HOW TO PREVENT A CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

Hans Küng

Tübingen, Germany

Has the controversy over the Danish cartoons finally proved Samuel Huntington's theory of the "clash of civilizations" to be right? No, for civilizations are not players on the stage of world politics, nor do they wage wars; in many places, people of different cultures are living quite peacefully together.

World politics is a matter for states and their leaders, as it always has been. But they could make a mistaken theory come true through mistaken policies. A war of civilizations and religions must be prevented. The question is how.

De-escalation through dialogue.
But are Muslims interested in serious dialogue?

Such a dialogue is taking place, between individuals, groups and faith communities in many places and at different levels all over the world.

As for the broad political scene, it was the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, who as early as 1998 proposed to the UN General Assembly that the year 2001 should be a "Year of Dialogue among Civilizations." The fearful events of Sept. 11, 2001, for which neither Iran nor Iraq were responsible, tragically confirmed the urgency of this initiative.

The General Assembly session of Nov. 8-9, 2001 was devoted to dialogue among civilizations. However, the U.S. delegate was notable for his absence from this session. The public was virtually excluded from the debate for "security reason." The media took hardly any notice of it. So we can turn the question round: does the West want a serious dialogue with Muslims at all?

Western self-criticism is called for.
But isn't it the Muslims who primarily have cause for self-criticism?

More and more Muslims today are recognizing the difficult situation of the Muslim world and are engaging in self-criticism. Since the publication of three Arab Human Development Reports in recent years, commissioned by the United Nations and the Arab League and produced by around 50 Arab academics, no one can deny that the Arab world in particular is heading for a social, political and economic crisis.

But the West shares the responsibility for this situation. It should honestly reflect on itself instead of always pointing the finger at "Islam." In many cases Western states and companies have notoriously played a part in failed developments and abuses. We in the West have every reason for a self-examination which must go below the surface of current events.

Relaxing tension by recognizing deeper-seated causes.
But wasn't the indignation of Muslims over the cartoons organized, and isn't every means being used by Muslim fundamentalists to stir up popular anger?

It is true that for radical Islamist organizations and individual governments the cartoons were a welcome confirmation of their caricature of a violent and immoral West. They are like the pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib, where human rights have been deliberately violated and Muslims deliberately shamed, and can be used to exploit popular anger.

But it is also true that this popular anger could not have been exploited had the West not created such a political tinder box that it took only a spark for the frustration and fury that has built up all over the Islamic world to explode. Every day, Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia see and hear about cruel military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya.

Press freedom in a responsible press.
But mustn't the freedom of opinion and press freedoms be upheld at all costs?

Without free media there can be no democracy. But freedom of expression may not be abused in such a way that it deliberately violates central religious feelings and produces stereotypical hostile images - formerly of Jews, now of Muslims. Press freedom entails being responsible.

It it is not permissible to defame individuals and to violate their dignity, then one should also deal tactfully in the media with the great religious figures of humankind, whether it be the Prophet Muhammad, the Buddha or Jesus Christ.

A solution to the Palestine problem: central to easing the tension.
But mustn't Hamas first recognize the right of Israel to exist, renounce all violence and subscribe to international agreements arrived at so far?

The Palestinians can likewise demand that first Israel must withdraw from all occupied territories in accordance with UN resolution 242, refrain from attacks by the Israeli army and comply with all the UN resolutions which it has ignored.

However, that will not get us very far. More than 50 years of what in practice has been a partisan policy of "mediation" by the United States in favor of Israel has made the Palestinians, whose situation has constantly deteriorated, doubt whether the U.S. really is an honest broker for peace.

The Middle East conflict is not at root a terrorist problem but a territorial conflict. A beginning has been made with the Israeli evacuation from the Gaza Strip. Peace calls from concessions on both sides, but above all from the stronger. And today Israel, with U.S. support, is the strongest military power in the Middle East.

The vast majority of the Palestinian people voted for Hamas out of deep frustration at the corrupt and inefficient PLO regime, Israeli intransigence and American partisanship.

It is a tragic fallacy to treat the new Palestinian government as a terrorist organization and attempt to force the Palestinians back into a wretched situation by harassment and by illegally withholding the income from taxes and duties that is due them.

Strengthening Muslim forces for reform.
But surely violent attacks on people by radical Islamists and the occupation of foreign embassies and cultural institutes are quite unacceptable?

Indeed such violence must be firmly resisted. Tirades by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran against Israel are to be condemned by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But the vast majority of the Iranian people voted for Ahmadinejad out of disillusionment with the previous regime of mullahs and in the hope that poverty and the lack of prospects would be overcome.

The United States fatally dismissed the reformist president, Khatami, as being the representative of an "axis of evil." So he did not have the courage at an early stage to bring the power of the overwhelming electoral vote to bear against the reactionary mullahs and their revolutionary guards. Here the U.S. played into the hands of the fundamentalist extremist Ahmadinejad.

Preventive dialogue instead of preventive war. In view of the Muhammad cartoons and the photographs of torture from Abu Ghraib, it is all the more important that we in the West should not only propagate shared values such as freedom and equality and great achievements such as democracy, human rights and tolerance, but fill them with life through an ethic of humanity, reverence for all life, solidarity, truthfulness and partnership.

On the whole the Muslims in the European Union and the United States have reacted with restraint to these painful events and have attempted to have a moderating influence on their fellow believers in Muslim countries.

I do not want the good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims to come to harm, but to become deeper, even if that has to be through shared negative experiences.

One possible way to prevent a clash of civilizations at local and regional levels would be to set up interfaith councils in as many cities as possible. Such councils have functioned well in Britain for years.

Composed of official representatives of the resident faith communities, they could tackle issues which directly affect relations between faith communities. In crisis situations they could act as mediators and prevent dangerous developments.

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