|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-first General Assembly
Informal Thematic Debate
AM & PM Meetings
GENERAL ASSEMBLY DEBATE ON ‘CIVILIZATIONS AND THE CHALLENGE FOR PEACE’ CONCLUDES;
ASSEMBLY PRESIDENT SAYS DIALOGUE ‘GATEWAY TO CHANGE’
Second-Day Panels Focus on: ‘The Responsibility of the Media’;
‘Civilizations and the Challenge for Global Peace and Security’
The General Assembly today concluded its two-day thematic debate on “Civilizations and the challenge for peace: obstacles and opportunities”, with the Assembly President, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, saying in closing remarks that “dialogue was the gateway to change” and the two-day event, the third of its kind -- the others had dealt with development and gender equality -- had been a unique opportunity for States to reach a common understanding on the challenges facing the United Nations.
Panel discussions today focused on “The responsibility of the media” and “Civilizations and the challenge for global peace and security”. Yesterday’s panels had dealt with “Respect for cultural diversity is a prerequisite for dialogue” and “Religion in contemporary society”.
Opening the afternoon debate on “Civilizations and the challenge for global peace and security”, the panel’s moderator, Shashi Tharoor, author and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, said that violence emerged from blind hatred of an “other”, and that, in turn, was the product of fear, rage and incomprehension. To truly have an alliance of civilizations, it was necessary to deal with each of those three factors by attacking the ignorance that sustained them. “We will have to know each other better, learn to see ourselves as others see us, learn to recognize hatred and deal with its causes, learn to dispel fear and, above all, just learn about each other,” he said.
Participants in the debate discussed the means of promoting tolerance and pluralism in today’s globalized world, which one of the panellists -- Souleyman Bachir Diagne of Northwestern University -- described as a “continuous openness from within to otherness” and the opposite of the “clash of cultures” view. Other panellists this afternoon included author on religion and television broadcaster, Karen Armstrong, and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amre Moussa.
Ms. Armstrong said that the world needed to listen to the underlying text put forth by religious extremists, which, once decoded, would shed light on any anxieties they might carry. A new kind of religious discourse was needed, based on compassion and the golden rule: “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” It would enable a dialogue between peoples, in which parties did not simply impose their points of view on one another, but had a willingness to be transformed. That was a necessity in a globalized world, where events in Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan had repercussion as far away as London, New York and Washington, D.C. Indeed, religion was at the heart of various great world traditions and should not be ignored.
Mr. Moussa proposed that the meeting recommend to the Security Council that it deal with the clash of civilizations, which he saw as a struggle between the West and Islam. He said it was his belief that the conflict had its roots in politics.
Referring to the cartoon crisis, in which the whole Muslim world had become equated with effigies being burned, a participant of the morning panel today, Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding, University of Glasgow, said that those images and their aftermath had sparked off the deeper debate -- could Islam and the Muslim world really understand, accept and respect the notion of diverse societies, with competing moralities and divergent discourses, where everything was up to critique?
“Let us not forget that, for many people all over the world, the media in all its forms is their biggest source of knowledge about the world,” she said. Journalists had a responsibility to reflect what they saw and heard. There should be no political correctness for fear of upsetting communities and faiths. At the same time, she did not want the media, and “polite society”, to resent Islam and religion as a whole. If religious voices must accept that they were only one voice within multiple voices, the media must also recognize that the world contained more believers than non-believers. Freedom of expression must, therefore, be accompanied by sensitivities about beliefs.
“Is the media leading the world to more understanding or new strife? Is it feeding the flames or extinguishing the fires?” asked another panellist on the responsibilities of the media, Mohamed al Rumaihi, Kuwait University’s Professor of Political Sociology.
In his view, at the age of information revolution, it was necessary to move from the concept of “a global village” to the idea of “a single building”, with eastern and western wings, the Arab side and the western side, among others, he said. The Arabs had a saying that war started with words; both Arab and Western media had a responsibility in that regard. To turn media from a discordant factor to a unifier, it was necessary to promote knowledge among the wider public on both sides.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Robin Mansell, Head of the Department of New Media and Communications of London School of Economics and Political Science, who stressed the importance of media literacy in light of the rise of networked journalism. That was essential for participation, active citizenship, learning and cultural expression. The new world media today presented a possibility for understanding difference, but it also heightened the possibility of misunderstanding. The responsibility of the media was to encourage dialogue in an ethical way, and support mutual understanding among people.
