Cultural Relations Crisis

What Went Wrong with the Dialogue between Cultures?

We have a common language for universal values, but we do not have a common language for cultural differences, writes Traugott Schoefthaler. We need to work on such language, he says in his essay, in order to provide instruments for coping with critical moments of confrontation

Traugott Schoefthaler (photo: Ulrich Michalik)
Schoefthaler calls for a dialogue that starts with the assumption that "the other might be right"

​​The last two decades of increasing numbers of events for a Dialogue between Cultures and Civilizations are lost decades. Most efforts were invested in a much too limited dialogue concept which remains within the logic of Huntington's Clash scenario even in contradicting his conclu-sions.

This scenario was never a cause of problems, it is just one example of an almost omni-present limited understanding of culture as heritage and not also as a space of human creativity and liberty. Definitely, cultural forces shape attitudes and behaviour; but this is only one side of the coin. Such passive view at culture has its roots in 19th century traditions of nation-building.

The related concept of "national cultures" reduces the creative dimension of culture to a collec-tive instrument for national cohesion and identity. This goes at the expense of the right to cultural self-determination which is among the core values enshrined in all international human rights conventions and agreements.

The human rights, agreed almost 60 years ago as common values of the international commu-nity, have not been mainstreamed yet to international cultural relations. The recent cultural crisis witnessed a large number of extremely short-sighted statements of European political leaders such as claiming "freedom of expression" as "our Western value". Selective use of human rights as an ideological weapon was a main feature of the Cold War.

Europe's disregard of Arab press's struggle

Reference to "European values" is one of the most disastrous tools used in communication be-tween Europe and other regions. On 14 March 2006 in Cairo, the participants in the 4th annual meeting of the "Arab Press Freedom Watch", an association formed by journalists associations and unions of all Arab countries, expressed bitterness on most of the European "cartoon crisis statements", perceived as disregarding the daily struggle of Arab journalists for their freedom of expression and as isolating Article 19 from the context of all other human rights.

We need to develop a rights-based understanding of culture. We need to reconstruct our under-standing of culture, taking advantage of recent international agreements on cultural diversity being as essential for humanity as is biodiversity for nature. We need to repeat 1948: In the af-termath of the atrocities of fascism, genocide and the Second World War, the international community found a common language for common values.

Muslim demonstrators in Irak (photo: AP)
Iraqi Shiite Muslims stomp on a painting of the Danish flag denouncing the country's publication of a cartoon of the Muslim prophet Muhammad

​​The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as much as all subsequent international human rights instruments) does not make a single reference to any particular cultural or religious tradition. We have a common language for universal values. What we do not have, is a common language for cultural differences.

We need to work on such language, if dialogue between cultures should make sense and pro-vide instruments for coping with critical moments of confrontation. Preaching unity or the Golden Rule as the core element of global ethics has, too long, been the main result of international dialogue events.

We need a dialogue that starts with the assumption that "the other might be right", to quote from Hans-Georg Gadamer's definition given in "Truth and Method". Such dia-logue can provide tools for mutual respect – which is much more than tolerance. In the present crisis, respect is the key word.

The West against the rest?

The cartoon issue was not the first test of the instruments expected from two decades of dia-logue efforts. Largely unnoticed by public opinion in Western countries, a new two thirds against one third divide of the international community emerged in 2004 within United Nations. The last major confrontation of such kind was in the mid-eighties about a New World Information and Communication Order, confronting the principles of state sovereignty and free flow of information at the last possible historical moment before arrival of the Internet.

Now it is on religion. It started with good intentions: The EU-OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) joint forum in Istanbul on the political dimensions of "civilization and harmony" on 12-13 February 2002 reconfirmed goodwill and common values. But it could not go further: the follow-up meeting foreseen for 2004 was cancelled.

In April 2004, the OIC acted alone and submitted a Resolution on "combating defamation of religions" to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva which was voted two thirds against one third of member countries, the "Rest against the West", as noted by only a few Western media. Although most Western countries had nominated Special Ambassadors and had desig-nated special institutions for "Dialogue with Islam", they did not accept the proposal by the OIC of including a special mention of "discrimination of Muslims" in this Resolution.

The confrontation went further: The same text was introduced to the UN General Assembly and voted on 16 December 2005 by 101 against 53 countries, the yes votes coming from all Arab and Muslim and other so-called non-Western countries, the no votes coming from all EU Mem-ber and other so-called Western countries (UN GA Resolution 60/150).

