Sunday Times of India 19 July 2009
Carry on talking, civilizations need it
Since September 11, that fateful date that really changed the world we
live in, the "clash of civilizations" has left the sphere of scholarly
debate to become a familiar reference.
There is no doubt that today Islam is widely perceived, in the United
States and in Europe, as a powerful and menacing challenge, as a totally
alien and hostile world, so that today even many of those who have never
read Professor Huntington's articles and books believe in the clash of
However, we cannot allow ourselves to be simply overwhelmed by events,
and abandon intellectual debate under the pressure of dramatic
contingencies. What we should do, instead, is to try to use theory and
intellectual debate not as an escape from events, but as a tool to make
some sense out of them.
My objections to Huntington can be summarized in four questions:
l Who defines the values that characterize different civilizations? In
too many parts of the world definitions are not left to individuals and
social groups, but are unilaterally proclaimed by non-democratic leaders,
be they dictators or terrorists. Taking their claim at face value would
entail a racist disrespect for millions of "producers of civilization".
This is especially, dramatically true for millions of Islamic
individuals, who are today culturally and politically disenfranchised by
the violence of few and the fear of many.
l Where do we draw the territoria/limits that allow us to define "a
civilization"? We cannot but agree with Amartya Sen, when he wrote that
he resented being included, as a person coming from the rich, manifold
cultural and spiritual tradition of India, in the general "Confucian"
category to which Huntington ascribes Asia as a whole.
l When - ” with reference to which time-frame” - do we assess the
characteristics of a given culture? Fixity is definitely not what
characterizes cultures - ” vital phenomena in constant transformation”
so that the attempt to understand them by still photos instead of a
movie can only lead to absurd misunderstandings.
l Who has ever seen a self-contained civilization? The history of
cultures is one of constant cross-fertilization, of endless exchange and
mutual borrowing. Who would say that Christianity, a West Asian product,
is not European, not American? Who would say that Buddhism, born in
India, has nothing to do with China and Japan? The same can be said
about ideologies that have left a profound imprint in different
latitudes: what about that creation of a German Jew and a Russian
revolutionary that has never been rejected as alien in China?
The fact is that values meet, cross, merge, clash. And that the clash is
possible, real, frequent, but it follows neither geographic, nor
cultural, nor religious fault-lines. Fault-lines exist within each
culture, each nation, each religion. And even between individuals. How
can we Europeans ignore that, when one of the most horrendous denials of
human rights and common humanity originated, less than a century ago, in
a Christian, western country? To which "civilization" do we ascribe
Adolf Hitler? As a child he certainly attended a Christian church, not
an Islamic madrassa. And, for that matter, Stalin was a student in an
But how about dialogue? Dialogue is not only possible, but it is a
constant mode (together with conflict, to be sure, but not less natural
than conflict) of relations between civilizations. What is central is
contact and mutual influence, not separation and difference. The real
world is not one of self-contained civilizations generating violent
friction at their contact points. The choice is not between
self-contained isolation and hostile contact, but between two modes of
contact: conflict or dialogue.
This alternative defines the task of diplomacy. What is certain is that
we have a choice, and there is no reason for yielding fatalistically to
the worst-case scenarios. But that, unfortunately, cannot be taken for
granted. Diplomacy can promote dialogue of civilizations only if it is
not deaf to ethical considerations; only if it includes them within a
complex framework, which has at its core the defence of national
interest, but at the same time allows legitimacy and space to ethics,
both when defining goals to be pursued and when choosing and applying
the necessary means. But the rationale for practicing a "diplomacy for
dialogue" is not only determined by ethical choice. It is important to
stress that, when working for dialogue, diplomats operate in the
national interest, and thus act within their most traditional mandate
and within their "core business".
Finally, international relations should be based upon the recognition of
the positive; value of diversity. Morally positive, since it does not
limit our ethical recognition to those who are similar to us;
politically positive, since it is but another way of defining democracy;
but even aesthetically positive, since it is only by recognizing
diversity that, as Montaigne wrote, we are enriched by the possibility
of "savouring such an endless variety of shapes of human nature". This
implies that without diversity there would be no art, since art is
indeed about the "endless variety of shapes of human nature".
The writer, Italy's ambassador to India, challenges
Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations' theory in the forthcoming
book, Between Terrorism and Global Governance. Essays on Ethics,
Violence and International Law, Har-Anand
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