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Reports from Conferences

Culturelink review, no.42/April 2004 - contents - imprint - archive

The Clash of Civilizations Will Not Take Place

Report from Paris

Huntington's politico-sociological paradigm of the 'clash of civilizations' remains very much in the focus of debates in the early years of the twenty-first century. This was borne out by an international forum held at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, 17 - 19 January 2004, under the title The clash of civilizations will not take place. The forum was held under the high patronage of the French president, Jacques Chirac, and was organized by Euro Méditerranée Science, développement et paix, whose mission is the promotion of dialogue and peace. Recalling the tensions, conflicts and acts of aggression that marked the beginning of the new millennium, the organizers offered a new dialogue of civilizations as a challenge for the new era. In the title of the forum they boldly asserted that the clash of civilizations would not take place. It was by no means an accident that the topic headings, all of them highly provocative, ended with the question mark: Islam - the West: an imaginary break? The United States: a common enemy or shared ally? Islam, democracy, secularism: an unbridgeable divide? Is the Arab world undergoing another colonization? The diseases of the poor, the medicine of the rich: how to reduce inequalities? Financing: a genuine developmental need? Is Europe being built at the expense of the Mediterranean? Towards the all-embracing consumer society: liberal globalization vs. traditional societies? Demography and migrations: common destiny or the source of new conflicts?

The organizers' positive vision of a world without the clash of civilizations was interspersed with questions of how to avoid the 'unavoidable', which made the forum a platform from which mobilization calls for action in cooperation and peace could be voiced. The debates showed, pace Huntington, that K.E. Knutsson was right in saying that we were living (and would continue to live) not in one world but in many different worlds. Speaking during the opening session of the forum, Bernard-Henri Lévy noted that societies were increasingly multicultural and that identities were not walled-in closed unities but processes in change. Hammad Ben Jassim Ben Jaber Al-Thani insisted on the fact that Islam called for understanding, dialogue and interaction among cultures; it was not a monolithic phenomenon, and the Islamic civilization itself was built on numerous differences. Dominique de Villepin also advocated the preservation and promotion of cultural diversity as a stimulus for exchange and dialogue - noting, however, that multilateral instruments were in something of a crisis and that it was important to develop an awareness of solidarity among nations.

Some sixty speakers addressed an audience of over a thousand participants, presenting their views and engaging in heated debates of the points of disagreement. The contrast between Islam and the West is not relevant - it is denied by history, as well as by the present situation, in which it is impossible to define distinct geographic areas belonging to Islam or the West. In addition, Islam itself is diverse and multi-faceted, depending on the situation in each country. A reductive approach to its richness of expression might have an adverse effect on its relations with the West. The Mediterranean has always occupied a privileged position in communication between different cultures and civilizations, and should continue to do so, promoting mutual knowledge and understanding not only on the level of the elites but also, and in the first place, among the general population. That is why Europe cannot be built 'at the expense' of the Mediterranean but only in close cooperation or, as somebody put it during the forum, in our 'common destiny'.

The question whether the Arab world was undergoing its 'second colonization' received an answer to the effect that the Arab world must continue to evolve but at the same time that pressure and force were not the best way to achieve progress. Democracy and models of development must evolve 'from within' and not under external pressure. Liberal economic dominance may be considered a variety of 'colonialism' in the Third World. Liberal globalization acts in accordance with commercial principles, striving towards a single world market, in which culture, too, would become a commodity like any other commodity. 'Our civilization has become commercial,' noted a participant from the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The processes of globalization produce negative effects (uniformization) as well as positive ones (participation in international communication), giving rise to the paradox that globalization threatens and stimulates cultural diversity at the same time.

The forum is intended as a platform for ongoing debates, dialogue, confrontations, and exchanges of opinion. Two sessions in particular impressed all those present in the UNESCO Amphitheatre: they were both devoted to the relations between Israel and Palestine. The first session was made possible by the efforts of two individuals, a Palestinian professor and an Israeli retired intelligence officer (admiral), to work for peace; the success of the second session was due to the fact that it brought together important figures of the Palestinian and Israeli political life, who agreed, in the aftermath of the Geneva negotiations, to continue the dialogue for peace. This session had the title: 'Israel - Palestine: Yes, peace is possible.' No question mark.

For more information, please contact: Euro Méditerranée, 19 Rue de la Pompe, 75016 Paris, France, tel.: (331) 45 04 6020; fax: (331) 45 04 6030; http://www.euromedarea.org