Essay Naika Foroutan

A Dialogue of the Cultures Instead of the Clash of Civilisations

The issue of cultural dialogue always crops up when things have already started to go wrong. But that dialogue is not some short-term emergency measure, writes Naika Foroutan. In her essay, she discusses the basic principles of dialogue

A pair of feet walking over the flag of the EU (photo: dpa)
A dialogue of the cultures is not an aesthetic luxury reserved for like-minded intellectuals who already understand each other, argues Naika Foroutan

​​For years, academics have been trying to draw attention to the fact that a dialogue of the cultures – in other words a dialogue between civilisations instead of a clash of civilisations – is not some short-term emergency measure, but a long-term, long-lasting process that must take place not only at cultural level, but also at political and economic level.

Above all, the dialogue must be institutionalised. In other words, institutions must be created to support and monitor the establishment of dialogue in the world of states and societies.

A dialogue of the cultures is not an aesthetic luxury reserved for like-minded intellectuals who already understand each other. In times when people perceive there to be a clash of civilisations – in other words in times of conflict between civilisations – a dialogue of the cultures is considered a cornerstone of security policy; at least it should be, if escalation is to be prevented.

What is the point of dialogue?

Ever since the unspeakable debate surrounding the cartoons, I keep hearing the same questions over and over again: "Has the dialogue not already failed? What's the point of dialogue anyway? Is it not true to say that the only ones who are talking are the people at the top? The dialogue has not yet reached the people on the street!"

Naika Foroutan (photo: IFA)
Naika Foroutan's dissertation on cultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic world was awarded the Friedrich Christoph Dallmann Prize

​​But no-one listens when one responds to these questions by saying that a dialogue of the cultures has not yet become part of political culture, that the dialogue has not really begun, and that it is a catchphrase that only ever becomes topical when the going gets tough.

People go on thinking that dialogue is just a lot of hot air. They think that it is now clear that there is no point in dialogue.

The main reason for this is that the term "dialogue of the cultures" first became a catchphrase in the world of politics – not in academic debate – after September 11, when the conflict had already become manifest.

But the problem of cultural estrangement already existed. Even before 2001, efforts were being made to bring civilisations closer together.

In 1998, the then President of Iran, Khatami, called for a dialogue of the cultures at the UN General Assembly. The UN responded to this call by announcing that 2001 would be the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. However, 2001 is primarily associated with the outbreak of the conflict between civilisations and, consequently, with the failure of the dialogue between the cultures.

To which conflict are we referring?

Terms like 'intercultural', 'ethno-political', or 'interreligious' are always used when people talk about the conflict of civilisations. Nevertheless, the motives are still the same: it is all about economics, power-politics, territory, or geopolitical distribution.

However, these motives are being padded out with civilisational attributes. Ethnic, cultural, and religious differences are being over-emphasised. This draws a line of demarcation being between civilisations that have different sets of values. This has a clarifying effect on the identity of those that belong to one's own civilisation.

When viewed from the outside, conflicts between civilisations would appear to discriminate and reject; from the inside they appear to integrate, bind, and bring together. Civilisational conflicts are all about the power to define values and morals, and the bringing about of a universal world order. They are borne up by the fact that one's own values and standards are considered to be better than those of other civilisations – in other words by the hierarchisation of one's own culture.

If we look closely, we can see a great similarity between this conflict and the ideological conflicts of the past 50 years:

  • the claim to have the power to define values, philosophies, and forms of life
  • the hierarchisation of one's own cultural standard
  • antagonism towards another culture, the partial willingness to destroy the other side.

These were all characteristic of the conflicts of the bipolar world order. If we acknowledge that the current conflict of civilisations exists and if, at the same time, we are convinced that this conflict cannot be solved militarily, then another solution must be found.

Dialogues are like debates

The idea seems to be physically tangible. Nevertheless, it raises the question as to why dialogue is considered to be a possible way of regulating conflicts.

The time has come to examine dialogue concepts, in particular those of Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas, which are based on the conviction that dialogues are like debates, which are permeated by a certain inevitability: by entering into a serious debate, each person recognises his or her opposite number as an equal partner.

Because even when I refute something – do not agree with the other person's arguments, fight, try to convince, listen, get annoyed – I acknowledge my opposite number to be a person with an identity, a person whom I would like to convince.

This creates a certain degree of equality and contradicts the dehumanisation of the other person, which brings us to the first principle of a dialogue of the cultures: dialogue seeks to achieve equality and in so doing, opposes the hierarchisation of one's own culture.

Another characteristic of dialogue is that our arguments can be strengthened by a knowledge of the other person's arguments, and a knowledge of the other person's arguments can in turn change our arguments and our perspective.

The basic principles of dialogue

In terms of different civilisations, this means that when I start dealing with other cultures and learning about them, I broaden my horizons, and my changed knowledge alters the way I see both my culture and the culture of others.

The second basic principle of cultural dialogue is that dialogue does not presuppose a knowledge of the other. However, the process of debate opens up the possibility of getting to know the other person and getting to know the existing structure of the conflict.

In his Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas assumes that dialogue and discourse processes will end in consensus if the argument follows a certain number of basic principles:

It must contain both truth and veracity. In other words, I must believe what I am saying and lay claim to normative rightness for my side.

In this regard, what the USA is doing in Iraq is the absolute model of anti-communication because it contradicts all three of these principles.

Finding common standards of values

If, however, the dialogue follows these principles, common ground is found. Habermas refers to this common ground as a consensus, Hans Küng as a global ethic, Bassam Tibi and Roman Herzog as international morality. The institutions mentioned at the start of this article could oversee the implementation of these discourse processes.

This would be the third basic principle of cultural dialogue: one should work together to find standards of values that exist in the common ground of the estranged cultures.

These three principles – equality of the parties involved, knowledge of and tolerance towards the other culture without culture relativism, and the search for a canon of common values – are the core motivation behind cultural dialogue. However, this still raises the question as to the value of dialogue in times of war.

We should not underestimate the power of discourse both in the positive and the negative sense. Whether we want it to or not, language and discourse determine the way we think. This is why we must view the conflict of civilisations or the clash of civilisations as a "discursively created reality".

Doubts about dialogue?

That being said, we must view the conflict as the current reality that is starting to dominate the structure of our political and social order. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls this hyperreality: a reality that is above reality.

If we look carefully, we could decode the conflicts and say that they are instrumentalised, ascribe them to a power-political, geo-economical, North-South fault, or define them in terms of development theory. But above this reality is the hyperreality, which currently defines the conflict primarily as cultural, civilisational.

Most people cannot see beyond this hyperreality and it can take decades to overcome it.

So, if the negative power of discourse is so clearly comprehensible, why should we doubt the positive power of dialogue?

Dialogue is a process that needs a long time to replace established structures of conflict regulation, which to date have mainly been dominated by military and security considerations. The institutionalisation of dialogue must, however, begin in our heads.

Naika Foroutan

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Dr. Naika Foroutan teaches political science at the University of Göttingen, Germany. She is also managing director of the Society for Iranian Social Studies. She was awarded the 2005 Rave Research Prize of the Institute for Foreign Relations.

Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de 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. Qantara.de 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.