Preventing Conflict through Cultural and Educational Exchange

Two years after September 11th, Johannes Ebert, director of the Goethe Institutes in Cairo and Alexandria, emphasizes the necessity of a long-term cultural dialogue of foreign cultural policy.

Two years after 9/11, Johannes Ebert, director of the Goethe Institutes in Cairo and Alexandria, emphasizes the necessity of a long-term cultural dialogue of foreign cultural policy.

“Music is a common language that we all can understand. It is better than blood and war!” Six months after 11 September 2001, Egyptian pop-star Mohammed Mounir addressed 15.000 young Egyptians with this clear statement on art and intercultural dialogue in the city of Assiut, which for several years had been closed to foreigners because of the government´s fear of extremists’ attacks. By his side on the open air stage stood the Austrian musician Hubert von Goisern, who had been invited by the Goethe Institute, the German Cultural Center in Cairo, to perform together with the Egyptian pop icon. Mounir’s euphoric statement in favour of intercultural tolerance not only impressed the young Assiutis; it is also a good example for the symbolic potential of artistic cooperation between East and West.

After 11 September 2001 many politicians and intellectuals, who recognized the shortcomings of conventional security policy in the strained relations between the Middle East and “the West”, emphasized the role of foreign education and cultural policy to reach a better understanding and thus to contribute to the prevention of conflicts. Even Samuel Huntington stated in his controversial study that cultural exchange could ease the mutual mistrust between two potentially hostile civilizations. Johannes Reissner, a research fellow in the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, a German think tank on foreign policy, argues that this kind of dialogue makes sense if it serves to

  • find out more about other civilizations and cultures;
  • make clear that views and opinions are shaped by one’s own cultural environment;
  • improve the communication and discourse about values and norms

“Dialogue with Islam” is the common term under which all efforts in this field have been summarized. Of course this term is misleading in several ways:

  • A real dialogue is only possible between individuals and not between religions or ideologies.
  • The societies of the East are as complex as those of the West. Islam is – if at all - only one feature in the identity of the common Egyptian, Lebanese or Indonesian. To stress Islam as the major feature in these identities creates a distorted picture in the tradition of Edward Saids concept of “Orientalism”.

In a similar sense, the concentration on Islam as a supposed driving force within Eastern societies neglects other important influential factors such as the consequences of globalization, the division of wealth between North and South and other political characteristics.
Therefore the term “Dialogue with Islam” should be understood in a broader sense. It should always take into consideration other important features within societies such as historical frictions, the reactions to modernization and the effectiveness of cultural and educational structures. If interpreted in this way, the “Dialogue with Islam” can play an important and sustainable role in preventing conflicts.

Germany’s cultural policy relates to the wider aims of foreign policy: “It supports and serves our general foreign policy goals and aspirations – safeguarding peace, preventing conflict, securing respect for human rights and promoting partnership and cooperations.” Within this framework, the Goethe Institute, Germany’s largest organization operating in the field of cultural and educational exchange, has been working in the Middle East and other Islamic countries for more than forty years. It focuses on cultural exchange in the arts, humanities and science as well as promoting the German language through cooperation with ministries and educational institutions. In addition, the Goethe Institute provides information about Germany and improves access to information sources in general. The latter is very important especially in countries, where information structures are still not easily accessible.


Commissioner for dialogue with the Islamic world, Dr. Gunter Mulack

​​In May 2002 the German Foreign Office appointed Dr. Gunter Mulack the first Commissioner for dialogue with the Islamic world. In 2002 a budget of five million Euros was made available for dialogue projects in cooperation with different independent and intermediary organizations such as the Goethe Institute, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and others. Projects that served to strengthen civil society in Islamic countries and projects in collaboration with young or future elites of these nations were in the center of attention. Support of such dialogue programmes continues in 2003 with a slightly reduced budget. The reduction in financial support for such programmes can be counterproductive because most measures in the field of culture and education, and especially those trying to change attitudes or influence structures, need a long term perspective.Necessity for cultural dialogue after September 11


Library Goethe-Institute Cairo

​​Goethe Institutes in Islamic countries have been leading an intense dialogue long before the disaster of 11 September. In the early nineties a series of conferences in Jakarta already held the title “The dialogue with Islam” and brought together a great number of German scholars and important ulama to discuss Eastern and Western values. The events of 11 September 2001 have now led to an even more intensified and newly focused dialogue along with newly developed projects and project forms to counter the growing mistrust and even fear between East and West which have been reinforced by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The challenges for cultural exchange with the Islamic countries are manifold. The Goethe-Institutes in their work face questions such as these: How can we handle the fact that many Muslims regard “the West” as decadent and immoral? How do we deal with the reproach of the West’s “double-standards” in Middle Eastern politics? How can we give this dialogue the necessary credibility especially with regard to the fact that a real exchange is only possible between two equal partners? How can we lead an open dialogue with Muslims who regard Islamic values as unchangeable and universal? How can we help improve educational systems which were severely criticized in the last report of the “United Nations Development Programme” about the Arab world? How can we contribute to an easier access to information? With and for whom do we work in the Islamic countries to lead a discourse on values and biases? How can we improve the understanding of the Islamic world in Germany?

