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March 8th, 2013, by Vitaly Naumkin

Vitaly Naumkin


(in the aftermath of the 5th Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations)


The 5th Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations held in Vienna on February 27th-28th this year highlighted the importance of cultural diversity, democracy and good governance as universal values of the global community and vehicles for development that as I believe are closely interrelated and mutually subordinated. As is known, most of the world’s states are ethnically and confessionally heterogeneous, and the governance of cultural diversity is a key issue for all these states. Recognizing cultural distinctions among people as an important component of civilizational environment and ensuring equal share for all groups in social and political life are tasks upon whose solution the successful functioning of society depends.

In the globalizing world, it is civilizations, cultures, peoples and states that are making an increasing impact on one another due to a more active circulation of capital, people and information (though, as a matter of fact, the circulation is only free for the capital and information, but not for the people). Globalization is not a product of our time. But its character and scale are changing. And while the basis of globalization in the last quarter of the 20th century was the domination of the West, in this century the situation has changed. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in his famous book The Post-American World, the epoch of the rise of the West was followed by the epoch of the rise of the Rest in the 21st  century.

Under the conditions of globalization all nations, states and civilizations are actively interacting with each other, rules and norms of functioning of economic and political systems are becoming closer, but any civilization highly values the cultural foundations on which its very identity depends. Incidentally, even in the economic sphere institutions and rules worked out in one civilization can prove to be globally more effective than the ones another civilization has.

Unfortunately, the efforts made by many actors during the years that have passed since the creation of the Alliance of Civilizations to substantially improve the relations between the Islamic world and the West haven’t been quite successful. The reasons are clear. Above all they are of political nature: the continuing Israeli occupation and even annexation of Arab Palestine and the absence of any serious reaction to that on the part of the West, as well as the unjustified use of military force in other parts of the Islamic world. Among these reasons are also the terrorist attacks from those who arbitrarily assume the right to act, as they say, on behalf of Islam. Certainly there are great hopes that the situation can be improved. These hopes are in part connected with the policy of President Obama who has been seriously trying to radically change the US-Muslim world relations.

An idea of the Islamic world as a community that presumably denies democracy has become a habitual cliché in the Western political discourse. This stereotype was often used to justify pressure on certain Muslim states. But, as John Esposito and John Voll have suggested, adherence to Westernization does not guarantee democracy just as application of the Islamic law does not prove innate authoritarianism in Islam. It is common knowledge that the best model of combination of Islamic values with modern management methods, human liberties and rights is intensively searched for all over the Muslim world. To put it another way, the inevitable changes cannot be avoided by any societies, and Muslim ones are no exception,  but they also can take justified pride in those spiritual values and moral traditions which had been given them about one and a half thousand years ago. The events of the Arab Spring have shown to all of us that quest for democracy, human dignity, equal participation is an important action driver for a significant segment of the Arab and Muslim societies. They are also making and will continue to make their impact on the outer world as the process of mutual enrichment of civilizations is a two-way road.

One of the roads which this traffic is going along at an increasing speed is “the way of migrants.” The turning of the Muslim Diaspora in the West into an influential social and political force cannot but influence the system of governmental and political institutions in Western countries. On the whole, its increase in number and the growth of its influence promote the appearance of new centers of power and the growth of uncertainty in the system of world politics. Those new relations that are formed between the actors of the world politics in part owing to the factor mentioned above sometimes are described with the help of a concept of polyarchy. Seyom Browne conceptualizes polyarchy as a system which “includes influential non-government, supra-national and transnational actors in addition to national governments and embraces regional and universal institutions with supranational authorities.” Thus, the concept in the most simplified form reflected the main trend of the modern process of transformation of the world management system: from the dramatic decline which took place at first to the rapid growth of the number of players of different weights who take part in this management. It is natural that in the context of this process communities of immigrants are seen as such.

Basing oneself upon the achieved level of theoretical comprehension of the problem one can speak of the three globalization–cultural paradigms, according to the explanation proposed by Nederveen Pieterse: cultural differentialism or continuing distinctions; cultural convergence or growing sameness; cultural hybridization or constant blending. The key factor here is the attitude towards cultural and civilization distinctions: whether globalization will lead to their leveling, wiping off by way of some of them being absorbed by others, homogenization (convergence) or, on the contrary, whether they will be established, perpetuated (differentialism which forms the basis of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”) or the process of their blending (hybridization) will go on. It should be remarked that the discourse based on this conception of hybridization known since the 19th century was developed in the West in the literature devoted to the phenomenon of migration. In this context the Muslim East performs the function of an agent of hybridization.

Here we should come back to the idea of Alliance of Civilizations. Indeed, the interaction is realized not by some abstract civilizations but by people carrying different cultural and civilizational values. However, ideational motivations along with the cultural and civilizational framing of actions not only of individuals but also of much bigger communities of people such as nations or states frequently take on such particular significance that they can act, without exaggeration, in the role of the well-known “vehicle of history.”

