At Al-Hewar Center

Why We Need
Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations

"If recent events have taught us anything,” said Mr. AbdulWahab Al-Kebsi at a recent panel discussion at Al-Hewar Center, “it is that we cannot ignore extremism – from every side.  September 11 has changed our lives, and it has changed the paradigm that we see life through. It is no longer a luxury for us to effect dialogue, it has become a necessity.”

The panel discussion about “Why We Need Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations,” was hosted on May 7, 2003, and featured Mohamad Bashar Arafat, Ph.D., Muslim Chaplain and Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in Baltimore; Mr. John Simmons, Director of Dialogue Technologies, City of Mind; and Dr. Lowell Christy, Chairman and Co-Founder, City of Mind.  The event was moderated by Mr. Al-Kebsi who is the Program Officer for the Middle East and Africa for the National Endowment for Democracy.  Al-Hewar Center is a forum in metropolitan Washington, DC, for dialogue among Arabs and between Arabs and Americans.

“When we talk about dialogue,” said Al-Kebsi, “the extremists and the radicals, by nature, have a louder voice…. Moderates need to have a louder voice.”  He suggested promoting a kind of “radical moderate” movement to give moderates have a louder voice.  This is important, he said, “because the minorities on both sides of the spectrum are controlling events.”

“Since September 11, the dialogue of civilizations is more important than ever,” said Imam Mohammad Bashar Arafat. “Especially with many people circulating the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory, which is an extremely dangerous idea.”  Dr. Arafat founded the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation in Baltimore in 2000.  He also serves as the chaplain of Johns Hopkins University where he has been since 1993. 

“The Qur’an contains many descriptions of successful nations,” he said, “as well as the factors that led to the destruction of unsuccessful nations.  This is to serve as a guide to help us find and follow the best way.” 

“Muslims were pioneers in preserving the cultures of other nations,” said Imam Arafat.  “The Muslims went to Egypt and did not destroy what they found there,” he said, “compared to the Taliban and the perpetrators of September 11” who are not true Muslims. Scholars, he noted, agree that the Taliban have problems in their theology and their way of life.

We have a great responsibility to reach out and show that Islam preserved all the great civilizations and was the cornerstone of the Renaissance and the gate to science, medicine, philosophy,” he said.  “We must show that Islam is really the religion of cultures and of respecting other cultures.  It is the religion of coexistence and the religion of tolerance, but it is misunderstood widely in the West and in the United States.  It is a religion that never spoke about clashes of civilizations, but rather spoke about cooperation and understanding and addressing others as ‘people of the book’ and respecting different opinions.”

He lamented that when people visit the Muslim world, like Egypt or Morocco, they visit museums and ancient ruins, but there is no interaction with the local population.  He founded Civilizations Exchange as a way to promote such interaction through meetings, symposia, and other types of meetings between visitors and locals.  The organization takes groups to different countries to visit historic sites and then to meet with religious leaders (Christians, Muslims, and Jews), as well as academics, politicians, and others in order to try to understand the countries from many aspects.  Imam Arafat event suggested taking American law enforcement personnel to the Middle East so that they can see for themselves how the people think and whether terrorism is really a part of Islam or not.  He said that it is also important to take politicians and other officials, clergy members, and others in order to expose them to that part of the world and help foster closeness and  better understanding. 

The next speaker was Dr. Lowell Christy, who specializes in managing strategic alliances. “Right now, America has answers,” he said.  “Military answers, economic answers, political answers -- and that is not a dialogue. The 20th Century was characterized by three strategies to resolve conflict:  one was political – nation states; another was military – world wars; and the third was people finally making attempts to actually understand other people. The most notable, which Christy called “one of America’s finest hours” was the Marshal Plan developed by people like Margaret Meade who assembled dozens of anthropologists, sociologists and others, and found ways to channel the mindset of very warlike cultures into economics instead.  The result, of course, is that Japan and Germany are now at the top of economic sphere.

America has viewed systems like Communism and fascism as systems that were imposed upon the people and, thus, also can be lifted off the people, said Christy.  Unfortunately, America tends to view Islam in the same manner. That is because America does not understand Islam or the peoples of the Middle East and the power of their cultures, he said.  He founded the Cultural Strategies Institute in order to help develop a cultural strategy to replace the military, political, and economic strategies of the 20th century, which no longer work. 

The trump card that the Middle East has, said Christy, is culture and civilization.  America has not reached that point yet. “I think there is an unfinished American Revolution out there,” he said. “We have developed a political democracy that can put in street lights and do the physical infrastructure, but does it create the social infrastructure?”  America needs to be open to the cultures of the Middle East which have a lot to say being human and the value of culture.

