Roberto Toscano

Sunday Times of India 19 July 2009


Carry on talking, civilizations need it

Roberto Toscano


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 civilizations.

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 Orthodox seminary.

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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last update 20/07/09