The concept of the Alliance is an important means of overcoming estrangement, lack of understanding, hostility between people, which are particularly dangerous for the destiny of the world. Unfortunately, even in liberal, democratic and enlightened Europe not everything is done so far to provide the Muslims living there with a comfortable entry into the society. Integration is sometimes understood as deprivation of migrants of their own cultural identity. One German politician believes that nowhere in the world is there an example of a successful multicultural society. He says: “Integration is not assimilation. You do not have to abandon your religion but you have to obey our fundamental values.” He also coined the expression “Kinder statt Inder” [More children but not Indians]. An American author misinterpreting the views of a famous European Muslim professor maintains: “It is only when the European traditions are understood as Muslim ones that the Muslims will obey them. If not, they will not.” A famous journalist goes even further in ascription of non-existing intentions to Muslims, saying that, like Islamists of the past who “cynically used the technological innovations of the West,” the Islamists of our century “treat Western liberties and rights in the same way.” In fact, it is this approach demonstrated by the journalist that denies the cultural diversity that has always been advocated by the majority of Western thinkers.

In modern societies two contending tendencies are observed: the increasing role of religion in their life and secularization. A clash between these two tendencies,  especially painful in case when the faultline dividing them passes between different ethnic and confessional groups, breeds conflicts. Hence, according to M. Koenig & P.De Guchteneire, “the major question is how political governance of religious diversity may respect the individual’s right to religious liberty, while at the same time recognizing religious identities in the public sphere.”

Some analysts went as far as to blame the existing and even deepening global divide between the world of faith and world of atheism for the exacerbating of tensions between cultures being an impediment to the promotion of mutual learning and rapprochement. The acute struggle between the proponents of a religious state and a secular state in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring clearly demonstrate the necessity to awareness towards the possible threats rooted in this conflict of values.

A democratic response to the challenge of religious diversity ultimately consists in ensuring reasonable pluralism, which, however, does not mean that it equally satisfies all sociopolitical forces invoking religion to further their ends. I shall briefly dwell upon such a conventional trait of religious pluralism as tolerance. Even in societies that have advanced rather far along the road of democratic transformations, one can often hear a critique of tolerance as an instrument of dilution of religious identity. The conception of tolerance collides with the idea of exclusiveness of a specific religion. The debates on whether the exponents of various Abrahamic religions believe in one and the same God, whether an adept of another faith can achieve salvation, not to speak of an attitude to be taken towards non-believers and apostates, are very heated and have not resulted in a rapprochement of positions just yet.

When dealing with the subject of the relationship between religion and ethnicity, the question of what some groups or other consider the principal identity marker assumes significance. One of the spokesmen for the Russian Orthodox Church, Vladimir Legoida, contends that religion, being an intimate part of human life, is simultaneously a powerful social force in view of the fact that “it is what philosophers call human limit identity”. At the same time in Russia a gap is observable between cultural-religious and purely religious identity. In other words, people attributing themselves to a particular confessional group in real life do not guide themselves by tenets they seemingly believe in. Often their religiosity boils down to the observance of rites – and frequently not all of them. But in the opinion of Alexandr Zhuravsky, department director at the Russian Ministry of the Regional Development, in Russia as a secular state religious affiliation cannot be the dominant identity, only civic identity must prevail. In Tatarstan, where the role of Islam is growing, the overwhelming part of the Tatar intelligentsia still holds that ethnicity should prevail over religiosity. The abovementioned analyst, like many others, believes that the problems Russia is facing in this sphere are caused by the appearance of non-traditional forms of Islam, those uncharacteristic for Russia, within the traditional context. The struggle between the Sunni Hanafi and Tariqatist Islam that are traditional for this country, on the one hand, and the adherents of “pure Islam”, the Salafis, on the other hand, is at times taking on a rather acute character. Naturally, this poses a serious challenge to the management of this dimension of cultural diversity, in which it is difficult not to make mistakes. Certainly, democratic institutions in such situations secure better conditions for a well-considered settlement of problems. But, as has already been said, even in societies with a good democratic record processes are observed that are unlikely to promote the discovery of optimal forms of managing cultural diversity. What I have in mind is the elements of discrimination with regard to Muslim communities that can be observed in the policies of a number of parties in power in certain European states.

One can address in this respect the experience of India. As Gurpreet Mahajan argues, the ability of India to survive as a multicultural democracy has “most often been attributed to: (1) the presence of a vibrant democracy; (2) tolerance of the dominant culture”. I am not sure if the term “dominant” is suitable in the context of the tolerance thesis, but obviously for sustaining intercultural peace it must be exhibited by all cultures represented in society. But if intolerance is displayed by members of the majority culture, it cannot be doubted that the bearers of the minority culture will answer them in kind. Generally speaking, I am not sure either that civilizations can be subdivided into tolerant and intolerant. Exponents of many of them are inclined to apply the “tolerance thesis” precisely to their own civilization, focusing on this quality peculiar to it. Unfortunately, however, in the history of all cultures there were periods – longer among some of them or shorter among others, – when the attitude towards people of alien ethnicity or creed in no way conformed to the canons of  tolerance.

