Ref. :  000021119
Date :  2005-10-07
Language :  English
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Alliance of civilizations

Alliance of civilizations

Author :  Reyes Mate

As shown by the Declaration for global ethics that was signed in Chicago in 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions has understood that the time had come to organize a common strategy to answer the great problems of the world. The main idea was that once it would have agreed on minimum ethics, it would then be able to tackle growing poverty, hunger, violence by and against children, political corruption, the decay of the planet, organized crime, ethnical conflicts, and so on. Today, at a time when the alliance of civilizations is mentioned so much, it would be a good thing to ponder on what has happened to this praiseworthy precedent of great ambition.
The first impression is that the objectives that are pursued are not the same. Today, it is terrorism that is the central issue when ten years ago the aim was to heal social wounds. Yet, violence was a theme that was debated in Chicago. The four principles that were to provide minimum ethical reference already mentioned it. Non violence and respect for all lives, solidarity and a fair economic order, tolerance and a truthful life, equality of rights and the partnership of men and women are all themes that were mentioned by the declaration. Yet, if the champions of the project for the alliance of civilizations seek to go back to the origins of terror, such social problems will rush back and the task will then be to provide an answer that cannot differ much from that which has already been given.
It can always be argued that ethics have no army at their disposal that can guarantee the execution of their imperatives. But the fact that it is the States, and no longer the religions, that make these new commitments might lead one to think that the latter are guaranteed to be honored. But in those respects, behavior of citizens is a determining factor. It must therefore be asked what measures are to be taken in order for the agreements to be mirrored in the daily behavior of citizens. The question that must be answered is the following : why did these minimum ethics that were adopted by traditions or by institutions of high moral standards prove ineffective when faced with the dangers that threaten men and the wounds that tear the world apart ?
Perhaps the answer to this question is to be found within Western culture itself, in the midst of the evils that are vested in its constitutive principles. Here I want to point to what might be called « western evil » in its modern form –an evil that undoubtedly comes from the west even though some representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Taoism, that is to say Eastern people, have endorsed it. In its traditional form, fortunately superseded by the Chicago Declaration, this western evil identified universality with westernization. Europe called upon its superiority compared to other civilizations since it believed it had the lead in the race to progress.
The updated form of this western evil is much more subtle. It consists in making the past trivial. During the Enlightenment, Europe came up with a system aiming at solving conflicts which it is not ready to renounce. The sharpest minds of the time, as Rousseau for instance, did not ignore the fact that inequalities contemporary to their period did not result from nature or fate, but from human activity ; in other words, these were examples of injustice. In order to remedy this situation they came up with the idea of declaring that all the inhabitants of the country were equal in rights. From this, each one of them holding the same power could determine the collective future. All citizens were both subjects and lawmakers. Democracy was offered to those who suffered from inequalities but, let us mention this, under the condition that they do not look into the past and that the causes of contemporary inequalities be ignored. What was thus established was a political system that would have countless consequences given the fact that justice was traded for liberty. In order to guarantee harmony in the future, justice and memory which are here identical were to be renounced. This method was that of the Declaration, focused as it was on the desire to make children of good and bad fortune agree on the same principles instead of broaching the issue of responsibility.
Yet, he who has made the best of this situation may well forget, but the victim cannot. Contemporary surveys that focus on colonial States provide some information about the abyss that now separates peoples that lived in close relations until just a few years ago. In the eyes of nineteenth century France, for example, the Arabs were not savages but much worse, they were a barbarous people. Savages obeyed their basic instincts whereas barbarians were characterized by a religion that perverted nature, reason and goodwill. Fanaticism caused by the Islamic belief that maximizes the worse instincts of savages represents the barbarous character of Arabs. Nothing can be expected from an Arab with an Islamic culture. This is why Montesquieu was confident enough to make a sociological law out of the results of his inquiries : « A moderate government is most agreeable to the Christian religion, and a despotic government to the Mahometan ». Since nothing can be expected from a good savage, one had better take the first steps ; because Islamic barbarism is a constant threat to the Western-Christian civilization « anything will do since they give us no other alternative than either destroying them or being destroyed by them ».
It would consequently be quite naive to maintain that peoples who have suffered the violence that originated in the vision that their invaders had of them are likely to forget about it in the name of an alliance of civilizations. If this alliance is not founded on the desire to face responsibilities, any theoretical or practical strategy of alliance between civilizations will only represent a meaningless agreement between the elites of different civilizations. Now this is the core of the problem, but this insight does not sum up the whole situation. As a matter of fact, although the dominating spirit of modern Europe is characterized by westernization (believed to be universality) and oblivion (because only the future matters), let us remember that Europe also has a culture of responsibility that does not boil down to consensus and assistance, even if little use is made of this culture.
This is what Todorov refers to when, speaking of the conquest of America, he points to the fact that Spanish Conquistadors had an important advantage over the Indians : they were able to interpret the Indian organization as being different from their own when the Indians judged the newcomers according to their own conceptual system. Westerners could distance themselves from their own culture and observe another one in its difference. The Conquistadors were able to assess the other organization, to judge it thoroughly and compare it to their own, whereas the Indians imported this new element in a specific place of their own system, the one reserved to demigods. This cultural ability to perceive the other as being different –and despite the fact that in the case examined by Todorov this ability is used to dominate and not recognize the other— allows the possibility of an acknowledgment of the other's suffering that does not call for consensus or alliance but for responsibility. Europe does not only have a culture of seeing everything as a projection of itself, it also has a culture of listening in which attention to others prompts knowledge and action.
We therefore come to the conclusion that the idea of a alliance of civilizations can be envisaged within a culture of consensus or within a culture of responsibility. In the first prospect, were this alliance to exist, the elites of the civilizations would be pleased : we would get a new declaration and all the agitation, but probably only little efficiency. In the second prospect, stress would be laid on the debts that present generations have owed each other all along their history. The best way to prove that one wants things to be done properly in the future is to acknowledge that it was not the case before. And such an acknowledgment comes down to responsibility. It would not be a mistake to interpret contemporary hatred as the result of the suffering caused by an oppressive past, whatever its form. We have forgotten about this, they have not.

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