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LEAD STORY
Number 01/2007
Can We Make An Alliance of Civilizations a Reality?
09 February 2007

Climate change and tackling world poverty may be the most important issues facing this generation. But we can only progress these if we can build an ‘alliance of civilizations’. Mike Lowe finds out why this new UN initiative is so important.
What could you do with a trillion US dollars? Yes, that’s right, a million million dollars? Well, for a start you could fund the UN and all its agencies fifty times over. Or for less than 1% of the total you could enable every child in the world to go to school, or fund some serious renewable energy programmes.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world is currently spending over a trillion dollars per year on arms – a figure fast approaching levels last seen at the height of the cold-war arms race. The cold-war may be over, but in its place many are arguing that the world is facing a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the Western and Muslim worlds which requires continued high military spending.

Climate change and tackling world poverty are, in the eyes of many people, the most urgent tasks facing this generation. Yet so long as we are locked into old patterns of conflict and struggles for power we will not make progress on other issues. The words of Martin Luther King apply: ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’

On 13th November 2006, on a bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul – symbolically linking the Muslim world and the West – a report was delivered to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan containing proposals for an Alliance of Civilizations.

So what? Another UN report – a few more trees get cut down. What’s new?

Well, for a start this is not your usual UN report. Its authors include Nobel Prize-winner Desmond Tutu, author Karen Armstrong and a former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami, as well as respected intellectuals and religious figures from around the world. Perhaps because of this their analysis goes beyond the usual partisan political point-scoring that many of us are used to. The reality is that the causes of the divides between the Muslim and Western worlds are complex.

Secondly, the report makes some concrete suggestions for action and offers a framework of principles – respect for human rights and the rule of law, valuing diversity, tackling poverty and encouraging representative and responsive democracy – which can help to bridge the divides.

Third, and most importantly, the most pressing problems facing humanity – the environment, poverty and the ‘clash of civilizations’ – are all interconnected and can only be tackled side-by-side. This framework of the UN offers the best chance of a systematic multilateral and multi-level approach to addressing these problems.

Let’s unpack those reasons a bit more: In the preamble, ‘Bridging the world’s divides’, the authors write about the unfortunate way that talk of a ‘clash of civilizations’ has distorted discussion and perceptions of the relationship between the West and Muslim worlds: ‘The history of relations between cultures is not only one of wars and confrontation. It is also based on centuries of constructive exchanges, cross-fertilization, and peaceful co-existence. Moreover, classifying internally fluid and diverse societies along hard-and-fast lines of civilizations interferes with more illuminating ways of understanding questions of identity, motivation and behaviour. Rifts between the powerful and the powerless or the rich and the poor or between different political groups, classes, occupations and nationalities have far greater explanatory power than such cultural categories.’

The report goes on to talk about the way that globalization has both led to a growing income disparity between rich and poor, but has also challenged group identities in many parts of the world. Communities that feel marginalised tend to assert their primary identity more forcefully.

This trend is exacerbated by a history of colonial occupation in Muslim countries and the fact that many Muslims stand on ground under which lies oil and valuable minerals which big business and powerful nations want access to.

Furthermore, the report says that ‘in the context of relations between Muslim and Western societies, the perception of double standards in the application of international law and the protection of human rights is particularly acute.’

The mass media also has a responsibility, frequently reducing complex issues to two-dimensional stereotypes. Religion is often targeted as ‘the problem’. Yet no major religion condones the killing of innocents. In fact the problems lie more with the failure of societies to apply the basic values of compassion, fairness, integrity and reverence for life which are found in all faith-traditions.

Religion doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is always entwined with politics, whether on the streets of Baghdad or the marbled corridors of Washington – and this despite the best efforts of the European Enlightenment and the founders of secular constitutions. If religion is concerned with the questions of ‘how we should live’ it could not be any other way. Yet just as religion seeks to influence politics, politicians also seek to influence the faithful. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.

Nowhere are these issues felt more intensely than in the lands sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is hard to conceive of anything that would do more to improve relationships between the West and the Muslim world than finding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, one of the report’s principle recommendations is for concerted international efforts to progress this particular issue – including the drafting of a White Paper which ‘gives a voice to the competing narratives on both sides, reviewing the successes and failures of previous peace efforts, and establishing clearly the conditions that must be met to find a way out of this crisis.’

Another recommendation is to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals – including halving the number of people living on less than one US dollar per day (the definition of absolute poverty), achieving universal access to primary education and empowering women. Populations who live in grinding poverty and who are poorly educated are more easily manipulated to direct their anger at scapegoats.

