Interview with Paulo Coelho, UN Messenger of Peace

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, UN Messenger of Peace. Photo/Paul Macleod

22 December 2010 – Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has enchanted readers with his best-selling books such as The Alchemist” and “The Pilgrimage.” The winner of numerous awards for his works, which have been translated into more than 65 languages, Mr. Coelho uses his global appeal to help underprivileged men and women in Brazil and around the world. For this, the Rio de Janeiro native was designated as a UN Messenger of Peace in September 2007. He also works with UNESCO as a Special Counselor for Intercultural Dialogues and Spiritual Convergences, and is part of the UN’s “Network of Men Leaders” tasked with helping to end violence against women. The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Coelho about building bridges between people and cultures, and his work with the UN.

UN News Centre: Over the past decade, the “9/11” attacks, as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have led to the widespread acceptance of a crisis of multilateralism and a “clash of civilizations.” What is your view of the “clash of civilisations?”

Paulo Coelho: I think a small group of countries inside the UN tried, in order to go to war in Iraq, to make the UN non-credible. But I think the UN left this struggle stronger than it was when it began. Today, the UN is doing its work in a way that you can see the results. I have the feeling that the Organization now spends more time than before explaining what it does, what are its goals. I am very proud tInstead of talking about our differences, we should talk much more about the things we have in commono be part of this, to be engaged with the UN as a Messenger of Peace.

About the idea of a clash between cultures, between civilisations, I don’t believe in it. It’s something some political leaders tried to use, and that the media tried and are still trying to sell us, in order to simplify the world and their work. When they talk about a “clash of civilisations,” it’s just a way to separate things but the reality, and what I see, is that we are much closer than we think. I was in China recently. I spoke to normal people and heard the same stories I would hear in Brazil. So where is the clash of civilisations? There is none.

We live the same life, but we can have misunderstanding or non-understanding, and that’s what we have to work on. Instead of talking about our differences, we should talk much more about the things we have in common. This may sound a little bit idealistic, but when I go to my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter account, I talk to different people from all over the world and you see how it’s easy to establish a dialogue.

UN News Centre: Why are you so committed to intercultural dialogue… with your readers and through your work with the UN?

Paulo Coelho: It is because of my personal history. I lived in a dictatorship in Brazil and I was arrested three times. I felt in my flesh what it is to live under such a regime and experience deprivation of freedom.

When I realized my books were being read around the world – currently over 130 millions copies have been sold, and each book is read by an average of three people – I felt if I can share stories that touch the hearts of so many different people, then I can in some way collaborate to make improvements in this world. Each of those readers has a different background, from Iran, Israel, Iraq, Kurdistan, South Africa…but there is still a cultural bridge.

I think all people have the same question. At the end of the day we are all asking this classic and common question: what am I doing here? Probably we don’t have the same answer. But if we have the same question, we can understand each other.

Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions. People have to understand that their neighbours are not different even if they have a different religion, different sociological background.

At this moment, I don’t see too much hope in political dialogue. But I see a lot of hope in cultural dialogue.

UN News Centre: You use the Internet and social media a great deal. Is it because these new tools break barriers, or at least, overcome some of them?

Paulo Coelho: Geographical barriers, yes, but let’s not forget that not everybody has access to the Internet. But even if I can reach a minority, this minority can create a critical mass reaction. So beside the books, I dedicate lots of my time to use the Internet to share ideas. For example, today I posted on my blog a story of one of my readers in India who is trying to take steps to end violence against women. As soon as I posted the story, it received a lot of support from all over the world.  In the end, I helped someone in the countryside of India, who I don’t even know, by just publishing her story. It spread to readers all over the world and this person doesn’t feel alone anymore.

We help each other by sharing our experiences. At the end of the day, the human condition requests one thing: to share. You are not here just to profit. If you don’t share, you are nothing. I’ll give you an example. You can be watching the most beautiful sunset, in the most beautiful place in the world, and this beautiful sunset can be an oppressive experience because you have nobody to share it with. But if you are in a bazaar or a train station full of people, even without any beautiful sunset, it gives you more emotion, more interaction, it becomes a kind of paradise. We are born to share, we are really born to share, so you have to do it. You have to share what you have. In my case, the Internet is a tool to share. My blog is free. Facebook is free. It’s an inner cause I have: to use my celebrity to bring people together and share what I have and what each of them have.

