|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 February 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Continuum of civilisationsNot clash but cooperation: Mohsen Zahran* pleads for new horizons
Recently, the University of Chicago's sociology department has published an important report pointing out that religious fundamentalism, extremist movements and groups engaged in anti- social or anti-cultural violence became especially active during the latter years of the 20th century and at the beginning of the third millennium, in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. These radical religious movements are reported to be Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or other.
This study thus dismantles any allegation of the clash of Western and Islamic civilisation. The factors in favour of such a clash were based on confusion and illusion. They are baseless and incorrect.
On one hand, Islamic civilisation, which represents many countries with no relation to colour, boundaries, or languages, whether in Asia, Africa, or elsewhere across the globe, shows almost the same socio-economic problems. On the other, since the communist bloc was dissolved and the iron curtain demolished, the entire world has joined the one essential force of the domination of the developed countries, represented by America. The crimes committed, violence induced, terrorism inflicted, blazing upon the fabric of many countries, have recognised no borders of time, place or culture.
In contrast to this report, many articles have been published recently on the theme of Samuel Huntington's 1993 article on the clash of civilisations, published in Foreign Affairs. Huntington's and Francis Fukuyama's views, together with similar articles in the international media, are certainly baseless. Allegations of the clash of civilisation have become lame and impotent.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the sole world power influencing world affairs. Capitalising on the statements and actions of radical fundamentalist Islamic governments, especially in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the killing of innocent victims by Islamic fundamentalist operations in various Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, Western strategists invented a new enemy to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Soviet adversary. At one point, even some Western circles referred to old scars, animosity and hatred forgotten since the Crusades. Islamic civilisation, culture and countries thus became the new enemy.
Forgetting the lessons of history, the true nature of Islam, Islamic culture, and Islamic values, which preach peace, love, mercy, tolerance, equality, charity, high morality, human rights and justice, the advocates of the clash of civilisations forgot that Islam, like all other religions, emphasises individuality, personal accountability, social order and basic goodness. Thus, respect for other religions has been a basic teaching of Islam, which recognises variety and respect of differences and opposes subjection or imposed conversion. Freedom of individual choice, humanitarianism and accountability for one's deeds and actions: these are emphasised and manifested even in Islamic cities and architecture, the true mirror of Islamic culture. The built environments of Islamic civilisations differ distinctively in Andalusia, Spain and north Africa from those of Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, thus expressing their local environments, heritage, resources, cultures, arts, and capabilities.
The influence of Islamic civilisation on Europe and the West, has been both varied and vast. The transfer of knowledge by the Arab scholars of Baghdad or Andalusia to Europe during the Middle Ages is well established. The Silk Road, which channelled East-West trade, was also an avenue of cultural exchange. The knowledge and contributions of scholars that radiated from the ancient library of Alexandria were transferred by Muslim scholars to the West, where it served as the basis of today's knowledge.
Consequently, there has never been a "clash" or conflict of civilisation, but rather interaction; a continuum of human civilisations throughout history. Each society, culture and civilisation has its own distinctive nature, impact, and contribution to human society, progress and the universal continuity of humanity. It must be clear to all that Islamic religion and culture have nothing to do with terrorism, violence, intolerance, poverty, underdevelopment, injustice or lack of democracy.
Even those who professed the need for new dialogues or debates among civilisations also forgot that debate has been taking place through many international and regional organisations, forums, institutions, in addition to the media. Recently, Pope John initiated a meeting of representatives of different religions to emphasise the need for greater understanding, tolerance, peace and collaboration among world faiths. Furthermore, George Cary, head of the Anglican Church, and Grand Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar, signed a protocol for promoting greater dialogue between their religious institutions.
Thus, the issue here is not, as some claim, the lack of debate between cultures, since many government and non- governmental organisations and institutions concerned with this issue have been involved in creating and establishing such debates and maintaining open communication. The 6.5 billion people who make up the UN Charter countries represent many channels for intensifying cooperation and creating highways to bring all countries into the new globalisation.
The challenge is not to start debates or dialogues, but to make existing institutions more effective, more productive and engaging, by creating new avenues of cooperation and communication. We do not need more debates; rather, we must promote the goals, substance and results in order to reduce grievances, alleviate suffering, eradicate injustice, salvage human diversity and eliminate despair.
Recent history contains many examples of partnership, regardless of the partners' diversity and differences. Of these, two major channels or avenues can be explored: the Intangible Avenue (essentially cultural, social, scientific and intellectual); and the Tangible Avenue, basically technical and operational.
The first aims at creating and reinforcing systems and frameworks for dialogue and partnership among civilisations that share cultural or environmental roots. An obvious example of a region of common heritage and potentials is the Mediterranean basin. By capitalising on the Barcelona Forum and the European Union experiment, many programmes aiming at new horizons of collaboration can be conceived. Similar examples abound in the African and Arab worlds. Frameworks and foundations capable of ensuring greater cooperation and partnership are necessary, as are attainable, pragmatic goals, to maximise complementarities and synchronised integration according to a short-, medium- and long-range plans of action.
The second avenue, concerned with institutional, material and implementation aspects, is directly dependent on the pursuit of the first. The new Alexandria Library will initiate, promote and support momentum along this avenue and the fulfilment of this goal. It will become a window onto the world for Egypt and onto Egypt for the world, thus linking North and South, West and East, as Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, chairperson of the Library's board of trustees, has emphasised. Here is a great potential and magnificent framework for the manifestation of the continuum of civilisation, as demonstrated in the ancient library.
Circles of cooperation can extend to link other neighbouring regions in the Middle East, the Arab world, Africa, and beyond. These regional alliances and partnerships can create a multi- polar galaxy, with prominent nodes of radiance and great influence, in the service of all toward a better future of mankind everywhere.
Nearly 50 per cent of world civilisations are made up of young people. We owe them the promise of a brighter future, given the great technological revolution, spreading globalisation, and breakthroughs in information and communication technology and outer space discoveries in the third millennium.
What is essential is greater understanding, conviction and a common will to act effectively and quickly, conquer backwardness, eliminate socio- economic injustices and promote avenues of trust, and collaboration. Thus can we generate hope, and map out new frontiers for the realisation of the grand goal of the continuum of civilisation.
The challenges are surmountable, the difficulties are numerous but not insuperable, the resources are available, and the horizons of hope and progress are both vast and promising.
* The writer is emeritus professor of urban studies at Alexandria University.
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