But perhaps the most interesting recommendations are not the political ones, but those aimed at changing the hearts and minds of populations. For example, training journalists in inter-cultural understanding, developing media content which fosters better understanding, ensuring that children’s education equips them to live in a culturally diverse world, and promoting youth-exchanges.

Ultimately the United Nations alone can do little to promote this vision of an Alliance of Civilizations – and they recognize that. Addressing their recommendations not only to governments at every level but also non-government and civil-society organizations and societies at large, they call for partnership between many different organizations and bodies to be established, recognising that many are already at work in this area.

And this is where we come in, as ordinary people, concerned individuals. We can make a start wherever we are and make a difference. We can:
1. Step outside our comfort zones How about talking to the person who is different and getting to know them? How about inviting them home and sharing hospitality? There is nothing like sitting together over a meal to break down barriers.

2. Listen to others Everybody wants to be heard. When we really give space to others to hear their perspectives – even if we don’t see things the same way – we build a bridge.

3. Focus on what is right, not who is right So often pride, ego and power struggles get in the way, overtaking discussions and distracting from the real issues. There is a common ground of basic human values found in all cultures and religions which gives a helpful perspective.

4. Start with yourself It is always easy to see where others fall short and need to change. But pointing fingers doesn’t build trust. Better to ask ‘Are there things I have done, or continue to do, that may cause a problem in this relationship?’ and ‘Are there things my people have done, or continue to do, which cause a problem in this relationship?’ Where possible, we can then start to put things right. Often just admitting we have been wrong is enough to build a relationship.

For people who want to get involved in broader dialogues and networks, here are a few suggestions:

Take part in Conversation Week http://www.conversationweek.org at the end of March – or even host a conversation-week event. It is about ‘celebrating the power of conversation to change the world’.

Invite someone to your home as part of International Open Homes Listening Hearts month in June.

Join an online social network such as http://www.change.org and start working alongside others on issues that matter.

If you are part of a religious community, get involved in inter-faith networks such as Religions for Peace http://www.wcrp.org , the Focolare movement http://www.focolare.org The Rumi Forum http://www.rumiforum.org . The US chapter of Religions for Peace http://www.rfpusa.org gives notice of a UN study session on ‘Students and the dialogue of civilisations’ in New York city March 14-17.

And, of course, get involved in this online magazine community. Share your own experiences and perspectives. Pass on news of other organizations and events. Have your say on “what it will take to build an alliance of civilizations”, and let other people know about this website.

Mike Lowe

COMMENTS

Excellent article, Mike!

But one practical issue. I’d like to hear more on how we get some of that ‘trillion US dollars’ per year… It’s hard to spend on important things like poverty reduction, universal education and renewable energies if the money is already spent!

So, I think to myself: what conditions are necessary for military and arms spending to be reduced — especially from the legal, business and policy perspectives?

As an Australian, here’s what I think…

We often hear of the West’s ‘addiction to oil’, but rarely of our ‘addiction to war’. After the Cold War ended there should have been a significant and sustained reduction in global arms spending.

But analysis, dating back to the ‘Iron Mountain Report’ in the 1970s, suggests the West is in the Middle East today — in part — because we actually need an enemy to justify our own military spending. The argument is that our economies would collapse without these large military supply corporations.

And, of course, arms manufacturers don’t close their businesses simply because a few academics or politicians want them to. In the real world, such companies argue pressure and reward politicians, journalists and thinktanks for supporting foreign policies that are good for their shareholders. And so a ‘groupthink’ develops, perhaps because no one can see a way out of the addiction.

So, in addition to the excellent recommendations of the ‘Bridging the Divides’ report, to reduce and/or re-direct global military spending in order to fund proposals that will make an Alliance of Civilisations tangible, we need three more things:

1) Mainstream public awareness in the West of our own addiction to war. Just think of how Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ has tipped the balance on mainstream concern about climate change. (N.B. Since the 5 biggest arms trading countries in the world are permanent, veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, it’s unlikely any UN Report could include such a recommendation.).

2) To develop alternative, large-scale and safer business opportunities for the arms industry corporations, so they aren’t cornered into blocking and countering efforts to inform the public about our collective war addiction.

3) Behind-the-scenes dialogue and negotiation with arms industry executives to create a viable business transition strategy and roadmap for the above. This can only work without pointing fingers of blame, and being focused on ‘what is right, not who is right’. Technological globalization can’t sustain this level of military spending. The longer it continues, the greater the chance of an overdose.

Interested in any comments on the above.

