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Islam and the West

May 28, 2010

The UN's Alliance of Civilizations, a forum for intercultural and interreligious dialogue, meets this week in Rio to discuss the current issues between Islam and the West. But some experts question its usefulness.

An Iranian woman walk past a mural outside former US embassy during during a demonstration marking the 30th anniversary of US Embassy takeover on 4 November 2009 in front of the former US embassy in Tehran , Iran.
Both Islam and the West suffer from cultural misconceptionsImage: dpa

In the 13 years since Samuel P. Huntington published his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, many people have referred to Huntington's central argument that the primary axis of conflict in the post-Cold War world would be along cultural and religious lines in their attempt to explain the increase in ideologically fuelled violence around the globe.

While there is no denying that mutual suspicion, fear and misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies has been increasing since the beginning of the new millennium, specifically after the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001, political scientists and experts continue to stress that it is not a clash driven by civilizations but by extremists who continue to exploit the instability and differences between the world's cultures.

In an attempt to create a forum which promotes understanding, tolerance and respect between diverse ethnic and religious groups, and therefore deny the flames of extremism some of their fuel, the United Nations created the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC).

Launched in 2005 by former UN chief Kofi Annan and the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey, the forum began with the aim of creating a comprehensive coalition which would focus on promoting the peaceful coexistence between diverse groups. Its target has since evolved to one designed to sweep aside misunderstandings and prejudices between cultures while defusing tensions between the Western and the Islamic world.

unidentified women are seen wearing a niqab
Societal and conflict issues dominate the West-Islam debateImage: AP

The third Alliance of Civilizations forum is held this week in Rio de Janeiro at a time when military confrontations taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories keep armed ideological struggles in the headlines and societal issues based on religion and culture dominate the political discourse in France and other parts of Europe.

With cross-cultural understanding increasingly seen as a way to achieve peaceful resolutions in these areas, the May 28-29 summit takes on an even greater significance when viewed as the first to be attended by the United States which became the 119th member earlier this month.

With the US heavily invested in regions and issues at the heart of the most complicated cross-cultural struggles, the Obama administration's decision to reverse that of its dismissive predecessor adds significant weight to the Alliance's potential as an arbiter for peace.

However, while global conflicts and the polarization of society top the list of most pressing and concerning issues, the 2010 forum will focus on softer issues such as the Internet and its influence on shaping opinions and the topic of censorship.

"It's difficult to say which issues are more important than others, but migration and education are of special interest," Brazilian diplomat Jose Augusto Lindgren, one of the organisers of the Thursday-to-Saturday event, told reporters.

Lack of focus on major issues concerns experts

Some experts in the field of intercultural dialogue are concerned that the biggest issues will not be tackled by the AoC even at a time when their importance makes their solution paramount to peace.

Palestinian militants carrying the body of Moutaz Tafesh, an Islamic Jihad militant, as his funeral takes place in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip on 17 June 2008.
The Israeli-Palestinian crisis is central to West-Islam relationsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"The Arab-Israeli conflict is a central problem in the relationship between the West and Islam when it comes to Arab Muslims," David Bosold, head of the German Council for Foreign Relations' Forum on International Strategic Thinking, told Deutsche Welle. "It is not so much a political problem with implications for the everyday life of ordinary Arabs outside the West Bank and Gaza or Westerners but an example of two contradictory narratives of truth, human and political rights and legitimacy which makes it difficult to further the understanding of the 'other side' on a broader societal level."

"In addition to this, the two most severe problems lie with lack of information on both sides and, therefore, lacking knowledge of the diversity of the Islamic world and the West," he said. "The 'West' and the 'Islamic World' are presented as monolothic blocks although both are highly diverse when it comes to the degree of the importance of religion at the political and societal level."

Terminology of cultures hampering progress

Despite its honourable objectives, some experts remain unconvinced that the AoC is a worthwhile forum and some question whether it is anything more than a debating club with a lack of focus.

Riem Spielhaus, a research fellow at the Centre for European Islamic Thought, believes that the AoC is already at a disadvantage when it comes to making concrete progress as it is shackled by its own terminology.

Minaret and McDonald's
The two sides are often portrayed in simplistic termsImage: DW-Montage Foto:picture-alliance, cc-by hoyasmeg

"First I would question the focus of most of the dialogue initiatives, since they are upholding and perpetuating a binary world view already captured in the terminology of 'the West' and 'Islam,'" she told Deutsche Welle. "For both entities the authorisation of speakers remains rather unclear and the terminology homogenizes them in a way that is not helpful. So I would not even speak of 'cultures' when refering to the AoC's focus."

"However, dialogue and direct communications between individuals are to be preferred to violent conflicts," she added. "But it remains questionable whether they will lead to solutions or further partitions if the terminology remains binary."

AoC accused of inability to produce concrete objectives

David Bosold was more critical, suggesting that the AoC lacks certain aspects to obtain concrete results.

Palestinian boys play soccer next to the concrete blocks that separate the southern Gaza Strip
Experts believe the AoC lacks a connection with civil societyImage: AP

"UN initiatives such as the AoC are only useful in terms of symbolic politics by creating a more open atmosphere for political discussions among political leaders," he said. "In order to achieve concrete results, AoC lacks at least three aspects: it is not able to connect with civil society in both the Islamic world and the West in order to bring significant parts from both sides into a permanent dialogue; it is elite-driven and not a grass roots-level endeavour, notwithstanding its pretension to achieve that very end."

What's more, he added, it doesn't possess a framework outside of the UN structure. This is a problem, argues Bosold, because the UN has become increasingly irrelevant in international affairs over the last decade. "Since the Secretary Generals of the UN have increasingly lost the ability to set the international agenda, I don't see how this problem might be remedied when it comes to the AoC."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge