mayor the Director General of Unesco and be here today in the midst of the representatives of various cultures and civilizations. Our gathering here is a testimony that in spite of staggering advancements in communication technology even in cases where issues at hand are extremely complex and impersonal, there remains a need for direct human contact. Direct human contact is a prelude to dialogue and dialogue is the essential precondition for achieving peace.

Undoubtedly the founders of the United Nations were conscious of the importance of dialogue in preservation of peace. Within the United Nations family Unesco enjoys a prominent place in this regard inasmuch as its competence in the fields of education, science, and communication provide its activities with special depth and scope. The overwhelming welcome given to Mr. Federico Mayor's Culture of Peace initiative also stems from the same reason. Through this initiative Unesco will stay closely attentive to its objective of "building peace in the minds of men". Accordingly I would like to offer my sincere appreciation to Mr. Mayor for his untiring efforts in bringing Unesco closer to its true goals and ideals.

I would like to speak here on a subject of monumental importance. This subject with its cultural and political implications can have a profound and rarefying influence on human history. It can adorn the course of our destiny with moral beauty, integrity and spirituality.

I know full well that undue optimism with regard to the expected results of the proposal of "Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations" can be just as impeding and discouraging as excessive pessimism about the current state of affairs in the world. It is also disarming and debilitating to exaggerate the magnitude of the obstacles in the way of bringing about Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations. That is why we should prepare ourselves for this long and tortuous path, why we should vigorously and proactively be ready for all political and historical eventualities that may come to pass as a result of the realization of such a proposal.

That fact that the idea of "Dialogue among Civilizations" was embraced at international bodies, especially at the United Nations General Assembly, by governments and intellectuals and received resounding public acclamation, is by itself of great significance. For we are fully aware that international community is not always ready to respond to all calls with such an enthusiasm. Nations in all corners of the world have frequently been invited by their artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries to a new allegiance or called upon to establish a society founded on age-old human ideas. And yet only at a particular juncture people have heeded such a call. The rationale for this phenomenon cannot be found on the basis of customary social and political doctrines or currently accepted philosophical views. We know only too well that such analysis entail inherent contradictions, weakness in articulation, and an inability in presenting arguments requisite for proving the cases in question. For this reason, aside from political considerations and national interests, we must take note of more latent factors in human societies, so that we may be able to reply to the question why the proposal for a "Dialogue among Civilizations", put forward for the first time in the General Assembly of the United Nations by the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been received with such a welcome and enthusiasm.

"Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations" can be interpreted and explained in various forms and on various levels. Reflection on the meaning of "dialogue" can open the way to a proper entry into this subject. Certainly, this would necessitate entering the philosophical and historical debates, the separation of the theological and philosophical meanings of "dialogue", and reflection of the views of great thinkers, which is beyond the scope of this speech. However, mentioning a few brief points here about "dialogue" is necessary.

"Dialogue" -- and we here assume its philosophical and theoretical meanings are clear -- possesses both a literal and a figurative meaning. When we call the world to "dialogue", both meanings can be operative. That is, holding of discussions and an exchange of views regarding various issues can be regarded as examples of "dialogue", as all the cultural, artistic, scientific and literary endeavors are among the examples of "dialogue" in the figurative sense. This is not merely a literary and rhetorical categorization, for reflection upon the "literal" meaning of "dialogue" requires entering into topics which are lacking in the case of its metaphorical meaning.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

"Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations" embodies certain apparently conflicting and at times contradictory characteristics. On the one hand, it is as old as human culture and civilization, on the other hand, it is something new. The resolution of this seeming contradiction is not difficult. For, if dialogue is understood within its descriptive meaning, it requires a definition, which renders its life very long. On the other hand, the descriptive understanding of "Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations" necessitates a definition of "cultures", "civilization", and "mankind", such that they would be compatible with the expression "Dialogue among Civilizations". This would entail paying special attention to the collective aspect of man's existence, emphasizing the vast and infinite range of human culture and civilization, and stressing the point that no great culture and no great civilization has ever evolved in isolation. In other words, only those cultures and civilizations have survived that have been empowered with "communication", "speaking" and "listening". In addition to "speaking", dialogue requires "listening". "Listening" is a virtue that must be cultivated; however, this virtue is not cultivated easily, for in order to acquire it, we must engage in a kind of moral training, self-discipline, and the cultivation of reason. Listening is different from keeping silent. Listening is not a passive state, it is an activity, which enables the listener to open her or his being to the world which the speaker, creates or discovers. Without real listening, any dialogue is doomed to failure.