Erik
Erik Parsons, 14 February 2007

You are right, Erik, that we have to find ways of spending less on weapons. I think that this needs two approaches:

One is to reduce the justification for military expenditure – which means reducing the levels of fear in the general population. This is where the Alliance of Civilisations comes in, and all our efforts to build understanding and trust between Muslims and the West.

The other approach is to penetrate the fogs of lies and corruption which surround the arms industry. Organisations such as Oxfam which have tried to bring the obscene levels of militar expenditure under public scrutiny have long known that the arms trade and corruption are so tightly linked as to be almost inseparable. A recent article by George Monbiot http://www.monbiot.com gives an article relating to BAE’s activities.

Again, raising public awareness will create the necessary political pressure.
Mike Lowe, 15 February 2007

Thanks Mike, I’ve just read the Monbiot stuff. Sobering, and well-researched. Makes me think Mr Blair has been blackmailed (life of children threatened, etc) more than incentivised. Or the amount of money involved is so large that political advisors deem it strategically essential for political leaders to assist their own country’s arms manufacturers.

Whilst the arms industry may indeed be extremely corrupt, as Monbiot suggests, I strongly doubt an ‘old school’ partisan leftist anti-corporate confrontational approach can get results. It’s too easy to dismiss as ‘radical’…in the same way green issues have been sidelined for 40 years!!!!!

And if we point the finger of blame and start attacking these companies en masse, or writing-off the individual people involved, it’d also be counter-productive. Why? They are under market pressures that are beyond any single individual’s interests. All it would do is get their backs up, and become a left-wing partisan effort doomed to failure… an un-winnable campaign battle because these companies have the big money to defend their interests: money buys marketing which shapes public opinion.

But it will be important to initiate and invite open public debate about ‘what is a sustainable future for companies that manufacturer arms’? Afterall, if we blow ourselves up there are no more profits for arms manufacturers, either. And as weapons technology advances, gets cheaper and ‘trickles down’, the danger for us all increases.

Comedy can be one useful angle, because one can’t help but laugh at how stupid we humans can be!

Celebrities can speak, too. For instance, U2 displayed arms industry facts in their live shows.

However, I suspect genuine behind-the-scenes diplomacy with arms executives hasn’t been attempted (along the lines of ‘our shared humanity’). The Caux conferences (www.caux.ch) may have an important role in all this, especially given their track record of bringing together senior representatives of World Economic Forum and World Social Forum.

And we may need to write or promote reports that suggest redirecting funds from arms to renewables. Or reports that show exactly how much money is spent on different industries.

Though I suspect any visible commentator on this issue may be risking their own life. Like Lady Diana, for instance, who campaigned against land mines.
Erik Parsons, 26 February 2007

I’m glad that Mike Lowe mentions the Millennium Development Goals in this thoughtful article about the ways to build an alliance of civilisations. Business and enterprise of course also have a key part in meeting the MDG of halving global poverty by 2015. It is businesses and enterprises that create jobs, skills and wealth. I’ve just been in Jamaica where a home grown food business, Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, has created 160 jobs in a rural community, plus giving the added value of a market for an estimated 3,000 farmers and crop pickers throughout Jamaica to supply the company. And while unemployment is running officially at 12 per cent nationally, in Walkerswood village (pop. 3,000) there is no ‘compulsory unemployment’. All who want to work can do so. But what most impresses about Walkerswood is the emphasis on creating jobs rather than maximising profits. The company is run by 12 partners and any of the employees can also become share holders through a share ownership scheme. All this is good news for the Jamaican economy. Such homegrown enterprises, including social enterprises, play a keep part in helping to meet the millennium development goals.
Mike Smith, 19 March 2007

I’ve just read Eva Joly’s book ‘ Is it in this kind of world we want to live? (title freely translated from French) and according to that book irrespect for law in the arms industry is worse ( worse in the sens of hiring killers to get rid of uninvited questions) than in the petrol industry. So I don’t know if that is a good point to start.

But what about the increasing vacuums of order because some members of society don’t feel concerned by the law or because there is no way to enforce justice? And that doesn’t happen only at the level of the powerful- the path to Europe for many immigrants is lined with thiefs and murderers of their own continent, who will try to get their part, and in the developped societies the idea of quick money as means to power and social recognition is gaining ground in the ghettos- also because any honest access to society seems to be blocked.
Any way I turn it I always come back to the old IofC motto- start with yourself. For me that means for example not to detain any stocks from companies whose profit is made from arms trade.
It means trying to understand both sides- a recent travel to Israel really helped me to look into some cultural differences and to understand their implications.
And it means working on intercultural issues and mediating where necessary.
Daniele de Lutzel, 04 June 2007

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