At the suggestion of the President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, the United Nations sponsored the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.  In introducing the year, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said: “The United Nations itself was created in the belief that dialogue can triumph over discord, that diversity is a universal virtue, and that the peoples of the world are far more united by their common fate than divided by their separate identities.” 

The Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations took place in 2001.  “We all know what happened in 2001,” said Christy.  “Part of the rhetoric and some of the realities changed in 2001.”  The dialogue did not succeed as well as it should have because it was politicians talking to politicians,” said Christy who emphasized that something besides nations talking to nations needs to take place.  Many people have come to realize that the United Nations was created after World War II to solve the problems of the WWII world, and the answers that are coming from America right now are repetitions of what happened during WWII and the previous century, he said. 

“We need a new language, and we need to focus on this idea as simple and as complex as dialogue, because in dialogue, I have to respect the person I’m talking too, and I have to listen.  It is not about speeches, and it is not about technologies and broadcast media.  It is a new way of interacting people to people, without the institutions.  It is not about politics, it is about how you lead your life and letting your life speak, letting your culture speak.”

The Cultural Strategies Institute is currently developing a series of strategies to meet this challenge, including working to establish a National Middle Eastern Heritage Month, which will feature ways to expose Americans to Middle Eastern culture and will grow year by year. There is amazing power in dialogue, said Christy, and it is a matter of us providing content and letting our culture speak. 

“My hope and wish,” he concluded, “is that the Middle East can teach America.  The peoples of the Middle East can add something to America on the cultural dimension, on the moral dimension, on the how to live your life dimension.”

The next speaker was John Simmons, a developer of on-line communications and Internet technologies.  Simmons is also an Emmy-nominated producer/director of dozens of national television programs for PBS and other stations.  He also created the world’s first fully functional 3-D museum on the Internet for the American Indian Heritage Foundation.  His focus at the Cultural Strategies Institute is creating a worldwide development platform for dialogue technologies.

“I am responding here tonight to the call to be an enlightened cultural traveler or to be a radicalized moderate,” he said, “and I responded to the call by Mohammad Khatami for the dialogue among civilizations.  I responded to it more as a computer scientist, as someone who thinks that this is extremely interesting to the technology community.

When the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations was over, Simmons looked at all the symposia and speeches to see what patterns emerged.  He found that a whole new system for group problem solving had been developed. He saw two distinct forces: the forces of unity that bring people together to define our common problems and try to figure out solutions; and forces of diversity that say that we are not all the same, but we have to find ways to live together nevertheless. 

Leadership, he felt, was the force of unity that could contribute to the forces of diversity.  The United Nations, for instance, can offer leadership from its position of unity to the forces of diversity, in offering protection, encouragement, stimulation of diversity, etc. 

The forces of diversity, on the other hand, offer interaction.  The can bring people to the table where they can share their problems and their perspectives.  Simmons saw the entire cycle as iterative, i.e., the forces of unity leading the forces of diversity promoting interaction, back around and around, ultimately creating the energy that can solve problems. 

He then examined the resolution written by the UN at the conclusion of the year summarizing all the activity and establishing a global agenda for the next five years.  He took the resolution apart to determine where each sentence belonged in the unity/diversity cycle.  Although there was a tremendous amount material about the nature of interaction and many examples about unity and leadership, there was very little about the continuing cultivation of diversity, he noted.  There was a mention about preserving the culture and protecting cultural heritage, but not enough said about cross-generational dialogue, mentoring, or the kinds of things that enable people not only to honor their heritage, but to contribute to it on a continuing basis. This, he said, was a blind spot.

After the Iraqi national museum was looted during the U.S. invasion, Simmons started as a repository for information about the museum and the cultures, history, and civilizations it represents.  The project already involves the collaboration of hundreds of professionals around the world. It seems to strike a chord with people, he said, because it is a multi-sector, very inclusive, pluralistic-type of approach, where the call is not just for the technology people, art people, or museum people, but also includes historians, archaeologists, architects (including many Iraqi architects), contemporary Iraqi artists, economists (there is a group of Arab economists in Egypt who are formulating a working paper), and even a professor in China who submitted something on Sumerian civilization. “Our perspectives in terms of advancing this particular project have been broadened,” said Simmons.

“This is an important theme,” said Simmons, “of bringing many people to the table from many perspectives to solve common problems such as how to save this heritage in which we are all a stakeholder.  The only way to bring these pieces back to Baghdad is to keep the case open, for centuries if need be, and to give everybody a profound appreciation for these objects, because they relate to all of us.”

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