In order to understand the meaning of "Dialogue among Civilizations" in its prescriptive sense, one must heed certain points, one of which involves the relationship between politician and artist, while the other is the relationship between ethics and politics. The question is: What kind of relationship exists between a great statesman and a skillful artist? The degree of disparity between the two is clear due to their vastly divergent fields of endeavor. But what are the affinities and similarities between the two? If we forego the common saying that "politics", i.e., practicing diplomatic finesse, is an art itself, we may discern a subtler and more profound relationship between a politician and an artist. Whichever of the customary definitions of the philosophy of art we accept, we cannot ignore the fact that an artist is one who has the capability of dwelling in the "present", such as he is able to transpose that "present" into an "eternal present". Creation of the eternal in the "present", so that we, as his audience, be able to be "present" in his work - this is a work of art, of which only great artists are capable. The historical destiny of a work of art lies in that "eternal present", and who is not aware that the historical destiny of nations rests on moments in time in the hands of great history-making statesmen?

I hope that these words will not remind you of the ancient debate about the influence of "personalities" on history, for I have not the intention of entering this kind of discussion. We can pose such a question on the role of personalities in history only when we can separate the individual aspect of a man from his collective aspect. And we now know that whoever makes such a distinction does it arbitrarily and according to his whim.

Based on the forgoing point, we can view the common characteristic between a statesman and an artist to be none other than creativity. "Creativity" is in itself innovation. In creativity, repetition and imitation have no meaning. Furthermore, the full realization of creativity in a person depends on his or her courage. A great artist faces artistic truth with creativity and courage. Likewise, a great statesman faces the fundamental and vital problems of his country with courage and creativity. Today's politicians must take a long stride toward the creation of a more humane and more beautiful future for their nations and the world by helping the realization of "Dialogue among Civilizations".

Another point I would like to make here is the relationship between ethics and politics as concerns dialogue among cultures. Much has been said about the relationship between politics and ethics on a theoretical level, but what concerns us here is paying adequate attention to the ethical aspects of dialogue among civilizations. For the realization of this proposal, one must bring about a fundamental change in political ethics. Modesty, faithfulness to commitments, and participation are three of the most important ethical requisites for the crystallization of such a dialogues in the domain of politics and international relations. Furthermore, countries which have thus far considered pride and arrogance to be an appropriate language for the attainment of their own interests must submit to the decree of reason and adopt the language of dialogue. This, of course, is not a shift in political and economic language. Rather, both the sign and the signified must change. We have to reconcile logical thought with human sensibility. As our poet Saadi says: "human beings are members of the same body, because are all created out of the same substance". This fact should be recognized not only on national but international level. As a result of such a development, to be realized through the initiative of thinkers and artists, we will no longer be faced with a kind of langue de bois ruling over global diplomacy, rather with a lively, spirited and, most important of all, moral and humane language.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This significant point about "Dialogue among Civilizations" is that the term "dialogue" is used here in a very precise and exact sense; it is different from such concepts as influencing and being influenced, cultural reciprocity and domination. One should be careful not to mix and confuse them. Reciprocity is the domain of culture and civilization, as well as cultural and scientific exchange, can be based on various factors, including war. Similarly, the domination of one form of culture or civilization over another has at times occurred through overt aggression and, in our time, with the aid of communication technology.

"Dialogue", however, becomes possible only under certain psychological, philosophical and ethical conditions. Thus, by relying on any kind of world-view and by believing in any ethical, political, religious, and philosophical system, one cannot defend dialogue. For all dialogue to take place, we require a set of general, all-inclusive, a priori axioms, without which no dialogue in the true sense of the world is possible.

