Can civilizations become allies?

Vitaly Naumkin, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies


Terrorist attacks, increasing lack of understanding between the Islamic and the Western world, and growing numbers of Muslim immigrants in Europe have given rise to the theory of a conflict of civilizations. In 2004, Spain and Turkey suggested creating an Alliance of Civilizations. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan supported the idea and in 2005 a High-Level Group was set up to prepare an action plan for the Alliance.

The Russian representative on the group is Vitaly Naumkin, a Professor at Moscow State University, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies and head of the Center of Arab Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He talked with RIA Novosti about the essence of the UN’s new global project.


Question: What is the principal difference between the Dialogue of Civilizations suggested by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the idea of the Alliance of Civilizations advanced by Turkey and Spain?

Answer: It is no coincidence that the idea of the Alliance was proposed by the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Interaction between the West and the Islamic world is becoming a very painful problem. There are some 50 million Muslims living in Europe (not counting Russia) and in North and South America. It is a powerful community, and although Muslims in these countries constitute a minority, their presence provokes frequent conflicts. This problem is particularly acute in European states – France, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Britain. Therefore, the key question for Europeans today is how to improve relations between the Western (mainly Christian) and Muslim worlds.

Another aspect of this problem is the incorporation of Muslim immigrants in Europe into the Western community and European culture. It is not yet clear along what lines the Islamic communities in European states will develop. Would it be better if they became fully assimilated or if they had more opportunities for self-expression and development of their Islamic identity? The recent events in France prove the importance of this problem, which is also related to terrorism.

The idea of a dialogue of civilizations advanced by Khatami was certainly useful and timely. This dialogue is being promoted, though not as a global project supported by all governments that would take the form of a joint action program. Why is that? Possibly because the project was suggested by Iran, which is why some Western governments did not want to take part in it or regard it as an important political initiative. In addition, it was associated with Khatami, who is no longer President of Iran.

Why was the idea of an Alliance of Civilizations advanced by Spain? In the Middle Ages, Spain was a symbiosis of Arab and Western cultures, the Islamic and Christian civilizations. There was both confrontation and an interaction of cultures that was more positive than in any other country. Therefore the world accepted the alliance initiative from Spain, which regards itself as the successor of this community of cultures.

I can understand the reasons behind Turkey’s support for the proposal. It views the initiative as European rather than purely Spanish because it wants to become part of the European community. Turkey wants to be seen as an enlightened Muslim country, a civilized, moderate and tolerant state which is moving towards Europe and the West in general. It wants to prove that a Muslim state can become part of the Western civilization.

It is especially important for Erdogan because he is the leader of an Islamic party. When it came to power, everyone feared that Turkey would roll back from the successful democratic process. It did not happen. On the contrary, Erdogan proved that an Islamic party can be responsible, democratic and capable of working for an integration of Western and Muslim values.

Spain and Turkey had a common goal and a common vision of how to attain it. They wanted the alliance to bring together the countries’ political will and mobilize them for joint actions at the institutional and civil levels. The ultimate task is to lay to rest old conflicts between different civilizations, including and primarily between the Western and the Islamic ones.

The initiators of the alliance say that the events of the last few years have strengthened suspicion and mistrust between the Islamic and the Western communities, and this breeds religious extremism, undermines tolerance and threatens international stability. In their opinion, the idea of an alliance of civilizations should “bridge divides” and build new political, economic and cultural relations between civilizations at the government and civil levels.


Q: What practical actions can the international community take?

A: Nobody knows yet, though proposals abound. The idea of an Alliance of Civilizations was supported by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, it has become a UN initiative and should become a global project. The 18-member High-Level Group has been set up to draft a practical action plan and elaborate ideas for the groundwork of the Alliance. It should hold regular meetings to set out the philosophy, or rather the “practice” of the project in the form of an action plan. It should be submitted to the UN Secretary General in December 2006, slightly more than a year after the group’s establishment. Its first session is to be held in late November in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.


Q: Who was selected for the Group?

A: Three categories of people representing different cultures.

The first includes former statesmen and politicians, not just officials but celebrities known for their intellectual potential and contribution to culture. They are the former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami, the former UNESCO Director Federico Mayor, the former Foreign Minister of France Hubert Vedrine, the former Prime Minister of Senegal Mustafa Niasse, and others.

The second category comprises independent intellectuals who have never held high state posts, such as Karen Armstrong, a prominent British writer on religions (including Islam), John Esposito, who is the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.

And the third group consists of religious leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Rabbi Arthur Schneir of the United States, and Mohammad Khatami.


Q: How were they selected for the Group?

A: The UN Secretary General chose them for their political or scientific reputation. Before you ask about my candidacy, I can tell you that I was selected because of my most recent book on radical Islam, “Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle” (Rowan and Littlefield, U.S.A.), recently published in the U.S. and Britain. Annan’s secretariat and advisers, who have contacts in the scientific community and are familiar with the problem, proposed candidates. After Kofi Annan accepted them, they were approved by their respective governments, including Russia, and subsequently officially appointed by the UN Secretary General. There are some states, however, which are wary of the initiative.


Q: Such as?

