A word about cultural dialogue [Archives:2004/715/Culture]

February 26 2004

Dialogue, whether between political parties, ethnic groups or football fan and the police, is good, and that much is indisputable. However, the use of major conferences, such the symposium held in Sana'a last week, to promote dialogue between 'civilisations' must be treated with caution.

The most dangerous aspect of such events is their acceptance of the idiom of a 'Clash of Civilisations'. Prestigious figures who attend such conferences lend their credibility to the notion that there is a clash to be addressed. The public becomes accustomed to talking of international relations in civilisational terms. A 'clash of civilisations' becomes accepted, entrenched and potentially self-fulfilling.

None of this would matter if such conferences swiftly resolved outstanding differences. The public recognition and resolution of social problems is the essence of democracy: in both Islam and the West. But this tends not to happen. The individuals who attend indicate by their presence that they accept that there are no unbridgeable divisions between the cultures, and that cooperation is necessary for progress. They are unlikely to be brought any closer.

Parties outside the conference, at both the extremes and centre of each culture, are subject to different effects to those attending. Provocative comments arising from a conference are more likely to receive popular attention than conciliatory statements, and may be presented outside a potentially mitigating context. Furthermore, spectators are subconsciously encouraged to view contributors as aligned to a particular civilisation, rather than representing solely themselves or their institution.

We are left with the dilemma of wishing to support dialogue, but not entrench perceptions of the parties to that dialogue. Better then, to invite interested parties from each 'civilization' as representatives of other groups – as representatives of towns, villages, schools or industries – to discuss issues of mutual interest such as economic development, education, migration or investment.

By headlining and focusing on tangible common interests, participants will be less likely to be identified with a civilisation and groups who might not attend a 'cultural dialogue' conference will be drawn in.

By fostering cooperation on practical issues between groups from different civilisations, such cultures will come to appear less alien, the benefits of cooperation will be made evident and areas of 'clash' will be addressed in passing.

Dialogue between civilisations will become more successful when we hear a lot less about it.