Opening Speech by H.E. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations at the Palm and the Pine Tree Cross-Cultural Dialogue Between the Arab World and Europe: Common Goals for Mutual Development Oui Manzu 44th International Conference
Rimini 26-27 October 2013
Friends and Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am privileged as the High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, to have the opportunity to address this distinguished and diverse audience, in the beautiful town of Rimini, Italy.
I sincerely wish to thank the Pio Manzu Centre for organizing and hosting this event and for your kind invitation to speak at the 44th edition of the International Conference on “Cross-cultural dialogue between the Arab world and Europe: common goals for mutual understanding.”
In Rimini, every year hundreds of people from different parts of the world with different religions, ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, professions come together. Today, we convene again to reinforce the importance of dialogue between diverse cultures.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The whole world is currently undergoing the most profound upheaval in its modern history. The current wave of multifaceted challenges has profoundly shaken the Globe in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago.
Women, men, and youth around the region have voiced demands for political and economic inclusion, increased opportunities and social mobility, and a new relationship between state and society forged on human rights, social justice, equality, non-discrimination, public participation, and accountability. Such instability may impede global efforts towards achieving sustainable development.
Severe contradictions within societies have been exposed raising uncertainty about what the future may hold. Such uncertainty generates fear and conflict.
Given this instability and conflict, dialogue across political, social and cultural boundaries becomes increasingly important for better understanding and strengthened partnerships.
At a time full of great expectations, but also increased complexities, the need to reinforce dialogue between the shores of the whole world, in particular the Mediterranean, is now more important than ever.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Conflict has often characterized the relations between Europe and the Islamic world at various points in our common history. Some have laid the blame for this on cultural, religious or social differences. In my view however, Western or European perceptions of the Islamic world in general and the Middle East in particular have been as much defined by the imbalance in power relations as by any claimed cultural differences. As the well known Edward Said claimed in his seminal work, “Orientalism (the West’s view of the Orient) is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West”. In short, the so-called clash of civilizations may reflect more an imbalance of political and economic power, than from anything to do with culture, religion or traditions. There is no doubt that inequality in the respective levels of socio-economic development between the two sides of the Mediterranean has affected the way in which states and peoples interact. I invite all of you to join me in rejecting and combating the clash of civilization.
These differences of politics and economics also influenced perceptions. Individuals on both sides projected the other as fundamentally different, in terms of values and traditions. Under these conditions, neither side could reach a common understanding. The gap continues to persist because of many factors, such as the media, migration, and education.
In this regards, diplomats, decision makers, Civil Society Actors and Academia and in particular Religious and Political leaders have great responsibilities on their shoulders.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The modern media is a source of information that is highly important for national populations. This industry can, therefore, greatly influence public opinion by the kind of information it selects to disseminate.
Selective information policy may exist within any country. Media can be used as a propaganda machine to present a distorted view of an outside and aggressive world, sometimes justified, sometimes not. It can also play a constructive role.
Education as well, can sometimes be used to misinform and fuel the divide, especially among young people.
For example, it was brought to my attention that some religious schools in West and East assign books that portray the other as strong and uncomfortable rivals to one another.
All this serves to reinforce the negative stereotyping of our nations. If we do not change that, the next generation will have to pay the price.
Discriminatory policies and practices have gotten worse. As a result, Islamophobia, or fear and hatred of Muslims and their culture and beliefs, has become more apparent among European citizens. In addition, some political parties and interest groups have deliberately propagated Islamophobia for political ends.
The gap between Europe and the Islamic world, develop and developing countries, rich and poor, preceded the current century. Only recently, in the crisis of the post-9/11 world, have the issues emerged into the forefront of our priorities. The international community needs to face these challenges without further delay.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Given a global system that faces both political and economic crisis, we must make greater efforts to strengthen international law and institutions. The United Nations was founded on the idea of the sovereignty and equality of nations. An alliance of civilizations must be based on the strongest possible commitment to international law and recognition of the sovereignty of nations, regardless of their historical, cultural and social traditions. In other words, the basis for rapprochement must be mutual respect among countries and adherence to arrangements established in the UN Charter for relations between states.
Rapid socio-economic and political changes are requiring Arab and Islamic nations, western and southern countries to strengthen relations with the EU and one another and other economic powers through diplomatic outreach, development projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. In doing so, they seek to reinforce their roles in the geopolitical and geo-economic arena and to address the power imbalance that currently exists.
European-Gulf economic and trading relations have steadily expanded, since the Arab Gulf states provide approximately 20% of the EU’s energy requirements. As such, there is a need to explore more avenues of economic cooperation and partnership, especially outside those specifically related to energy resources.
States from all parts of the world recognize that we all depend on the same planet and its limited resources to survive and thrive. We must also be aware that how we share and utilize those resources becomes a critical issue as our global population increases and our resources diminish over the coming generations. In the struggle to achieve a sustainable sharing of natural resources, the centrality of international cooperation will assume greater importance in the dialogue among states than cultural, religious and social differences.
We must have a viable framework for international dialogue on pressing economic and social issues. The Millennium Development Goals provide one possible framework that could ensure inputs from many countries and regions. But it is not the only framework since peace and security have to go hand in hand with economic development. In this context, the role of the United Nations, collective decision-making and consensus, takes on added importance.