One of the most important duties of organizations such as UNESCO is to conduct research into these axioms, to publicize them, and to make them acceptable and even desirable for the world community. These axioms and the very proposal for dialogue among civilizations are not compatible with the dogmatic principles of positivism and the basic principles of modernity, nor are they in agreement with the extreme scepticism of post-modernism. Thus, one of the tasks of the advocates of dialogue among cultures and civilizations is the refinement of the philosophical foundations and the clarification of the intellectual principles of this theory. In this way, it would be saved from any dogmatism inimical to the pursuit of truth, and from the fatal quagmire of endless scepticism afflicting the post-modern thinkers, who, headless of the terrible pain and suffering of thousands of human beings, regard any call for the pursuit of justice and relief from oppression as a kind of "meta-discourse" with no philosophical justification or explanation.

Another pre-condition for dialogue among civilizations is tolerance. Although tolerance is necessary for the early states of the realization of dialogue, we should distinguish between negative tolerance, which is a modern concept, and positive co-operation, which is advocated by Eastern religions and philosophies. For dialogue to become universally accepted as a new paradigm, it must be able to elevate itself from negative tolerance to positive co-operation. Seldom one can find Muslims who would hear the word `co-operation' and not be reminded of the Quran and the divine call to mass participation in humanitarian activities:

"... and co-operate in goodness and piety...". All human beings must be able to participate in, and have the right to, activities that will help shape the world in the third millennium. No nation should be left on the sidelines by relying on philosophical, political, or economic arguments. One must not only tolerate others; one must co-operate with others. The human world should be shaped by the massive co-operation of all human beings. If, at the beginning of the 20th century, and even until recently, this seemed to be only a humanistic slogan, today it is a necessary condition for the continuation of human life.

This co-operation should not be merely of an economic or political nature. In order to bring human hearts closer together, we must think of bringing human minds closer together. We cannot be very hopeful of this prospective union of hearts by believing in conflicting philosophical, moral and religious foundations. To bring hearts closer together, it is necessary to bring minds together, and this cannot be achieved unless great thinkers of the world make a diligent effort to understand the main concepts in the thoughts of others, and to communicate them to their own people. It is necessary to talk about the basic concepts pertaining to the hearts and to the minds. Each individual should express what he or she thinks of the meaning of life, happiness and death. This may not yield immediate results, but without it, any agreement reached merely on political and economic grounds will prove to be fragile and short-lived.

The 20th century, which is perhaps unparalleled in history for the ferocity of its wars, bloodshed, and countless instances of oppression and exploitation, is a joint product of the ideas of philosophers and acts of great statesmen. Triumph over the bloody and terrifying events of this century is possible only through a fundamental change in political thinking as well as a change in present paradigm in international relations, supplanting it with a new paradigm such as the "Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations".

Religious faith, which is nothing other than giving a positive answer to God's call from the depths of one's soul, should not be considered as something unchangeable and static. Likewise, our understanding and interpretation of religion should not be at odds with the spirit of faith. Such a disparity would be an obstacle in the way of dialogue among religions, which is the first step toward the realization of any viable peace. Just as we receive our daily bread and water from the earth, we should be able to receive our daily share of fresh and lively faith from heaven. In order to exist, faith must flow like a river; there can be little hope in a stagnant swamp. Faith can bear the fruits of morality and peace only when it is continually flowing. It is only through a faith which renews itself at every instant that one can love humanity and the world.

Another point to be stressed on the relationship between dialogue and peace is that only one form of peace relates to dialogue. What is known as pax romana, is a hegemonic peace - a peace guaranteed by "power" and "law". Such a peace depends on power and self-interest; whereas a peace obtained through dialogue and achieved through the cultivation of human reason and love depends on its own cause, that is on spiritual and rational perfection of man. As in a rational development no retrogression is possible, such a peace will necessary be long-term, with a broad range covering peace among cultures, religions and civilizations, as well as peace between man and nature.