Symbols of the three world religions (photo: photomontage DW/AP)
The new divide over religion is getting deeper and will not vanish even after the waves over the cartoons get lower, writes Schoefthaler

​​At this time, the cartoon issue was at an early stage, it was discussed in Arab and Muslim coun-tries without mass protests or violence, cartoons even printed in Al Fajr and other media in the Arab world, "for discussion", and for "facilitating forming of opinions", many Arab media defend-ing the right or even the need of publishing about sensitive issues in religions.

The no votes were explained by Western countries' unwillingness to accept any wording specifically ad-dressed to Islam, the yes votes insisting on the need to have internationally agreed wording specifically addressed to Muslim populations at large. Western countries tried to contain the crisis through submitting another Resolution under the title "Elimination of all forms of intoler-ance and of discrimination based on religion and belief" (UN GA Resolution 60/166).

This Resolution recalls the UN Declaration of 1981 on the subject. It mentions Islam only once, in recognizing "with deep concern the overall rise in instances of intolerance and violence di-rected against members of any religious and other communities in various parts of the world, including cases motivated by Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Christianophobia".

Although this "more balanced text", as it was qualified by Western countries, was adopted by consensus the same day as the Resolution on defamation, it did not put an end to the confrontation. The new divide over religion is getting deeper and will not vanish even after the waves over the cartoons get lower.

It is obvious that instrumentalization of the cartoon issue for a number of political purposes took place, with a number of well orchestrated mass protests. Denouncing this, however, does not bring about much relief. The crisis is rooted in accumulated frustration which is specific to the Muslim world. In the words of the Egyptian Ambassador Muhammad Shaaban, the objective is to "send a message by the international community to some 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world" who are deeply convinced and feel that Islam was less respected and protected than other religions.

New dialogue strategies

There is a growing number of new strategies emerging. United Nations established a High Level Group on the Spanish-Turkish proposal for an "Alliance of Civilizations" which will, in the light of recent events, have a specific feature on Islam.

The Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organi-zations of the Arab League (ALECSO) and of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (ISESCO) have jointly started the elaboration of "principles of a balanced Dialogue" which "should be based on rationalism, scientific methods and self-criticism" (Abu Dhabi Expert Meet-ing, 4-7 January 2006). The Council of Europe has recently approved a programme for coopera-tion with Southern Mediterranean countries and is developing a "strategy on democratic man-agement of diversity".

Supermarket in Saudi Arabia (photo: AP)
A supermarket with empty shelf spaces that used to have Danish dairy products with a sign that reads "Sorry We dont sell Products made in Denmark" in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia

​​The European Commission presented, at the meeting of the EuroMed Committee on 22 Febru-ary 2006, a "Decalogue" of instruments, regrouping ten Euro-Med regional programmes, pro-jects and networks. The Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures, created in 2005 as the instrument of the Euro-Med Partnership for Dialogue, was in-vited to present to this special meeting a strategy for re-launching the Dialogue between Cul-tures the key elements of which are presented in the following sections of this essay.

Key arguments to be communicated

To contain and resolve the present crisis in cultural relations, a number of key arguments need to be communicated among actors already involved or interested in organizing the dialogue between cultures. The following six arguments are considered particularly important:

(1) Traditional modalities of Dialogue between Cultures, developed over the past Decade, have largely failed because of their almost exclusive focus on what cultures and religions have in common. The present crisis calls for dialogue on differences and diversity.

(2) The lack of mutual knowledge about sensitive issues linked to religions and any other belief is obvious. This gap needs to be filled as a matter of urgency. Information on religious pluralism needs to be provided at all levels of formal and non-formal education, in a terminology that is not faith-loaded but accessible to people maintaining diversified beliefs and opinions. This informa-tion must include difficult concepts such as what is "sacred", "holy" or "insulting".

(3) Too often, dialogue events stressed collective identities (national, ethnic, religious) rather than identities of individuals or social groups. Dialogue fora composed of "representatives" of religious or ethnic groups are counter-productive and contribute to the clash of civilizations sce-nario rather than preventing it. Dialogue between Cultures must create space for mutual percep-tion and appreciation of overlapping, multiple and dynamic cultural identities of every individual and social or cultural group.