I would like to take this moment to recognize the role that Italy plays in fostering relations with the Gulf and North African States. Specifically, it continues to boost prospects for national reconciliation social and economic revival in these countries.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am proud to say that the efforts of the Alliance of Civilizations are already bearing some fruit. On December 3rd and 4th, the Lisbon Forum 2012 under the title “The Arab Season: from change to challenges” brought together more than 200 participants and representatives from civil society, local and regional authorities, elected assemblies and governments from across the Mediterranean. This was a rare and useful opportunity of dialogue, interaction and networking.
Moreover, the Lisbon Forum 2012 was a direct follow-up of the 2011 Forum on “The Arab Spring: a major step towards making universal human rights real,” organized by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe, in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the Aga Khan Network, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal. There, relevant international actors actively contributed to the event, in particular the League of Arab States, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, and the International Federation for Human Rights.
These two Forums were modest steps to bridge the gap between the Arab World and Europe.
At the end of the Lisbon Forum of 2012, participants welcomed new opportunities for increased participation between Europe and the southern and eastern Mediterranean, in particular the ones offered by the ambitious EU-Council of Europe Joint Programme, “Strengthening democratic reform in the southern Neighbourhood.” This provides for a targeted cooperation based on a demand-driven approach
Despite positive and progressive steps, our goal of finding common ground is yet to be achieved.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Alliance of Civilizations is one entity in the UN that is especially devoted to promoting dialogue and foster understanding.
As a platform for inclusive dialogue aimed at contributing to trust and understanding among peoples with different cultural backgrounds, the UN Alliance of Civilizations’ focuses among others on improving relations within and among the so-called “Western” and Islamic societies and on addressing persistent tensions and divides.
To achieve these goals, we strive to develop varied, wide-ranging approaches to the four pillars of the Alliance – education, youth, media and migration – with the added priorities of my tenure – sports, music, the arts and other forms of human expression – in order to break down walls, build bridges and share experiences. Additionally, the Alliance focuses on promoting mediation and sustainable development. Through our diverse initiatives, we aim to bring people together beyond national boundaries.
Specifically, targeting the youth in Europe and Islamic Nations is a matter that I consider a top priority. Many of our initiatives are based on the conviction that youth are the driving force for change. In this respect, education, both formal and non formal, plays a key role to secure lasting change in the future.
The Alliance, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, further developed PLURAL+, a youth video festival that promotes migration, diversity and social inclusion. Through this, young people worldwide will be exposed to ideas of pluralism and cross-cultural understanding.
The Alliance has also launched its fellowship programme, aimed at facilitating the exposure of emerging leaders from both worlds to media, culture, politics, institutes, civil society and religion. This provides another opportunity for exchange and dialogue across borders.
Additionally, UNAOC developed, in partnership with the BMW Group, the Intercultural Innovation Award, which supports the most innovative cross-cultural projects, helping them to scale up and replicate.
The Alliance has continued to develop programmes that ensure a diversity of voices and free quality content. Specifically, UNAOC built on the pas article series, entitled “Religion and the public space” to further promote diversity in the media.
The Alliance also works towards bridging the divide through other faith-inspired initiatives. Specifically, a platform, led by Switzerland aims to address the lack of cooperation between Faith Based Organizations in the development and humanitarian field, in particular between Western and Muslim organizations.
Religion has a profound effect on people’s behaviors and practices. Furthermore, historical and contemporary links among religious and humanitarian values exist. As such, faith can facilitate cooperation and help us find common ground.
I would like to bring to your attention concrete examples of the UNAOC work in strengthening intercultural and interreligious dialogue. In the field of media, we have been particularly active in skill and capacity building with training for media professionals to do better reporting. We understand the importance to use culturally sensitive resources for this purpose.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Similarly, the UNAOC is embarking on an innovative project over the next twelve months that will monitor hate speech in the media in relation to specific cross-cultural events and incidents in both the North and South of the Mediterranean.
By so doing, the UNAOC is taking the lead in strengthening discussion among media professionals on ways of improving standards of reporting to avoid intolerance and hate speech.
We all know how much hate speech is spreading and affecting our societies, including both north and south of the Mediterranean.
As open and sincere dialogue across cultures is reinforced, I am confident that we will be able to promote mutual understanding in order to tackle our major challenges.
The level of interdependence has increased tremendously over the past decades. As such, the principle of solidarity and partnership should contribute to fuel a new season of cooperation. The role of education and enhanced intercultural dialogue are, but one, key in this respect. More efforts are required to overcome religious and culture related biases.
As 2015 quickly approaches, with less than 850 days left to design the post 2015 agenda, efforts should be redoubled to strengthen the relations between Europe and the Middle East. In designing the new agenda, several factors must be considered. Specifically, the new development agenda must incorporate a diversity of voices, particularly from Europe and the Middle East.
In designing the Post 2015 Agenda, and specifically the Sustainable Development Goals, we must make this a priority. We can learn from our previous endeavors and place the SDGs within this context.
In this regard, the Alliance of Civilizations is right on target with the concerns of the Post 2015 Development Agenda.
The whole world will not change automatically. I, personally, pledge to strengthen the ability of the Alliance to contribute to this noble vision.
I am confident that the Pio Manzu Center, situated in the beautiful country of Italy, can contribute to cross-cultural dialogue between the Arab World and Europe to lead a renaissance in the relationship between the two civilizations, in much the same way that the Italian people led Europe through the Renaissance 600 years ago.
I thank you all for your attention.