Alliance of Civilisations (1)

By Professor Bichara Khader
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


I have participated in a roundtable, held in Barcelona, on the Alliance of Civilisations. It is a project I support but, which remains problematic. I would like to share with you my analysis by examining the project, its postulate and the problem. I will limit this chronicle to a presentation of the project’s genesis and its intellectual foundation.
The Project

Let me first recall the background of the project’s genesis: the idea of an “Alliance of Civilisations” was launched on September 21st 2004 by Spain’s Prime Minister, José-Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, during the 59th General Assembly of the United Nations. Put together in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that had thrown Spain in mourning in March 2004, this initiative sought to counter-balance the calamitous reaction of President Bush following the attacks of September 11th 2001. Diverging from the confrontation between the Axes of Good and Evil and, in particular, from the “war against terrorism”, the Spanish initiative put forward the indispensable “Alliance of Civilisations” to build a common front against all forms of “extremisms”, to dry out the marshes of resentment and to avoid traumatizing rifts: Us and Them, Islam and West, Judeo-Christian civilization and Muslim civilisation.

The underlying idea of the Spanish initiative is that the West is not at war with Islam. Rather,the West and Islam are at war against radicalisms and extremisms from all horizons. It is thus not a surprise that the Alliance of Civilisations project was presented to the Arab League in December 2004, rapidly supported by the Islamic Conference and that this initiative was, very early on, supported by the Erdogan government in Turkey, who has become its most convinced supporter.

The idea quickly seduced former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who announced on July 14th 2005 the launch of the “Forum of the Alliance of Civilisations” and set afloat a so-called “High Level Group” chaired by Jorge Sampaio, former president of Portugal. This group must not only offer a collective reflection on the issue but, first and foremost, give it “operational content”. All of this was endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations through a resolution passed on October 20th 2005 in favour of a dialogue between civilizations. Since then, a first report by the High Level Group has been submitted to the General Secretary in November 2006. The initiative has gathered the membership of a Group of Friends (more than 120 countries) and various international and regional organizations; forums have been organised in different capitals, the first one having taken place in Madrid in 2007 and the latest in Brazil. Arab and Mediterranean countries, all members of the Group of Friends, support a new initiative called “Regional Mediterranean Strategy”, inspired by the founding principles of the Alliance of Civilisations and whose objectives will be set in a ministerial conference held in Malta on November 8th and 9th 2010.
The Postulate

What is the intellectual foundation of this project of an Alliance of Civilisations? To answer this question, I read the different interventions by Zapatero on this subject, the speech given by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the different recommendations of the High Level Group and the declarations by different forums organised up to this day. I failed to find any structured intellectual construction, but I was able to dig out a number of guiding ideas, slightly disparate, dealing with the Mediterranean, globalization, identity, culture, extremism and necessary dialogue. I present bellow a brief summary of these guiding ideas:

1. For centuries, the Mediterranean has been an area of exchanges, mixes and miscegenation; this “fusion of differences” has formed the Mediterranean legacy. It is true that there have been conquests and re-conquests, flows and reflows, victories and defeats,jihads and crusades, but beyond all this, and also because of all this, the Mediterranean has first and foremost been a crossroad of populations and cultures and, thus, the place of reciprocal fecundation. This basic observation is a historical evidence.

2. Globalisation has had contradictory effects: on the one hand, it may have shortened distances, simplified communications, increased economic exchange and the movement of people, but it has also nurtured tensions, suspicions and hostilities. To summarise, there has been a globalization of exchanges but a relocalisation of identities. Many people now consider globalization to represent a threat rather than an opportunity for their cultures, languages, traditions, internal regulations and their mere existence as a structure community.

3. These contradictory effects of globalization cause “identity eruptions”, generally based on feelings of cultural belongings, principally religious. It is a form of rebellion against the dilution in the global mould. This triggers greater associations with the past through the interpretation of the past which reinforces the identity of a group and relations with space, considered the ground for the reproduction of a community and the source of socio-cultural ties as it is in this space that is built the feeling of belonging: “the notion of home defining relations with the other and the neighbour”. All these ties with the past and social spaces, are integrated in the relation between identity and culture.

4. This should normally not cause any issues. However, globalization, through the diffusion of models and norms, exacerbates already fragile identities through fear and causes conflicts hastily qualified to be identity-related, in which religion is often instrumentalised.  Indeed, it is not easy to live one’s culture within another as, according o M. Gauchet, it is like “living marginally and in the humiliation of not possessing the keys of the universe in which we find ourselves”.

5. These identity eruptions linked to an unregulated globalization, qualified as clashes of civilisations or wars of cultures are, in reality, the projections of internal ruptures with communities, societies and cultures. In this light, what are presented to us as wars between cultures are, in reality, wars within cultures between those tempted by the comfort of isolation and those attracted by the open sea.

6. This difficult adaptation to a world in movement creates outbursts of strong identity which, combined with the instrumentalisation of religion, can take a violent turn. The crisis of the Danish drawings is an appropriate example: when cultural models compete (liberty of the press vs. principle of responsibility), this opposition can generate conflicts:  the latter can easily be interpreted as a contradiction between West and Islam and presented as a “clash of civilizations”.

7. This representation has many consequences, as it stigmatizes people in strict spaces and cultures. Identity and culture are social constructions linked to a defined space. But these social constructions interrelate. This means that any identity, like any culture, is a relation, not a prison. They enrich through contact and wilt in isolation. I agree with Mohammad Barrada, who writes that “living cultures are moving cultures, with sedimentation and loans […] identity is never immutable: it moves: an unfinished and interminable process”. This is what makes identity a “form of alchemy for which, in the dialectic of given and receiving, some people receive, transform and appropriate influences from elsewhere” (Doudou Diène, Director of the Division of Intercultural Dialogue of UNESCO).

8. The Alliance of Civilisations must, therefore, reaffirm the link between people and cultures around a common good that is the united coexistence between nations, beyond all oppositions associated with control of space and power.
All this is sweet music to the ear. Nevertheless, this project of an Alliance of Civilisations leaves me skeptical. I will explain myself in the next chronicle.