(4) There is urgent need for strengthening the human rights based dimension of Dialogue. Rather than seeking values common to all religions and cultures, the core values of the Univer-sal Declaration of Human Rights need to be stressed: No discrimination along origin, race, col-our, gender, language, religion or any other belief or opinion has been agreed upon by the inter-national community 60 years ago. In line with recent UN terminology, all cultures must be con-sidered having equal dignity.

(5) Active tolerance, involving mutual respect, needs to be promoted rather than mere accep-tance of diversity.

(6) Calls for boycotting a whole people are an alarm signal. They are an indicator of tendencies towards deepening stereotypes, of desires to balance perceived discrimination with discrimina-tion of others, and of perceived double standards with their application to others.

Towards a common language for cultural differences

There is no doubt that global terrorism and, unfortunately, also some approaches to combat it, are deliberately fuelled with cultural differences. The September 11 shock and its aftermath should, however, not obscure the "multitude of local claims and regional tensions over scarce resources" that, according to the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, have long been masked by the confrontations of the Cold War blocs.

They "pushed people into the narrow walls of group identity, feeding a new tide of smaller confrontations be-tween ethnic, religious and national communities" (President's Foreword to the Report by the World Commission on Culture and Development, 1995).

It is the everyday "logic of rejection" and the "narcissism of small differences" that, according to Pérez de Cuéllar, "threatens peace and security and violates the inherent dignity of the individ-ual person". Amin Maalouf, in his analysis of "murderous identities" ("Les identités meurtrières", 1998) provides us with Mediterranean experience on how neighbours can turn over night into enemies, de-humanizing each other in reducing a human being to one trait of difference.

Muslims in Berlin protest against the publication of the Mohammad-caricatures (photo: AP)
Muslims are deeply convinced and feel that Islam was less respected and protected than other religions, says Schoefthaler

​​It is always the same mechanism of drawing dividing lines between human beings through as-suming and imposing collective identities rather than respecting the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination.

Theodor W. Adorno and Alfred Horkheimer, in their studies on "The Authoritarian Personality", published shortly after 1945 as a first analysis of the cult of power and violence in Nazi Germany, went deep into psychological terminology of ego- and ethnocentrism.

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Amin Maalouf come to similar conclusions: Culturally sensitive lan-guage needs to avoid schematic concepts such as the popular distinction between "Us" and "Them". They even warn against further using the term of "The Other" which is standard in al-most all intercultural education concepts, since it opens the gate for imposing collective identities on the individual. There is no viable alternative to their proposal of adopting a rights-based ap-proach in dealing with cultural diversity.

De-valuation of the desired good

But there is an obvious need to reach out to the emotional dimension of cultural expression. Feelings of inferiority or superiority overlap usually with belief. If not addressed, such feelings create resistance to new information, perception is biased by pre-determined value judgements. In order to deconstruct such pre-determination and allowing change and learning, it is helpful to analyze the individual or collective acquisition of such fixed value judgements.

Social psycholo-gists identified the phenomenon of coping with "cognitive dissonance" (Leo Festinger). The mechanism is very simple: If you cannot get what you desire, you tend to de-value the desired good in order to continue living in peace with yourself and your community.

What we need now is developing a common language for understanding and respecting cultural differences, without doing harm to our universal values. The following five elements of such common language are of particular importance:

1. Cultural diversity between as well as within countries is as essential for humankind as biodi-versity is for nature.

2. The right to be different is core element of a rights-based understanding of culture.

3. Overlap between cognitive and emotional elements of intercultural relations is the rule and not the exception.

4. Deconstructing self-referential systems of belief and knowledge is essential.

5. Freedom of opinion or any other belief is not only a basic human right; it is intrinsic to any human understanding of religion. Enforcing belief would be a contradiction itself, as much as imposing values "comes down in the end to negating them" (Jacques Delors).

Much more needs to be done to enable citizens of the increasingly multicultural world of the 21st century to know about, to understand and to respect their differences in cultural and religious expression.

Traugott Schoefthaler

© Traugott Schoefthaler 2006

Dr. Traugott Schoefthaler is currently the Executive Director, Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures, Alexandria, Egypt.

This text is the edited version of a keynote to the Forum "Europe in Dialogue and Interaction between Cultures" at the Finnish-Swedish Cultural Centre/Hanaforum, Helsinki, Finland, 5 April 2006.

Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.