In our globalized world the issue of cultural identity has become an extremely strong imperative because the adherence to one’s own language, religion, and other markers of this identity (no matter if they are inherited in the terms of symbolic anthropology, or constructed) is regarded as instrumental for guaranteeing the survival of ethnic and confessional groups. Prejudices, myths, misperceptions, but also fears and feeling of threat give birth to nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hostility to otherness. In this respect we might have been more tolerant 150-200 years ago. The greatest Russian poet, Alexandr Pushkin, who is considered by Russians for his uncontested mastership of the Russian language and culture as a symbol of national cultural identity, wrote in a letter to another poet, Petr Chaadaev: “Je vous parlerai la langue de l’Europe; elle m’est plue familiѐre que la nôtre” [I’ll speak to you in the language of Europe; it’s more familiar to me that my own]. Such an utmost expression of cultural blending! Perspicacious Fedor Dostoevsky noted that “Pushkin is the only one of the world’s greatest poets who is able to re-embody into quite an alien nationality”. Had both of them been alive saying these words today they would have almost certainly found themselves under the attack of our nationalists.

It may be recalled that in the 21st century the two world wars and two great revolutions in Russia and China showed the brittleness of not only the world political system but the world at large. “We civilizations are now aware that we are mortal,” acknowledged the French poet Paul Valéry. Politicians and  economists had by the end of the 20th century discovered how limited were the instruments at their disposal to tackle conflicts and threats emerging in the world.

It turned out that belonging to a certain civilization in no way guarantees a harmonious development of society, as lurking within society and within individuals are the destructive elements of barbarism. It was becoming ever more evident that what should be crushed down is not the differing civilizational principles but the elements of barbarism dormant in the world.

The ending of the ideological and in part interstate confrontation in the late 20th century led to an identity crisis of tremendous masses of people. To an ever increasing degree, their state of mind demands self-identification, and the world sprang back to its primary foundations – religion and culture. But this process potentially entails a threat of the world breaking into discrete religious and cultural blocs unprepared for rapprochement and harmonious cooperation. Some analysts prophesy the advent of a “period of intensification of cultural wars.” This, however, can be avoided. What is needed is the readiness of both the national authority and the intellectual elite for dialogue and cooperation. And if earlier the civilizational principles ensured conditions and possibilities for policy-making, at present policy-making should serve the protection of, and cooperation between differing civilizations.

Power still remains the main argument in politics, but its significance as a factor of world stability and sustainability is increasingly diminishing. The world is one, everything in it is interconnected. Enmity and intolerance amid globalization cease to be a private phenomenon, they wittingly or unwittingly acquire a global context, expanding into a threat to the entire world. Relations between civilizations can by no means be confined to standoff and conflict. On the contrary, they have long since developed as interaction in the realms of “high” culture and well-being, as mutual acquaintance, acceptance and exchange of achievements. It is not the clash of civilizations that menaces the world but the weakening of civilizational principles in modern life of various peoples.

In my response in Vienna at the 5th Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations to Prof. Tu Weiming who had shared with us the common belief that we are living today in the era of “the increasing diversity of cultures” I argued that what we are in fact witnessing nowadays instead is the decreasing diversity of cultures. Some small and weak cultures are already almost disappearing, being marginalized or losing the most important pillars of their identity under the influence of globalization, some other ones feel vulnerable, their survival threatened by the advance of stronger cultures through the aggressive projection of their values and cultural products or direct intervention. This can deepen dangerous divides and easily turn into a source of conflict. Our aim within the framework of the Alliance of Civilizations in my view should be to protect all cultures, to make the bearers of the small and weak cultures feel self-confident, free of the fear of losing their identity.

In this response I also stressed that one of the pillars of protecting cultural diversity, developing democracy and good governance should be our respect to Minority. Minority in views and opinions, ethnicity, religion, culture. Respect to all Otherness. Respect to weak. The idea of the importance of intercultural dialogue that had been the leading tune in many presentations, for sure, should be strongly supported. At the same time I raised the issue of the necessity or, probably, even priority of a dialogue within one culture, given that what we are witnessing today is mainly the growing tensions within one culture, one religion, one society. For example, about the interpretation of such a universal value as human rights. Let us mention in this regard the ongoing hot debates in European societies about the registration of the same sex marriages or the right of the same sex families to adopt children. Even more heated debates exist within Muslim societies about the issue of takfir, the alleged right of a group of believers to anathematize others. Needless to say is how seriously these societies are damaged by sectarian hostilities, sometimes in the form of ugly atrocities, brutal suppression and bloody conflicts. The necessity to combat extremism remains a condition for the successful construction of a new international order based on the aforementioned widely shared values supported by the Alliance.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration reads that cultural diversity is “as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.” Democracy and wise governance ensure the best conditions for

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