Many participants of the panel -- moderated by Warren Hoge, United Nations Bureau Chief of The New York Times -- agreed that the media was a crucial actor in today’s world, able to create respect for cultural diversity, promote dialogue and create understanding among civilizations. However, it could also incite hatred and present biased information. Central issues in the debate were freedom and objectivity of the press, as well as media ownership.
A suggestion was made that international consensus should be sought on a possible agreement to promote media responsibility. A speaker said that a possible international instrument should place a requirement on the media to simply reflect facts, without expressing opinions. The media should be provided with clear guidelines in that regard.
A United States representative, however, cautioned against restrictions and control by Governments, which could lead to the loss of media freedom. He was not advocating complete lack of restraint, but spoke in favour of “a light touch”. In a free society, the role of the media should be determined by the media itself.
The first of today’s panels on “The responsibility of the media” was moderated by WARREN HOGE, United Nations Bureau Chief of The New York Times.
The first panellist, ROBIN MANSELL, Head of the Department of New Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, stressed the urgency of giving a high priority to media literacy in light of the rise of networked journalism, saying that such literacy was essential for participation, active citizenship, learning and cultural expression.
She said that the world media today involved new technology and was 24/7, interactive, collaborative, inexpensive and, in the case of online news, mostly unprofitable. Professionals and amateurs were crossing boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas and perspectives. Networked journalism presented a possibility for understanding difference, but it also heightened the possibility of misunderstanding. Border crossing was uncomfortable, because it brought people into confrontation with others in ways that could be resolved only through persistent dialogue. The responsibility of the media, then, was to support and encourage that dialogue in an ethical way.
With networked journalism, the journalist became the facilitator, instead of the gatekeeper, she continued. Radio phone-ins, web forums and blogs created active spaces for discussion and provided platforms for individuals to correct mainstream media. “Little Green Footballs”, a blog, for example, had revealed how a photographer working for Reuters had faked photos of the Israel/Hizbollah conflict. BBC World Service Trust was enabling Pashto and Dari-speaking audiences inside and outside Afghanistan to listen to their favouring radio programmes, using the Internet.
For new forms of media to grow, funding would have to shift from traditional journalism to promoting media literacy, she said. However, when openness conflicted with traditional modes of operation, governments became uneasy. Few political systems were predicated upon the need for an informed, let alone networked, public. New journalism could give rise to heated and contested debates, but such debate provided new moral spaces for collective deliberation and action. Networked journalism provided a basis for optimism that public dialogue might become more hospitable, caring and “a just space for all”. The media had circulated the Abu Ghraib pictures, Iraq war footage and given rise to the Danish cartoons controversy, heightening the global visibility of violence. Networked journalism might help the public to reflect on why suffering was occurring and what could be done about it. It could also open the possibility of moving away from Eurocentric dialogue and engaging in “boundary thinking”, instead of uniform, globalized thinking.
The new media presented a chance to support mutual understanding among those whose world views were different and at odds with each other, she said. Improved media literacy meant increasing capabilities for critical evaluation. Media literacy principles were being developed under various charters and conventions, many resonating closely with the United Nations, but they were not widely translated into teaching resources.
“Is the media leading the world to more understanding or new strife?” -- MOHAMED AL RUMAIHI, Professor of Political Sociology, Kuwait University, asked. “Is it feeding the flames or extinguishing the fires?” In his view, during the age of the information revolution, it was necessary to move from the concept of a “global village” to the idea of “a single apartment building”. Some of the apartments in that building had all the modern conveniences, but others did not even have basic sanitation. Yet, they all had to coexist. There were the eastern and western wings, the Arab side and the western side, among others.