Today, creating a lasting peace between man and nature takes priority over any other duty. Exploitation and destruction of nature have replaced the relationship, which for centuries existed between man and nature, in which man loved nature, benefitting from her bounty and finding solace in her embrace. From pre-historic to modern times, never had man looked at nature simply as a "source of energy". Not that man was not reaping a benefit from the Earth and its blessings, had not been engaged with Earth to develop his social and civil life, and had not been making a moderate number of changes in his natural surrounding in order to adapt himself to nature and adapt nature to himself, but never before had nature been thus reduced to "pure object".

In all traditions and cultures, and among all peoples and nations of the world, there have always existed a number of rituals performed at certain times and in certain places that coincided with natural events. But what came to be known in the modern era as Entzauberung, or "disenchantment", not only has destroyed the ancient rituals and man's relationship with nature, but it has created a situation in which man no longer regards the world as a meaningful, purposeful and organic whole. Man is no longer "in communion" with nature. The sea, the mountain, the forest and the desert, are now simply masses of inert matter with different faces. The end of man's intimate and amorous relation with nature has been the onset of weakening of similar relations among men. Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations, which should be concerned with the most important and urgent problems afflicting mankind, should naturally place the problem of man's interrelationship with nature at the top of its agenda.

Distinguished Delegates,

A prescriptive approach to "Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations" will lead to a lively discussion of present-day global issues. The most modern human difficulties are also man's most ancient concerns and preoccupations. Today, man yearns for peace, justice, freedom and security as he has been yearned for them since the beginning of time. In order to be realized, "Dialogue among Civilizations" requires peace; and once realized, it will help to sustain peace. When we say that to achieve dialogue we require peace, we mean a dialogue that is different from diplomatic negotiations. It is well known that throughout history, wars and negotiations have often existed side by side. By dialogue we do not mean that the use of diplomatic language to promote one's political and economic ends to become victorious over the enemy, and in short to continue the war in other forms. Dialogue can only take place with sympathy, affection, and in a genuine effort to understand others, without the desire to vanquish them.

Some may believe that dialogue and mutual influence will eventually bring about disorder and entropy in the world. It cannot be denied that this is a possibility. But, first of all, it is possible to reduce the speed and intensity of such an eventuality to a minimum with the help of sound education and training. Secondly, we should remember that entropy is an inevitable problem, which occurs in the course of man's existence. The choice of the death or the disintegration of a culture and civilization is not better than the choice of life and cultural vitality. And it in an option, which will have its share of disorder and hardship.

The theory of Dialogue among Civilizations will not develop without conducting a comprehensive study of the roots of war and conflict. Such a study of conflict cannot be undertaken in isolation, without taking into account the present state of the world. Although wars often have deep psychological roots, which are naturally the subject of psychology, social psychology and psychoanalysis, they are also caused by political and economic factors. If the terrible gap between the rich and the poor in various communities and countries of the world is not adjusted, and if fundamental steps are not taken for helping the deprived, one cannot naively and gullibly seek dialogue and understanding. When of the eve of the third millennium, 30 percent of the world's population live in abject poverty, how can we speak of peace and security while forgetting justice? Even if the West decides to save its own life and be oblivious of the fate of people throughout the rest of the world, in order to protect its own security and prosperity it will be compelled to help others. For social, political and technological reasons, all the people living in today's world find themselves aboard the same ship. Riding out the storms and reaching the safety of the shore will either be possible for all, or for none. If this statement sounds exaggerated today, it will be much easier to understand tomorrow. On the threshold of the third millennium, the destiny of our world is shared by all. In order for this destiny to be a just and prosperous one, there exits no choice but a dialogue among various cultures and civilizations. If the axis of the 20th century was the force of the sword and with each sweep of blade some won and some lost, the main axis of the coming century has to be that of dialogue. Otherwise, the sword will become a double-edged weapon, sparing no one; and it is not inconceivable that the might warmongers would be among its first victims. This is a direct consequence of globalization.

I thank you for kind attention.

Source: Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations New York