Monday, January 21, 2008

Alliance of Civilizations: Misguided Priorities

A two-day forum on the Alliance of Civilizations in Madrid (15-16 January) is being widely hailed as a success despite the fact that it ignored fundamental issues and acted on a set of misplaced priorities.

Two $100 million commitments were announced at the meeting, for a "global youth employment initiative" and for an "Alliance of Civilizations Media Fund." The first will help young people find jobs in the new global economy, the second will encourage the production of movies that "will enhance the connections that already exist between different societies, but are seldom noted on screen and in popular culture.”

The forum also established a
n "AoC Clearinghouse" to begin the work of "Media Literacy Education." It will "catalog" relevant media and government policies and practices with 18 university partners serving "as nodes to enliven" the clearinghouse "by initiating exchanges and posting materials on the latest developments in media literacy education." In addition, a "Rapid Response Media Mechanism" will develop "an online resource that will feature a list of global experts in cross-cultural issues, who are available to comment or to talk to journalists, particularly in times of major cross-cultural crises."

The rhetoric at the event was ripe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon reflected the general tone when he said: “Never in our lifetime has there been a more desperate need for constructive and committed dialogue, among individuals, among communities, among cultures, among and between nations. The threats are terrifying but the responses are at hand.”

Whether Ban or anyone else thinks the initiatives from Madrid will have any impact on the current world scene is not the point. What should be of concern is that nearly 15 years after Samuel Huntington first postulated a "clash of civilizations" (in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs), there is so little understanding of the phenomenon at the UN. The problem is not lack of cross-cultural communication and dialog; it is the deliberate inculcation of hatred in church and mosque, by think tanks and universities. Rodgers and Hammerstein in their 1949 musical South Pacific had it right when they had Lieutenant Cable sing:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Religious and political leaders preach hatred and fear because it empowers them. That power has been used systematically to manipulate large masses of people against their own best interests, and to benefit small elite groups. The only way we can get a handle on jihadist Islam is to expose who it has benefited and who it has burdened.

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