A grand cultural dialogue is the only way to fight ISIS
André Malraux, the French intellectual and minister of Culture under president Charles de Gaulle, was quoted as saying that the 21st century will be religious or it will not be. It seems that the prophecy of Malraux was realised as many argue but in the worst form.
It is not spirituality that gained the ground in the 21st century but radical exclusivist religious and nationalist ideologies — ideologies that have given the proof or illustration to the famous and controversial Samuel Huntington’s article on the clash of civilisations.
The Islamic State (ISIS) is the best example of what preceded. A group that many consider second-generation al-Qaeda has spread fast and far. Its strategy is clear: It wants to create conditions that illustrate what it preaches, a clash between its own definition and interpretation of Islam and that of everyone else, including the vast majority of Muslims who are the first victims of its strategy.
This strategy is particularly clear in the western Mediterranean and Europe. ISIS and other groups with a similar ideology pretend to speak for Islam and on behalf of all marginalised Muslims, hoping that this feeds into religious and nationalist extremism in Europe and sparks an open confrontation, a sort of civil war, between Muslims and the societies in which they live.
Is it, in a way, a clash of civilisations that they want to install between the umma led by its true representatives and the different worlds of the apostates and infidels? It is a clash of legitimacies and an endless confrontation inside and outside the Muslim world until their definition of Islam triumphs and dominates; a definition that does not recognise territorial nationalism and what this latter embodies, implies and forges as a community of values — one that does not necessarily contradict with supranational religious and humanitarian values.
The 9/11 attacks carried out by ISIS’s predecessor did not accomplish this but it becomes more likely each time that Europe gives in to the fear and phobias created by a simplistically, demonising view of the “other”. Indeed, the best ally to radicalism, being religious or nationalistic, is radicalism itself for they speak the same language and confer legitimacy on one’s language while facing the same exclusivist language of the “other”.
Formal conferences and semi-formal dialogue of the sort we have seen since 9/11 are not enough. What is needed today is a comprehensive strategy, one that develops policies to address the multiple conflicts and tensions in the Middle East as well as the different causes behind the rise of extremism, religious or other. These cover a wide range of areas from the cultural to the religious to the social, political and economic reasons that create all together the conditions for such religious radicalisation. The security intelligence approach — as much as it is needed — is not enough. A comprehensive genuine approach for reform adopted by the concerned states carries the answer.
The politicisation of primary identities is a by-product of the failure of national integration in many cases, a failure that leads to marginalisation and exclusion. Such radical politicisation is also a main reaction to the policies of cultural homogenisation, a by-product of globalisation. This can feed into identity-based exclusivist ideologies, whether religious or nationalistic.
These exclusivist ideologies are the driving force behind terrorism. A comprehensive strategy that attacks all aspects of such conflict would need to be multilateral, linking up the efforts of all actors and parties concerned.
The sine qua non condition for successful cultural dialogue — across different cultural worlds and even within the same one — is a firm belief in the value of it. This means that those who seek change in the other’s values and perceptions must accept to change themselves as well. A critical approach to cultural identity — one’s own and that of the other — may be a good starting point but it is not easy.
A long road lies ahead but this is a journey that must be made. A piecemeal approach to fighting ISIS and combating the spread of radical extremism is guaranteed to run into a brick wall. Ignorance and fanaticism will clash with each other, creating many more walls of hatred within society instead of the bridges of mutual comprehension that we must build.