UN News Centre: Do you think the Internet, as a new bridge between people, has brought us to a turning point in how we deal with differences of culture or conflicts?

Paulo Coelho: Yes we are at a turning point. But for better or worse? You see a lot of possibility, the bright side, but also the dark possibility of mind control. It is the same tools, with two different directions and uses. If people start to be brainwashed, then we’re in trouble. So I really do not know what to think about this tool.

On my side, as much as possible, I use it to promote the right side, not the brainwashing one. But people have the same choice that I have, they have the same independence to use it differently. 

UN News Centre: In addition to being a UN Messenger of Peace, you are involved with UNESCO, whose motto is to build peace in the minds of people. One of its goals is to promote and protect local cultures. What draws you to its work?

Paulo Coelho: We have to protect regional and local culture because it’s very important to keep diversity and multiculturalism. How can you understand a regional or local culture? You go the books, to the stories, to the painting, the dance, the music, art. The only way people will enrich themselves, the only way humankind can enrich itself, is through culture, the sharing of differences. Because when you go to the political system, there is always a barrier. When you go to economic systems, there are misunderstandings. But when you go to the scope of a culture, you really start to understand.

It’s what I said about my book. I don’t say: here is the truth and everybody has to follow what I think and write. What I say is: we have a world of human beings who share the same questions and each culture answers to those questions in its own way. But knowing that we have the same questions, this is the top of the pyramid. At least we meet at the top of the pyramid. The answers to the questions are at the bottom.

People have a tendency to think and say that culture is not the most important thing, most of the time because they mix culture and entertainment, which is totally wrong. As I said before, culture is the only bridge left. So if we have culture, spontaneous culture, popular culture, it needs to be protected. I don’t believe in culture sponsored by governments or private companies, because then they have control or can use it for profit. Sometimes you see governments or States subsiding cultural structures and events. I am opposed to this because it reminds me of the Soviet Union, which collapsed finally because it was trying to impose something on other cultures, and it was not in the heart of the people.

UN News Centre: Both the UN and UNESCO exist because of States and governments and are by definition associations of States or governments. Do they have a role in protecting culture?

Paulo Coelho: Yes, UNESCO and the UN are tools, exactly the kind needed to promote multilateralism and multiculturalism. If States and governments work together in the UN or UNESCO in order to build a better world, to create dialogue, exchange, more knowledge of each other, the world becomes a more tolerant place where we enrich each other. There is no problem with having States or governments together.

As I said about the Internet, a tool is a tool. The question is how you use it. And the UN and UNESCO are really making a difference, not only because they are non-political or non-profit organisations but also because the people who manage theses organisations are committed to the goal of promoting bridges between people. That’s also why I agreed to be part of this. You see committed, responsible people in both the UN and UNESCO. I don’t know any other organisation like that. I can add my grain of sand to what the UN is doing, and I am proud to.

UN News Centre:  You are part of the UN’s “Network of Men Leaders to combat violence against women.” What does that represent to you?

Paulo Coelho: I, myself, my family, we never directly experienced violence against women but this doesn’t mean I’m blind to it. I have friends affected by it, I meet people affected by it, and it’s not that they can’t complain, but that they’re ashamed of it.

You cannot just close your eyes because you don’t see it, when you know that it exists, even perhaps next door. Victim or not, you have to do something. So I accepted the offer from the UN to be part of this.  I do it by telling stories.  From the story in my blog about it today, to talking about it in conferences, books, the Internet in order to change the situation, fighting against violence against women is for me sharing what I have and others don’t – a life of peace and no violence – in order to help them to finally have it.

There is no gender difference for this kind of fight. We are human beings. And as human beings, you have to stand up against any kind of violence. Otherwise, what is the meaning of being alive?

Men should be more aware of the problems women face. Breast cancer is a women’s disease but we should be aware of it. Unfortunately, in our world controlled by men, awareness is too low. Things have to change and what’s better for that than the UN, a global, non-profit organization that promotes peace and a better life for human beings.  That’s why I’m part of this group and again, I’m proud to be part of it.

As much as I can use my popularity to raise awareness, awareness and action, I will.

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