The events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq had fanned the flames of old racial differences, he continued. Western media only showed issues it wanted to convey to the consumer, often promoting stereotypes. It was indicative that, a while ago, the former President of Lebanon had been portrayed as a Muslim President in the western press, although Lebanon had never had a Muslim President. If a target audience was based on a network of concepts and opinions, the media responded to the needs of the market. Therefore, it was the receiving audience that determined the content of the news. Under those circumstances, the whole of the Arab peoples were summed up as Osama bin Laden in the western press.
Turning to the “Arab inhabitants of the building”, he said that the media often propagated social and cultural myths, creating conditions for the Arab public to accept such absurd ideas as the one that Osama bin Laden was a hero, or that 9/11 had been engineered by the CIA. The media often lacked freedom, which existed partially in the West. The Arabs spent billions of dollars on some 50 cable channels, which spoke to Arabs about Arabs.
The media on both sides wove a social fabric that called for extremism and advocated conflict, and not peace. The Arabs had a famous saying that war started with words. Both Arab and Western media had a responsibility, in that regard. To turn media from a discordant factor to a unifier, it was necessary to promote knowledge on both sides among the wider public.
MONA SIDDIQUI, Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding, University of Glasgow, said that 9/11 had pushed religious discourse to the level of political and public discourse in the western world. Religion was seen as either the biggest obstacle or the biggest solution in the pursuit of global peace. For many, religious expression was the same as religious fanaticism. In the case of Islam, Muslim fanaticism was seen as an anti-Western expression, more precisely an anti-American force, which, even if practiced by a few, would win the day if the American military did not take steps to curb what they perceived as a real and global threat. After 9/11, Newsweek had captured that concern vividly in one its covers: “Why they hate us –- the roots of Islamic rage and what we can do about it.” The “they” implied the whole Muslim world and the Muslim faith as a monolith, and the “us” was the other monolith, the West, with America lying at the heart of that cultural entity.
In that context, it was necessary to be very careful with theological language, she said. “Let us not forget that for many people all over the world, the media, in all its forms, is their biggest source of knowledge about the world,” she stressed. The responsibility of the media could, therefore, not be overemphasized.
The cartoon crisis, in which the whole Muslim world had become equated with effigies being burned, had left many with an uncomfortable feeling that nothing had changed since the Salman Rushdie affair, she said. The publication of cartoons had not been about the defence of freedom. Those images and their aftermath had sparked off the deeper debate: Could Islam and the Muslim world really understand, accept and respect the notion of civil, diverse societies, with competing moralities and divergent discourses, where nothing was sacred and everything was up to critique? Perhaps that was the price for freedom of expression, but the violence within certain Muslim communities had confirmed the suspicion of many that Islam was a complete idiosyncrasy in the West. In her opinion, that was not media hype, but an issue, which many Muslims were reluctant to address.
Journalists had a responsibility to reflect what they saw and heard, she said. There should be no political correctness for fear of upsetting communities and faiths. At the same time, she did not want the media and “polite society” to resent Islam and religion as a whole. If religious voices must accept that they were only one voice within multiple voices, the media must also recognize that the world contained more believers than non-believers. Freedom of expression must, therefore, be accompanied by sensitivities of beliefs, which many held central to their being.
When the floor was opened to comments and questions, many speakers agreed that the media was a crucial actor in today’s world, able to create respect for cultural diversity, promote the dialogue and create understanding among civilizations. However, it could also incite hatred and present biased information.
Central in the debate were the issues of freedom and objectivity of the press, as well as media ownership. It was pointed out that if freedoms were enjoyed without responsibility and respect for beliefs of others, clashes were possible. A speaker said that the role of the media, ideally, was to present information in an objective fashion, letting the public to form its own opinions. However, in practice, journalists worked for corporations, which had their own interests. The question was how that affected the objectivity of journalism.
Another participant spoke about an “incestuous relationship” between Governments and the media in some countries, asking how the media could protect itself from undue influence. Also raised in the discussion were the issues of self- and State censorship, as well as actions to confront slanderous and provocative statements in the press.
