Politics, not religion, is the root of conflict between Western and Muslim civilizations, argues a well-meaning report released on Monday from The Alliance of Civilizations, a commission of 20 "eminent persons" -- including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, religious historian Karen Armstrong, and former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami -- appointed last year by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to establish "a paradigm of mutual respect between civilizations and cultures."
The intent of the name is clear: To combat the thesis proposed by historian Samuel Huntington that the West and Islamic society are doomed to an inevitable "clash of civilizations."
That there is a clash is not disputed: "Nowhere have exclusivist ideologies, adversarial perceptions, cultural arrogance, and media stereotypes combined more dangerously with conflicts bred of perceived and real injustices than in relations between Western and Muslim societies."
And sitting at the center of this conflict, according to the report, are Israel and Palestine. Let's put aside the very real question of whether it makes any sense to try to separate religion from politics in the case of, say, who has the right to rule in Jerusalem. More discouragingly, the tensions embodied in the Israel-Palestine dispute mean that any attempt to seek mutual understanding, no matter how level-headed, will immediately be interpreted hostilely. But while it is not surprising that extremist right-wing media outlets like FrontPageNews are going ballistic about the report, one can only be taken aback at the exceptionally bad journalism practiced in an article about the report published in the mainstream outlet, the Christian Science Monitor. Warning that the report's "tone implies that it is unlikely to be well received by the United States and Israel," reporter Dan Murphy writes:
Criticism of U.S. policies, though at times oblique, is a major feature of the document and hits on themes that have angered representatives of the Bush administration in the past. For instance, in a discussion of Al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, the report states: "Later, these attacks were presented as one of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq, whose link with them has never been demonstrated, feeding a perception among Muslim societies of unjust aggression stemming from the West."
While that is indeed a common view in Muslim countries, it is unlikely to gain the favor of the current U.S. administration, whose representative to the United Nations, John Bolton, is an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq and a frequent critic of the world body.
This is a pretty baffling pair of paragraphs, since the statement quoted by Murphy is objectively true. If that's an example of the report's off-putting "tone," we might as well all pack our bags and go home now, because clearly, any attempt at dialogue on this issue is impossible, especially if satisfying the likes of John Bolton is a litmus test.
Focusing on media coverage of the report is relevant, because one of the things that most articles on the report failed to mention was just how much of the report's recommendations were devoted to influencing media portrayals of the conflict. "The power of words and images in shaping our understanding of the world cannot be overestimated," write the authors.
Media stereotypes fuel conflict, and the report's authors propose a host of action items aimed at promoting positive media portrayals of Muslims and "cross-cultural dialogue." Specific intention is devoted to the Internet. "Governments together with international organizations, governments and technology firms, should collaborate to expand Internet access, with particular attention to predominantly Muslim countries," and "religious leaders and civil society activists should establish a network of Web sites that link youth to religious scholars who can speak in constructive ways to the contemporary challenges facing youth today."
"The Internet," states the document, "is a key tool of information, providing a window to global media coverage and a wide range of resources."
It would be foolish, here at How the World Works, to disagree with such a statement, since it is an exeptionally apt summation of the raison d'etre of this blog. But when contemplating the Mideast, or any politically charged issue, it is all too easy to question how well the medium works in promoting "cross-cultural dialogue" and instead ponder how so often it is just another echo chamber for reinforcing pre-existing beliefs.
As I trace the information-exchange structures emerging on the Net that seek to explain the world in terms of economics, or geopolitics, or anything that is politically charged, the instances where different sides engage in truly constructive debate are rare. Instead of a global conversation that breaks down borders, more often what happens is that parallel conversations take place among communities that more or less agree with each other. If one side links to another, it generally takes place as part of an effort to prove the other wrong or mock their self-evident idiocy. Instead of reaching mutual undersanding, we are amassing ever more effective and well-researched support structures for what we already know.
It would be a great shame if all the Internet added up to was a way to hone debate skills. And looking at the world today, we have little choice but to keep on seeking common ground, and striving to generate consensus out of chaos. Maybe expanded Internet access in Iran and Qatar and Syria will bring us closer together. Or maybe, as the New York Times reported today, it will just give radical Islamic clerics -- the kind of people the Alliance of Civilizations report dismisses as "fringe" elements of Muslim society -- a more effective platform to spread their version of jihad.