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Senghor Homage

UNESCO - Dialogue among Civilizations

How we see others,
how others see us

Proceedings of the International Symposium
Paris, 13 and 14 December 2001

Opening Addresses

Ahmad Jalali
President of the UNESCO General Conference


While examining the agenda and the names and disciplines of the participants at this symposium, I found that UNESCO was offering a unique opportunity, bringing together representatives of all walks of academia to deal with topics chosen on purely intellectual criteria demanding a depth of learning. For this reason, I think that this would be a good place to expand on what was approved during the 31st General Conference, it being particularly relevant to this symposium.

We approved the theme of dialogue among cultures and civilizations as one of the strategic objectives of UNESCO’s Medium-Term Strategy. During our Conference, especially after the events of 11 September 2001, we came to the realization that dialogue among cultures and civilizations is not merely an intellectual dream, but a real necessity. It is unavoidable; indeed, perhaps it represents the only choice.

The other fruit of our General Conference was the approval of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which also provides us with a useful platform to discuss how we can preserve this aspect of our world’s beauty. As we enjoy diversity in nature, so we should enjoy diversity in our cultures.

The splendid topic that you have suggested for your gathering, ‘How we see others, how others see us’, brings to mind two interpretations of dialogue among cultures and civilizations. One – if I may so call it – is the ‘historical or descriptive’ interpretation; the other is the ‘imperative or prescriptive’ one.

According to the historical interpretation, dialogue among civilizations is nothing totally new but rather an ever-present process. Civilizations have always engaged in dialogue with each other and even the bloodiest wars and hostilities have never completely prevented this. If we look at the problem from this point of view in order to examine the question of ‘how we see others and how others see us’, we have to conduct a survey of the means and methods of dialogue among civilizations throughout history. This task necessitates at least two essential methodological changes, the first of which concerns our approach to history. History has been seen, and often still is, as an inventory of antagonisms and wars, and unfortunately this aspect has been given most prominence. In order to look at history from a more constructive vantage point, the first methodological change requires a shift of access from conflict to dialogue, to search in history for those elements that encouraged dialogue and to attempt to rewrite history taking them into account. It goes without saying that this change of approach should not blind us to the more brutal facts of history. The second methodological change is that from an ethnocentric concept of culture and civilization to a concept in which sharing and ‘give and take’ occupy the foreground.

In the ethnocentric view of the development of cultures and civilizations, these are both supposed to grow in a more or less closed environment, limited by national or ethnic boundaries. External interventions and, above all, wars and invasions undermine their organic growth and place their very existence in danger. It is true that the metaphor of ‘civilization as an organic whole’ has a certain advantage. By comparing civilization to a living body, we seem to underline its relation to its environment. However, what is usually implied by this metaphor is the relation of interdependence between internal elements of a culture or civilization rather than their dependence on their environment.

Our problem is thus to define cultures and civilizations as open systems in such a way that transfer, exchange, ‘give and take’ and dialogue enter into their very definition.

However, how can we hope for fruitful dialogue among the different cultures of today if we do not possess a more or less clear idea of how this kind of dialogue has been conducted in the past? I can see a number of topics on the agenda that will address this point.

The two interpretations of the concept of dialogue among cultures and civilizations are thus inextricably related. On the one hand, if we are not well informed about past experience, we cannot begin, or rather continue, this experience in the present. On the other hand, any research into the past is somehow limited by our perspective of the modern world and of the role that different civilizations play in its constitution.

Both concepts of dialogue among civilizations are thus interrelated. Moreover, both are intrinsically bound to the question of how we see others and how others see us. This relation is expressed through the role that culture and civilization play in composing our present identity. History presents us with ample evidence of how cultures have served as elements of solidarity within specific human groups and as differentiating factors between them. Moreover, it teaches us that neither the focal point around which identities are constituted, nor the frontier lines along which human groups are separated from each other, remain the same. Sometimes language has played this double role; in other societies the unifying and differentiating function was fulfilled by the written word. In the Middle Ages, this role was relegated to religion, and in modern times it has been taken up by the modern concept of ‘nation’. The salient point is that despite these shifts of axis, each of these social entities is accompanied by a corresponding culture that acts as the cement of the society or social group, levelling out the differences existing inside it and highlighting the points that differentiate it from others.

Thus we have religious cultures, ethnic cultures and national cultures. Once more this point underlines the role of culture in how we see others and how others see us. To search for these shared points between the different cultures of today is an urgent task, a task that can be completed only by transcending existing cultural, national and ethnic barriers. It is in this way that we can overcome the ethnocentric concept of culture and history, and the monolithic concepts of identity and otherness that are almost its logical consequences.

We enjoyed listening to the speech of President Chirac on the occasion of the opening of our 31st General Conference, and he emphasized the point that dialogue between cultures needs to be conducted with open eyes and with humility, for arrogance is its worst enemy. He also raised some relevant questions: Have we kept faith with our own cultures and their underlying values? Has the West given the impression of imposing a dominant, essentially materialistic culture, a culture that the greater part of humanity feels to be aggressive, as all it can do is observe and rub shoulders with it without gaining access? Have some of our great cultural debates seemed ethnocentric, ignorant of social and spiritual realities elsewhere than in the West? How far can a civilization go in exporting its values? President Chirac then expanded this concept, stating that although each culture and civilization can be proud of its achievements it should also engage in self-criticism.

I am pleased to see that the topics on your agenda are very relevant to these main themes discussed during the last session of the General Conference, and UNESCO will continue to observe their impact throughout the coming biennium, within the framework of its Medium-Term Strategy.


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| last up-dated: 24/01/03