Goethe Institutes as platforms for cultural understanding in the Arab world


Goethe-Institute Cairo

​​It has to be stated clearly that institutions like the Goethe Institute cannot “repair the damage that is caused by the distribution of power and powerlessness, of wealth and poverty in the world.” However the Goethe Institutes – and this is a very strong feature, maybe even a fundamental one for real dialogue – are physically and permanently present in many Islamic countries. There are eleven German Cultural Centers in the Middle East and North Africa alone, that provide a local forum for the exchange between intellectuals, artists, students and pupils from Germany as well as the Arab and Islamic countries. They deliver information about Germany and Europe and initiate a debate about values, thus promoting esthetic and intellectual understanding. The Goethe Institutes can be open and at the same time protected spaces for free discussion and access to information.

Some principles of the “Dialogue with Islam” promise a certain success for an open and fair exchange:

  • It is necessary to draw a clear and unbiased picture of the pluralistic character of German and European societies. This picture can even be clearer and more easily accessible if it is related to the partners’ own experiences. Such examples include discussions between female members of parliament from European countries and the Middle East in the Goethe Institutes in Cairo or Beirut or lectures on Islam in Germany representing the diversity of European societies. Furthermore, presentations of German films with Arab or Dari subtitles, the exchange of writers or - to give a concrete example - a film made by two young Egyptian directors about Germany are good examples for the manifold activities in this respect. The journal “fikrun wa fann” (Art and Thought) about actual cultural trends and points of discussion between Germany and the Islamic world is widely read and contributes to a differentiated perception of “the West”.
  • It is not the task of the Goethe Institutes to lead an inter-religious dialogue but to identify topics of common interest together with local partners. Thus a discussion about values is initiated. Seminars and conferences on “the effects of globalization”, “the rule of law” or “the effect of TV-serials and soap operas on the perception of East and West” are of concern for all different layers of societies and intellectual trends. The Islamic viewpoint here is only one feature of discourse and can thus be discussed on a more neutral ground.
  • Dialogue does not take place between societies but between individuals. The exchange between pupils, students, journalists, scientists, artists and intellectuals plays an important role for a dialogue beyond conferences and political discussions. Organized visits for librarians, editors, intellectuals, journalists and art managers to Germany, supported by the Goethe Institutes, create new ideas for both sides and promote a better understanding.
  • To improve structures and know-how in different fields, the Goethe Institutes offer - besides their huge language programmes – workshops, seminars and lectures for different target groups such as artists, students and librarians. The teaching methods here, as well as those in German language courses and teacher training programs, represent democratic educational values.
  • Productions in the fine arts are of great importance. Programmes of performing and visual arts can reflect actual challenges of societies having an effect on emotions and on patterns of social interaction and thus creating a solid ground for intercultural exchange. Artists are multipliers of ideas and idols for younger generations.
  • Real and true information is one of the foundations of dialogue. Internet chats, information points and networks can ease access to sources of information especially for young people. The Goethe Institutes libraries and the actual creation of a network of information points in several countries of the Middle East will contribute to a new information network.
  • Future elites, young people in general and Islamic groups who are open for and interested in an open exchange should be preferred partners in the “Dialogue with Islam” projects. There are still not many experiences in the exchange with representatives of political Islam, but this can be a goal for the future.

Eighteen months after the Assiut concert, Mohammed Mounir completed a 15-city tour throughout Germany together with Hubert von Goisern. The musicians’ first meeting in Assiut had a lasting effect. It is clear that cultural and educational projects need time to have an impact on societies. One example in German history shows how important such projects can be: Forty years ago the Elysée-Treaty was signed to overcome animosities between France and Germany. This was the starting point for an intense cultural dialogue and youth exchange between the two countries, without which the treaty would perhaps still be a mere piece of paper and not the foundation for one of the strongest partnerships within the European Union. It is apparent that the dialogue between Europe and the Islamic world is taking place under different conditions and on a much smaller scale. But the reconciliation between France and Germany shows that the exchange of citizens and cultural dialogue can play a decisive part in changing history.

Johannes Ebert, © 2003 Qantara.de

The author is director of the Goethe Institute/Internationes in Cairo/Alexandria and Goethe Institute's regional representative for the Middle East and Northern Africa

See more articles about German foreign Policy in Dialogue here

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