Culture: The last barricade
When we look at the world today, filled with violent death and destruction, radical movements and terrorism, we cannot avoid the question of “Why?”
Many reasons and causes are offered for the deteriorating situation and all of them are valid in their particular context: poverty, lack of education, despair, unbalanced identity and diverse frustrations. To all of these causes, only one response has been presented and its implementation actively pursued: security measures.
Even though they are required, they have yet to achieve comprehensive results.
Let us stop for a moment and reflect on the real objective these radical groups are aiming at in all the countries they have targeted. It is clear that what they really want is to impose a different mode of thinking based on a destitute way of life, violent behaviour and absolute power. The objective is to reduce growth and creativity, inhibit the capacity of young people to see beyond the narrow prism of dogmatism and freeze their ambitions.
In a word the real target is “culture” and the cultural expressions synonymous with creativity, freedom of spirit and limitless imagination. That is why the security-based policy approach to radical groups has utterly failed. It has failed because it has omitted a central component of the required policy: its cultural dimension. Culture is the reflection of our identity shaped through centuries of history and social organisation. It reveals our beliefs, aspirations and multifaceted identity. When you strip a society of its heritage and its social image, you destroy its soul and being.
The destruction of the historic sites in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria clearly indicate the intended objective. Tunisia was also targeted for its symbols, the first of culture, the Bardo National Museum and the second of tolerance and openness, the tourism industry.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, I had a conversation with a prominent US senator. To his question as to what could be the best response to this tragedy, I said “cultural exchanges.”
The more one’s cultural identity is presented and acknowledged for its values, symbols and the differences it carries, the more a person would feel open to accepting another’s cultural identity.
No matter how many terrorist attacks occur, our humanity will never allow us to accept them or even get used to them. They do reinforce our determination to seek more tolerant and accepting societies and to enhance our cultural richness as expressed through our diversity.
We must understand, however, that if we consider diversity as a wealth and a vector for cultural fulfilment, we need also to be aware that others view it as a threat: a threat to their security, well-being and national identity.
In the Mediterranean region, we face one of the most challenging and decisive moments in our recent history. In the southern Mediterranean, a new generation of young people are important actors of social change amid the rise of radical movements. At the same time, in the north, the turbulence of social and economic crises has led to xenophobic attitudes, religious intolerance and social rejection of foreigners.
The challenges posed by migration, managing internal agendas in Europe, the trivialisation of perceptions, the construction of stereotypes and the manipulation of religious and cultural issues increase the risk of intolerance and radicalisation and warn us of the reality we have to deal with to contain this sentiment that views diversity as a threat.
The ideology of obscurantism — to which many youth, particularly in the Arab world are exposed today — is still carrying the day not for what it embodies but because there is no counter-ideology to challenge it and present a positive alternative and a fulfilling pathway more in tune with the values of tolerance and mutual acceptance.
The European Union has understood that inter-cultural dialogue is the best tool in our hands today to push for the needed understanding.
Several other organisations, such as UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the Anna Lindh Foundation, have stepped forward and are engaged in this endeavour. Intercultural dialogue is a vast domain as rich as it is complex. Culture is universal but not monolithic. It reflects the multitudes of our being in adversity as promising and fulfilling as it is challenging. The late Senegal president Leopold Senghor encapsulated this when he said. “By living the particular to the full, we reach the dawn of the universal. A common civilisation naturally looks to the universal, and hence equality, while dialogue thrives on diversity, and hence a taste for difference.”
We are in a battle of wills, a battle of self-confidence and values waged in the field of tolerance, openness and culture and we need to understand the centrality of intercultural dialogue in this endeavour.
Values such as equality, diversity and participation enable dialogue to evolve from being a mere instrument of communication into a tool of interaction and exchange. The ownership of the values inherent to citizenship strengthens the prevailing need to build an active culture of dialogue shared particularly by youth.
Strengthening those instruments to foster understanding, support intercultural skills and create opportunities for dialogue must be a priority.