Another speaker said that, while the Internet and blogs were important, it was also important to have numerous organized –- and therefore powerful –- media voices that were independent from Governments. The multiplicity of voices created an important system of checks and balances.
Several participants of the debate suggested that international consensus should be sought on a possible agreement to promote media responsibility. A speaker called the media “a mirror” of life. If it focused on negative collective behaviour, it created a feeling of disillusion and hopelessness. Balanced coverage should be a key prerequisite for avoiding such a situation. One of the requirements that should be imposed on the media by a possible international instrument was that it should not express opinions, but simply reflect facts. The media should be provided with clear guidelines in that regard.
A United States representative, however, cautioned against restrictions and control by Governments, which could lead to the loss of media freedom. He was not advocating complete lack of restraint, but spoke in favour of a “light touch”, he said. In a free society, the role of the media should be determined by the media itself.
Advocating personal responsibility of journalists, Ms. SIDDIQUI said that she would steer away from an international code of conduct. Society did not want the media “to just paint the rosy picture” and gloss over the situation -– it wanted the media to be fear-free and able to present the situation in an honest way. It was impossible for people to be completely neutral and objective. The media must report a story as it saw it, but the person reporting that story had not been raised in a vacuum and had his or her own set of values. “Diversity is only a good thing when people come together knowing that their voices have equal value,” she added. Communities leading parallel lives, without communication, did not represent real diversity, and that was where the media should come in.
Mr. AL RUMAIHI spoke about the need to educate the public and the media, and added that “some sort of a declaration from the United Nations on the media conduct” would be useful. Better training of journalists was also needed.
Ms. MANSELL said that it was not helpful, in this day and age, to talk exclusively about “mass media”. Journalists were people. “When we think about restraint and control, we are talking about a person’s understanding and restraint.” It was important to remember that the new media was not some ethereal “cyberspace” -– it was a mix of individual views, values and preferences. It also brought the possibility of greater dialogue. As for an international agreement, language on the media already existed, for example in the Millennium Declaration. The question was, was any additional language needed?
The second panel discussion on “Civilizations and the challenge for peace and security” was moderated by SHASHI THAROOR, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, who stressed the importance of tolerance. Violence emerged from blind hatred of an “other”, and that, in turn, was the product of fear, rage and incomprehension. To truly have an alliance of civilizations, it was necessary to deal with each of those three factors by attacking the ignorance that sustained them. “We will have to know each other better, learn to see ourselves as others see us, learn to recognize hatred and deal with its causes, learn to dispel fear and, above all, just learn about each other,” he said.
It should com as no surprise that the Taliban recruited its foot soldiers from the madrassas that were the only source of education for children who had no other source of knowledge available to them, he said. They learned, not science or mathematics, but a distorted creed of dogma and destruction. The world must work together to give people access to education and develop realistic hopes for a better future.
He said that, if the Millennium Development Goals were fulfilled, they would go a long way towards improving the lives of those in desperate need. But, eliminating poverty would not, in itself, solve the world’s problems; marginalization also gave rise to extremism. Men of war preyed on the ignorance of the populace to instil fear and arouse hatred, as had been the case in Bosnia and Rwanda. If only effort had gone into teaching those people about what united them, rather than divided them, unspeakable crimes could have been prevented.
In the words of one poet, “war begins in the minds of men”; but without education, people would find it difficult to understand that others shared the same hopes and dreams and, therefore, to develop a sense of tolerance. Furthermore, a world where a “jihad” on modernity was being pitted against a “McWorld” of globalization had the effect of obliterating our very identities. Added to that, religion sometimes obliged people to deny the truth about their own complexity. For that reason, it was essential to promote pluralism and to accept that everyone had many identities and that it was possible to assert those identities without condemning others.
Tolerance and imagination were essential to humanity’s sense of self, he said. To overcome the world’s problems, it was necessary to preserve cultural and imaginative freedom in all societies, so that all ideas could flourish without threatening individual identities. In the past, calls had been made to make the world “safe for democracy” -- it was now time to make the world safe for diversity.
