At UNESCO, the presidents of Iran and Algeria urge continued dialogue among civilizationsSeyed Mohammad Khatami, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President of Algeria, today pleaded for open dialogue among civilizations as a necessary condition to improve international relations and development.
Opening an International Conference on the Dialogue among Civilizations, Cultures and Peoples, attended by more than 300 participants, including eminent academics and decisions makers from the Arab region, Asia, Europe and the United States, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura praised President Khatami, who first launched “the political and intellectual movement which re-introduced dialogue as a central notion for the management of world affairs,” leading to the proclamation of 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilization.
Recalling that dialogue underpinned the creation of the United Nations and UNESCO, the Director-General said that “the processes of globalization, by creating an unprecedented framework of meetings and interactions among peoples, have rendered the building of bridges among civilizations, cultures and peoples absolutely vital.”
“Such dialogue,” Mr Matsuura continued, “must by necessity be soundly based on democracy, human rights and basic liberties, the sole guarantors of lasting peace and development and indispensable conditions for reconciliation.”
During the conference, speakers and participants paid tribute to Pope John Paul II and to his contribution to dialogue, peace and understanding. They observed a minute of silence in his memory.
In his keynote address, President Khatami praised UNESCO’s contribution to dialogue among civilizations, highlighting UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (adopted in 2003), its Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (adopted in 2001), the preparation of a convention on cultural diversity, and ongoing work on the ethics of science.
The events of September 2001, President Khatami argued, proved that “dialogue among civilizations had become a political and economic emergency.” The President went on to explain that while civilizations have been influencing one another for millennia, the notion of dialogue was novel in that it implied a “conscious character”. “It is possible to influence, or be influenced, unawares, while the definition of dialogue, by necessity, requires conscious communication.”
Dialogue relies on speech and language, argued President Khatami saying that “the essence of language is the communion of living beings, in other words, dialogue makes possible self-knowledge, knowledge of the other and of the world.” Saying that Plato had already “expressed the unity of the beautiful, the true and the just,” the President of Iran argued that “likewise, dialogue is at once beautiful, moral and a guarantor of truth.”
“As a Moslem,” he said, “I have a firm conviction that the beauty of religion stems from justice […] any understanding of religion that, in one way or another, justifies injustice stands against the true sense of religion.”
Pleading for the moralization of politics, the President argued that “The political translation of dialogue among civilizations would consist in arguing that culture, morality and art must prevail on politics. […] As long as politics remain estranged from morality and impervious to culture […] human rights will not be defended…”
Distinguishing between dialogue and negotiation, President Khatami insisted that “dialogue among civilizations signifies, politically, the rejection of terrorism and violence. […] It also embodies the fight against a long list of ills that affect humanity as a whole such as the terrible hunger that is afflicting the world, killing children and adults, growing environmental degradation, threats against the family, moral permissiveness, and the deprivation of entire regions from education resources for children and adolescents.”
President Khatami launched the idea of creating a non-governmental organization to promote dialogue among civilizations and said he would welcome suggestions and proposals for this project.
In his keynote address, the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said that by attending the conference he meant to add his voice to those of “men and women who believe deeply in a less uncertain future for our world. […] Dialogue among civilizations is one of the motors of progress,” President Bouteflika said, “It allows for the dissemination of innovations produced within each of them. It is the vector of the perfectability of human kind as a whole, of the never-ending task of humanizing humanity.”
“Terrorism is not part of the matrix of Moslem civilization,” declared President Bouteflika. “Nothing can justify this murderous folly and senseless slaughter. […] Nothing in the recent or distant past, nor in the present, can give substance to the idea of a shock of civilizations between the two shores of the Mediterranean. The two civilizations have lived together - peacefully for the most part, only exceptionally and marginally in a brutal manner - in relations of mutual influence and dialogue, more or less active according to the period. Each partner has been in turn master and student, adapting domestically the innovations that seemed most suitable, even when, at the outset, they had been imposed by force.”
The Algerian President argued that “no civilization, the Western no more than any other, holds the key to universality. Each takes part, at its own speed and in its own way, in the varied process of universalizing humanity; a process that is never finished.”
He spoke of “the building of a pluralistic world […] a world in which all human beings would feel at home in their diversity without exception. This world, geared to happiness, cannot be created by uniformizing and standardizing the habits, behaviours, thinking and values of peoples. The happiness of which we all dream depends on our ability to understand and accept others in their diversity, diversity that is not a handicap but, if intelligently drawn upon, can serve as a source of progress for humanity.”
President Bouteflika denounced the “technological monopoly exercised by a very small number of States that impose their digital language on the rest of the planet which, impotent and passive, consumes the products of these new technologies.”
“So that dialogue takes the place of cultural isolationism and becomes a factor of international stability and security, so that it may become a force at the service of humanity, Bouteflika argued, “it is imperative that the southern hemisphere, and particularly the Arab-Moslem region, embark on the necessary reforms that are inevitable in today’s world. This cannot be denied.”
Following the keynote addresses, participants engaged in a question and answer session with the presidents.
UNESCO, as lead agency for the dialogue among civilizations, is engaged in dialogue-related activities in all of its domains of competence, including education, the sciences, culture and communication.
Photo © UNESCO/Michel Ravassard