A: I was surprised that there is no Chinese delegate in the Group. I don’t know the reason for this, but perhaps China has not yet decided if it should take part in the initiative or refuse for some reason. Therefore, the chair of the East Asian representative is empty. All European states and the majority of Muslim countries support the initiative, though some have an ambivalent attitude to it. I have heard some politicians from Iran and several Arab countries speak negatively about the Alliance. However, this may be not an official position but the attitude of the general public. In Europe, also, there are some critics of the idea.

Some people think that an alliance of civilizations is impossible in principle, and this is true. There cannot be an alliance in full measure, but we are talking here about a project called “alliance.”


Q: Does the Group include delegates from conflict zones, for example Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan?

A: There are delegates from India and Pakistan, two very interesting women. Dr. Nafis Sadik (Pakistan) is Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General and Shobana Bhartia (India) is Managing Director of the Hindustan Times. There are no representatives from Israel in the 18-member Group. The Judaic world is represented by a rabbi from the United States. In general, we focus not on conflict zones but on relations between the West and the Islamic world.


Q: But Israel is one of the world’s conflict spots…

A: There are many conflict spots in the world. We have a Judaic delegate in the Group, alongside representatives of other religions – Islam and Christianity.


Q: But the problem is not religion. Judaism, or any other monotheistic religion, is not a problem for Muslims. It appears that conflicts, including between civilizations, happen because of differences between state interests, ideologies and social inequality. Zionism, pan-Arabism and Radical Islam are not religions; they concern politics.

A: In general, politics is mostly the business of governments and only to a small degree of international organizations. This is why the phrase “alliance of civilizations” sounds a bit abstract. The logical argument for anyone who hears about the idea for the first time is that it is states and not civilizations that fight. Moreover, some warring sides belong to the same civilization. Take Iraq’s attack on Kuwait or European wars. Civilization is an abstract notion in the context of conflicts.

But the essence of the philosophy of an alliance of civilizations is to create a cultural unity, a civilized code of conduct that would encourage conflicting states to think twice before turning conflicts into wars.

Simply put, the threats facing the modern world, primarily the threats of terrorism and religious intolerance and extremism, are closely connected not only with state interests but also with historical origins of civilizations. This is a fact. It is also a fact that terrorists are for the most part non-governmental players.


Q: You said that there is no mechanism for implementing the project. But perhaps you have outlined some practical tasks?

A: Yes, we have. Following consultations with the project’s co-sponsors, Spain and Turkey, Kofi Annan outlined three main tasks of the High-Level Group. Firstly, it should assess the situation in the world (primarily security) and the threats posed by extremist forces. Secondly, it should propose joint actions to be taken at the institutional and civil levels. And thirdly, it should recommend an action plan for states, international organizations and civil societies to promote harmony between societies.


Q: What role can Russia play in this project?

A: The issue of an alliance of civilizations is important for Russia, just as it is for the rest of the world. On the one hand, we want to make use of potential positive results of the project. (It is difficult to say now what effect this initiative may have.) On the other hand, we can share our positive experience of a modern and tolerant Euro-Islam, primarily in Tatarstan.

This republic of the Russian Federation is a very good example of putting religion to constructive use for the development of religious values and combining them with the values of the modern world, tolerance and moderation. Tatar cultural leaders find inspiration in the works of Jadids, members of a religious trend in Islam in the late 19th and early 20th century, who called for modernizing religion. They said Islam should not be frozen but help Islamic society to become an integral part of modern life. They also called for tolerance and openness to other cultures.

I think that this heritage and Russia’s experience, despite the terrorist attacks and other negative events in the North Caucasus, could become Russia’s contribution to the new project.


Q: Will Russia’s cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) be taken into account? It has an observer status there and there are plans of joint work with its member states on promoting an alliance of civilizations.

A: Russia’s interaction with Islamic states in the OIC will certainly be taken into account. The Russian Foreign Ministry is doing a great deal now to the benefit of cooperation of civilizations. There are organizations and foundations that we involved in similar projects, such as the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called, which launched a project “Dialogue of Civilizations” several years ago and has held a number of international functions as part of such dialogue. There are also other projects.

Like other countries, Russia holds quite a few forums and other functions on this issue, but they are not integrated. There are many ideas, but the task is to bring them together and turn into a joint global program.

I think that an alliance of civilizations means above all an alliance of social, political and civil forces rallied against terrorism, intolerance, extremism and an attempt to isolate cultures and societies from each other. If individuals – intellectuals, writers, musicians, politicians and statesmen – unite to work within a UN-supported program, guided by the same ideas, this will be a good result of our work. But it would be premature to speak of results so far.


Q: Could you share some of your ideas for the first meeting of the High-Level Group?

A: I would not like to air the ideas I am going to speak about in Palma de Mallorca. I have been consulting my colleagues, trying to assess their sentiments and collecting interesting ideas of those who work with similar problems. Russia is a vast country with a large number of people who could also join the group. I think that this “poll” and consultations with colleagues can be very useful. I have been talking not only with scientists but also with religious leaders, businessmen, cultural figures, politicians and diplomats. Each of them has his or her own views of the alliance of civilizations and his/her own ideas for implementing this project.

We have the groundwork for the first meeting of the Group. Of course, we will see what delegates from other countries will contribute; we should complement each other rather than engage in blanket-pulling, as it often happens when people from different countries and continents get together.