KAREN ARMSTRONG, author and television broadcaster, argued that the level of violence seen in the world was not caused by religion, but was rather the result of an uneven distribution of power in the world, which, in turn, was spurred by “ongoing rumblings of unresolved conflict”. Indeed, most world religions had begun as a recoil from the chauvinistic conviction that “our way of life was more valuable than anybody else’s”. But, today’s political horrors had given rise to expressions of discontent through religion. For instance, she observed that the three major religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- were rooted in a dread of annihilation. For example, it was a common view of Protestant Christians that the liberal society wanted to “wipe them out”; or, in the case of Islam, that western mores were a “lethal assault” on Islamic societies. When attacked, such people became ever more extreme.
To reverse that trend, she said the world needed to listen to the underlying text put forth by religious extremists, which, once decoded, would shed light on any anxieties they might carry. She said the world needed a new kind of religious discourse, based on compassion and the golden rule: “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” It would enable dialogue between peoples, in which parties did not simply try to impose their points of view on one another, but had a willingness to be transformed. That was not a pious ideal, but a necessity in a globalized world where events in Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan had repercussion as far away as London, New York and Washington D.C. Indeed, religion was at the heart of various great world traditions and should not be ignored.
AMRE MOUSSA, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, observed that there was no consensus on whether or not there was a clash of civilizations. The events of “9/11” had contributed to an “American tendency”, and later a global tendency, to combat all threats to global stability; but rather than seizing the opportunity to reaffirm the rule of law and human rights, some of the world’s “big Powers” had imposed their conservative agenda on other nations and had left the global desire to combat terrorism “hanging in the air”. Political misunderstandings, ushered along by the double standards held by the world’s large powers and a circle of conservative Muslims, had led to a conflict between the West and Islam, referred to euphemistically as the “clash of civilizations”.
But, he said, there was no true clash of civilizations; rather the conflict was a product of certain western circles and their opinion of Islam. The world was seeing a wave of Islamophobia, which had a hand in destroying human relations all over the world. That conflict was a throwback to the days of the Crusades and must be dealt with openly. Indeed, such animosity and anger was prevalent in the Middle East, particularly in the context of Palestine. The world must resort to reason and wisdom when attempting to solve the question of Palestine, and take joint action to push for a just solution.
He then proposed that the meeting recommend to the Security Council that it deal with the clash of civilizations, since it had its roots in politics. Also, anti-Semitism had been criminalized by the General Assembly; why shouldn’t Islamophobia be given similar attention?
SOULEYMANE BACHIR DIAGNE, Northwestern University, discussed the concept of pluralism, describing it as a “continuous openness from within to otherness” and the opposite of the “clash of cultures” view. He noted that, in the map famously designed by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the Modern World, sub-Saharan Africa had been treated as if it did not exist, while an Africanity centred on South Africa was considered a possibility. Meanwhile, the rest of the continent had been identified with Islam. Yet, while it was true that “Africa was Islam”, Africa was also “Christianity” and the living spirit of other millennia-old religious philosophies. Such multiplicity was valid for all areas of civilizations.
In place of the pessimist’s view of a clash of civilization, he offered an optimistic view in which an encounter of cultures presupposes that each culture “recognize the truth of another”. The true name of peace was pluralism; pluralism could foster the capacity to not only tolerate difference, but to be hospitable to it.
But, he asked, what was the pluralist response to “difference”? According to a famous Islamic hadith, or tradition, the Islamic community would eventually be divided into 73 sects, and only one sect would be saved. It was natural for everyone to think that they belonged to the one promised to salvation, but he posited that the one that would be saved was the “seventy-fourth” -- the group of pluralists philosophically favourable to peace and tolerance and radically opposed to the sect of purists naturally prone to exclusion, violence and war. Indeed, asking which sect had truth on its side only expressed exclusion and violence, for the hadith seemed to indicate that only one path led to salvation. Plurality, in that context, was a metaphor for deviation, and was, thus, evil. Such an attitude of self-closure in a supposed state of purity was what led to violence against “the different”.
