Opening Remarks by His Excellency Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser
at the Rhodes Forum
30 September 2016
Thank you, Dr. Vladimir Yakunin, Founder and President of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations,” and thank your colleagues on the Executive Committee for your kind invitation.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by recalling the tremendous optimism of the early days of the twenty first century. The Cold War had ended, and technology was bringing the citizens of the world ever closer together, ushering in what we expected to be an era of unprecedented global cooperation. The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Millennium Declaration, affirming our shared values and setting goals for development and poverty eradication, security and disarmament, human rights, and the protection of our common environment. How did we get from that moment of such hope to the present international chaos?
While nearly 200 world leaders were adopting this landmark Declaration, long dormant nationalisms and ethnic identities were being reawakened, often in the same places where people’s economic and social aspirations were most frustrated. During our global euphoria, it had been all too easy to overlook that the benefits of globalization were not being shared in a just or equitable way. The gap between rich and poor was growing, with the increasing depletion of natural resources compounding the problem. Culture and identity were becoming the refuge of all those excluded and left behind, and would soon bring whole regions back into chaos and conflict.
Meanwhile, the Internet and the rise of social media in particular were changing how the world communicates. News and events that would have once been local, perhaps regional at most, began “going viral,” affecting populations that are oceans apart. And just as this new paradigm of connectedness was bringing us closer together, the internet was becoming a new vehicle for the proliferation of racist attitudes and hate speech, and was soon put to use for terrorist purposes.
The UNAOC was born at a critical juncture, when the world faced a potential cultural confrontation, the result of the criminal fanaticism of a band of terrorists who, before hijacking commercial flights and turning them into weapons of mass destruction, planned to hijack a faith of peace – Islam, my faith.
Faced with this new fanaticism that risked to pit the West against the Muslim World and lead to the “clash of civilizations” predicted a decade earlier by Samuel Huntington, the international community heeded the urgent call of two European powers, Spain and Turkey – one Christian, the other Muslim — for the establishment of a new UN organization with the objective of countering the tide of intolerance and misunderstanding unleashed by the September 11 tragedy.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) was established in response to the recommendations of a High Level Group composed of eminent persons widely acknowledged for their wisdom and their vision.
The institution was intended to equip the United Nations with a new tool of preventive diplomacy to apply to situations of cultural and identity tensions in a world both blessed and damned by the new paradigm of globalization.
The daunting challenge was and remains how to manage diversity to make it work to the benefit of all, instead of becoming a source of tensions and conflicts. Seen from this perspective, the UNAOC can be considered as one of our best hopes to counter polarization across and within societies.
The truth is — today more than at any other time in history — diversity is the reality that informs human life: diversity in nations and cities, tribes and villages, in ethnicities and identities, in beliefs, faiths, and traditions.
The question for the international community and policy makers in general is therefore: How to manage diversity and turn it into an incubator of progress, peace, and security — locally, nationally, and internationally?
Often what we fear most, we ascribe to those so-called “others” as a way of legitimizing our fears. Indeed, the purpose of much of the UN’s work, and certainly the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations’ work, is to remind us of our common dignity and our common responsibility to the world we share. This is not a mere sentiment. It is a view that has deep and practical consequences in how we carry and conduct ourselves in the world.
Regrettably the loudest voices tend to get the microphones. Cameras focus on the fringe. In this context, we, at the UNAOC, are trying to enhance the level of public debate on identity-based conflicts through skill-building training with journalists around the world.
Not just in the area of youth and media, but in all areas of the Alliance’s programming, our ability to deliver on our goals is based on meaningful partnerships on the ground. Here, the sum of diplomatic experience has shown me time after time that religious leaders, academia, civil society organizations, and the corporate sector have a critical role to play in fostering understanding, respect for diversity and tolerance. All of these human values lie in the heart of the mission of the Alliance. The UNAOC is a true reflection of the aims and the principles of the UN Charter.
Since I am speaking in Europe, allow me to reflect for a moment on the history of Western-Islamic relations, as I often do when I have a chance to address a European audience.
What does that history teach us? It teaches us that Christianity existed long before Europe was Christian, and that for more than seven centuries, Christianity continuously interacted with the Muslim world. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, this interaction gave rise to a continuum of exchanges, material and intellectual, commercial and cultural, which profoundly influenced both sides.
European identity was forged over the course of this process. It can be unequivocally stated that European medieval identity and, later, European national identities were nourished by the philosophical, scientific, and artistic advances of Islam.
Although many studies have demonstrated the historic meshing of European and Muslim identities in a process of mutual influence, the denial of a Muslim heritage persists in the European subconscious today.
This denial is linked to mistaken beliefs such as that Muslim communities in the West are somehow alien to the West, or a phenomenon of the 20th century. In Europe there are between 20 and 25 million Muslim citizens according to most reliable estimates. They are at home, yet uncomfortably so because they are viewed as being separate from the national communities of which they are a part. And today they are viewed as potential terrorists.
To be sure, the perception gap between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority in Europe can be traced to many political, economic, and social causes. Both points of view are missing an important piece of the picture – seven centuries during which the destinies of Europe and Islam were, for better or for worse, inseparable. To acknowledge this missing link would not only correct a major historical omission – it would build valuable pathways between the two groups and a shared sense of European identity.
European Muslims today contribute to the prosperity and brilliance of their various countries. They are active in the production of material goods as well as academic and cultural achievements – in science, literature, art, architecture, fashion, cuisine, and many other fields. Highlighting these contributions through research and incorporating them into textbooks would be a noble task for the scholars among you — a task that I would strongly encourage.
The situation of migrants in general is fraught with potential for controversy. I spoke earlier of the uneasy status of Muslim immigrants in Europe; in our global world in which migration is increasing and will continue to increase despite more daunting border restrictions, it is sometimes tempting to see only one side of the picture. Far-right groups and political parties do not hesitate to point to immigrants as the source of their nations’ troubles, blaming them for increasing criminality, national budget deficits, falling educational standards, and worse.
On the other hand, when civil society idealizes immigrant communities, giving immigrants the illusion that they can defy social and legal norms at no cost, they undermine the consensus on how to live together, making it more difficult for immigrants to integrate and condemning them to a marginalized life in their new country — in the case of children of immigrants, the only country they know.
Let me conclude with few remarks on the future — the future of our living together. You will agree with me that the daunting challenge for our societies in the near and, more so, in the long-term future will be how to live peacefully with the other: he or she who does not share the color of our skin, our deeply-held beliefs or traditions, or our language, but who is our neighbor or colleague in this globalized world in which borders have become fluid, if not obsolete.
More than ever, the wise idiom, “live and let live,” will be of great value. The virtues of tolerance, mutual respect, moderation, and reason, if taught seriously in schools, upheld in the home, and practiced in daily civic life could save future generations from collective catastrophes like those of the last century.
Not only does diversity matter even more tomorrow than it does today: it is our inescapable human condition. The question is how to equip future generations with the tools that will enable them to make this coexistence an experience of peace, creativity, personal happiness, and a better life for all.
Non-governmental organizations such as the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” can play a major role in this regard, as should our religious organizations, civil society groups, political parties, and, I emphasize, international organizations such as the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
Let’s all work together to make this brighter future possible.