civilizations become allies?
Naumkin, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What practical actions can the international community take?
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.
Who was selected for the Group?
A: Three categories of people representing different
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.
How were they selected for the Group?
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
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
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.”
Does the Group include delegates from conflict zones, for example Israel and
Palestine, India and Pakistan?
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.
There are many conflict spots in the world. We have a Judaic delegate in the
Group, alongside representatives of other religions – Islam and Christianity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You said that there is no mechanism for implementing the project. But perhaps
you have outlined some practical tasks?
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.
What role can Russia play in this project?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Could you share some of your ideas for the first meeting of the High-Level
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.