When asked about the current relations between Muslim and Western societies, most people are likely to think about the ‘cartoon crisis’, the controversial remarks of Pope Benedict regarding the Prophet Mohammad, or the debates raging in many European countries over the wearing of the veil by some Muslim women. In addition, most would recognise that terrorist attacks on the one hand and military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan on the other, have increased the climate of suspicion that seems to be spreading across the world. Staggering economic inequalities and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots are also creating new fault lines, dividing peoples and nations.
These tensions help fuel the damaging yet powerful myth of a ‘clash of civilisations’ — an ideological boon for all those who share an interest in shoring up hostility between Muslims and the West. A year ago, the UN Secretary General created the Alliance of Civilisations High Level Group to help challenge this myth and recommend concrete measures to build bridges among communities worldwide. Our group’s report, which we are presenting to Kofi Annan this week, debunks a number of misconceptions while confronting some uncomfortable realities.
First, there is no basis, in our opinion, for the claim that ‘civilisations’ are set on an inevitable collision course. Civilisations are not solid, monolithic blocs; rather, they are the result of complex mutual exchanges and constant cross-fertilisation among cultural groups. The growing polarisation between the West and the Muslim world is undeniable. But it is not unavoidable. Such fatalism denies individual freedom and mistakenly portrays human beings, communities and nations as mere pawns of history.
Second, the history of relations between Muslim and Western societies is not primarily one of conflict. Despite periods of war, Islam, Christianity and Judaism have all benefited from each other through trade and intellectual exchanges. Historically, under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians have largely been free to practise their faiths and many rose to high political positions in Islamic empires. Similarly, in recent centuries, political, scientific, cultural and technological developments in the West have helped influence the Muslim world in many positive ways.
Third, we firmly reject the claim that the roots of the widening rift between Muslim and Western societies lie in religion or culture. Rather, they are to be found in politics. In our view, there are two key factors feeding the current climate of suspicion and fear that mars relations across communities. In the first instance, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has become a key symbol of the rift between Western and Muslim societies and remains one of the biggest threats to international stability.
We passionately believe that the international community should turn its attention to this festering conflict with a renewed sense of urgency. In addition, military operations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan are contributing to a growing climate of fear and animosity. The spiralling death toll and violence in both those countries are helping swell the ranks of terrorist groups.
The other factor is the oppression of non-violent political actors in the Muslim world, which strengthens the hand of extremists. Denying peaceful opposition movements the freedom to express their views and jailing their supporters generate anger and resentment, encouraging some, especially among the young, to join violent groups. And when Western governments lend their support — tacitly or overtly — to authoritarian regimes, they become part of the problem, stoking the fire of extremism. These issues are compounded by resistance to reform and limitations placed on intellectual inquiry which deprive many Muslim countries of the impetus and energy needed to achieve social progress.
To help address the West Asian conflict, we propose the development of a White Paper analysing the Israeli-Palestinian landscape dispassionately and objectively, giving voice to the competing narratives on both sides, and establishing clearly the conditions that must be met to find a way out of this crisis.
Among the issues feeding tensions between Muslim and Western societies is the potentially destructive impact of inflammatory language sometimes used by political and religious leaders and the effect such language can have when disseminated by the media. We urge leaders and shapers of public opinion to behave responsibly and do everything in their power to promote mutual respect for religious beliefs and traditions.
We also request the UN Secretary General to appoint a High Representative to assist in defusing cross-cultural tensions, build bridges of understanding and create pathways toward reconciliation, especially in times of crisis. In addition to these critical steps aimed at addressing political conflicts, we believe that initiatives in the areas of education, media, youth and migration are necessary to build bridges and promote a culture of respect and understanding among Western and Muslim communities.
In today’s interconnected world, nobody is immune from the growing danger of polarisation between societies and cultures. As global neighbours, we all share the responsibility of building a common culture of respect and promoting a rational debate about issues that threaten to divide us. We will achieve progress not by attempting to ignore or deny our differences, but by acknowledging them openly and by celebrating our diversity.
We must also recognise that these differences are not primarily religious or cultural, but political. In other words, they are not insurmountable and can be overcome through determined leadership and sustained negotiations. Only by engaging on this path will we be able to work out a common way forward, one that builds on the goals we share and rejects the doomsday scenarios of clashing civilisations.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu is the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
André Azoulay is the Advisor to His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco. He is the founder of the group, Identity and Dialogue, dedicated to improving Jewish-Arab understanding.
Ali Alatas is the former Foreign Minister of Indonesia. He is a United Nations special envoy.