In the ensuing discussion, Jorge Sampaio, the Secretary-General’s High Representative of the Alliance of Civilizations, urged the world to challenge the idea that civilizations were doomed to confrontation and war. He was currently developing an action-oriented strategy to promote better understanding and interaction in the world of politics and religion, and to ensure that such understanding was reflected in global diplomatic efforts and political decisions. Cross-cultural dialogue was essential, yet insufficient as a means to cement an alliance between civilizations; political action was required to break the cycle of misunderstanding.
Mr. Sampaio said that the contemporary trend towards extremism affected societies other than Islam and Christianity, a thought echoed by several other speakers later, most notably the representative of the Republic of Korea. Expanding on that notion, the representative of Rwanda said some conflicts resulted from an “extreme cultivation of difference” between groups, which, in his country, had resulted in genocide.
Participants also stressed the need to resist the use of religion for political purposes, and urged one another to remember that injustice was at the root of most conflicts and not religious differences. One delegate suggested that the growing North-South divide was the real problem, as opposed to a gap between “civilizations”, requiring a rebalancing of power within the United Nations itself. Nevertheless, many people agreed that religion was a serious factor in most of the world’s current problems, and that some form of “synchronization” was needed among the different religious groups.
A few delegates echoed Mr. Moussa’s suggestion that the Security Council take up the question of clashes between major civilizations, with some saying that the Security Council needed to be enlarged to reflect current realities, rather than remain stuck in the past. But one delegate cautioned against an encroachment by the Security Council on the General Assembly’s terrain, saying that some issues -- such as global warming, human rights, and indeed, the clash of civilizations -- needed to remain in the most democratic organ of the United Nations, which was felt to be the General Assembly.
Spain’s representative said his country would host the first world forum on the alliance of civilizations before the year’s end.
One delegate said it was disheartening to hear one panellist talk of a clash between Islam and the West, because it led to a climate of confrontation rather than of dialogue. Ms. Armstrong reminded participants of the value of not attacking extremists, and of addressing the underlying reasons for the disillusion, bitterness and dismay that they voiced.
The observer for Palestine asked how the United Nations could help the world rid itself of double-standards. A panellist from an earlier session, Mohamed Arkoun, spoke from the audience to say that the United Nations must give its Members time to think. Mr. Moussa commented that the interest of powerful countries sometimes left no chance for tolerance. “Big powers” have resorted to double standards since the end of cold war and that was a major political trend in international politics. He called on all countries to move away from that line of thinking, which was leading to many problems and misunderstandings.
The representative of the Czech Republic suggested that being tolerant meant more than simply being “indifferent” to someone. Tolerance required an active relationship between two parties, to help them create a new, shared beginning. Mr. Diagne agreed, saying that tolerance meant being hospitable to difference.
In closing remarks, SHEIKHA HAYA RASHED AL KHALIFA, President of the General Assembly, thanked the Secretary-General for supporting the concept of a dialogue among civilizations and expressed appreciation to the panellists, who had kept the conversation lively. She also thanked Member States for their participation.
She said the current debate on civilizations and challenges for peace was the third of its kind, and recalled that the first debate had dealt with development and the second with gender equality. Those three debates, held for the first time in the General Assembly, constituted a unique opportunity for Member States to reach a common understanding on important international issues and the challenges facing the United Nations. The two-way thematic debates had been rich and varied, and Member States must now examine the ideas that had emanated from them. As with past debates, a summary of the highlights would be presented to Member States.
During the two-day debate, she had heard Member States expressing the need to consider, and take decisions on, “intellectual and scientific dimensions” of certain topics. The ideas from the just-concluded debate would form a basis for the future handling of United Nations discussions. Member States must fulfil the task of seeking a peaceful and secure world; dialogue was the gateway to change.
She remarked that, during the past year, she had had the opportunity to observe the misery faced by millions of people who suffered as a consequence of fatal indifference. She had learned, as well, that nations, if united in will, could overcome difficulties regardless of their size or shape. The purpose of the United Nations was to act as humanity’s collective conscience, and to establish peace by ending conflict and bringing countries together. Combating ignorance, alongside the elimination of illiteracy and poverty, was the duty of its Members.
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