Fostering cross cultural understanding for peaceful societies

Fostering cross cultural understanding for peaceful societies

I am thankful for having the opportunity to address cross-cultural understanding for building peaceful and inclusive societies around the ideals and principles of the Alliance of Civilizations. 

After the highly successful Doha Forum last December, we are gathered here to discuss the key issues related to the Alliance of Civilizations and its core mission.

We live in a shrinking world. Modern means of communication enable us to transfer information with more speed. Every minute and hour, we are bombarded with news and information. With a few clicks, we can access any piece of information, any statistic, any development anywhere in the world. The age of information and instant communication has empowered us beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

But have we reached understanding? Does more information mean that we understand each other better? Or communicate with one another in more human terms?

This is not merely a rhetorical question. It goes to the heart of our daily lives, reactions, decisions, national politics and even global relations. With the wealth of information we have today, we are still lacking the fundamental components of understanding each other. 

Understanding means seeing each other in a relationship. It means connecting with one another as human beings. It means opening ourselves up to new horizons and reaching out to those who are different from us. 

In my view, it also means developing and nourishing a culture of co-existence. 

In medieval Spain and Andalusia, the experience of living together was called “convivencia.” It was a cultural and civilizational perspective based on living together with different religious, ethnic and cultural traditions. It stated the ideal of working towards humanity’s common good. Jews, Christians and Muslims, Romans, Spaniards, Arabs, Berbers and many others studied in the same schools of mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and art. 

Today, we need to revive the ideal of “convivencia” on a global scale.
To do this, we first need a mental revolution, a radical transformation of our minds, ideas and conceptions. We then need to translate this into concrete action through social, economic and political programs. 

This is what the UN Alliance of Civilizations aims to realize on a global scale. I believe that the Alliance fits perfectly with the global mission of the United Nations. With its firmly established principles and global support from over one hundred countries and countless organizations and individuals, the Alliance is playing a vital role in bringing about greater understanding and cultural affinity with concrete policy implications. 

The global problems of our age call for global solutions. This means partnership and coordination across different cultures and societies. 

It is a betrayal of human reason to promote clash and confrontation in the name of protecting one’s identity or national interest. It is against human dignity and our shared humanity to identify a group of people as superior to others and blame them for the failures of the international system. 

Cultural and religious identities are real and must be recognized and respected. They are essential for a society’s integrity and cohesion. They shape people’s sense of themselves and their place in history. 
But none of these identities are frozen blocks. They are dynamic, fluid and multi-dimensional. They are open to influence and take elements from a variety of sources. They do not cancel the reality of other cultural identities and traditions.

The plurality of different traditions is an integral part of our humanity. It is natural and inevitable that people have different linguistic, ethnic and cultural traditions. This diversity only supports and deepens our shared humanity.

The delicate balance between identity and difference is an extension of our self-view and respect for others. 

The Quran summarizes this universal principle in the following verse:

“O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49:13).

“Knowing each other” translates the Arabic verb “ta’arafu” and is related to the words “urf” and “ma’ruf,” that which is transmitted and that which is good. Knowing each other means spreading the common good for humanity’s sake. It is only by recognizing the reality of others that we can come to know each other and work for the humanity’s common good.

This charges us with a major responsibility. Political leaders, religious leaders, businessmen, scholars, experts, journalists, NGOs and others have a historic role to play in these turbulent yet promising times. 

That is why we in Turkey have fully committed ourselves to the Alliance of Civilizations and will continue to do so. Because we believe in our shared humanity. Because we believe we can bring out the best in us only when we join our intellectual, moral and political forces. Because we believe we need each other more than ever before.

In this regard, I would like to state that we will be holding a refreshment meeting for the Alliance of Civilization in Istanbul on May 31, 2012. This meeting will be followed by a one-day conference on justice, peace and the core values of the Alliance. The Istanbul meeting is another sign of our firm commitment to the Alliance of Civilizations and we would like to see you all in that meeting.

Beşir Atalay is the deputy prime minister of Turkey. This article is Atalay’s abridged speech to the UN Headquarters from March 22.