Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Civilisations don’t have to clash, but they do have to talk

Given that communication is perhaps the most significant common denominator across all cultures and all continents, it is surprising how difficult it can often be to communicate at an intercultural level. Which is why, I suppose, disputes are just as common across most cultures.

The importance of communication at the inter- and intra-cultural level is explored in the book The Dialogue of Civilisations: The Self and the Other by the renowned Emirati author Mana Saeed al Otaiba.
The book’s intention is to point the way to achieving a more harmonious Arab-Muslim-Western dialogue. But before discussing the book, it would be helpful to first examine, briefly, the background of the author.
After all, there is a popular saying that “the fruit does not fall far from the tree”. So learning about the man will provide an idea about his beliefs – and how much weight we, as readers, should place on what he says.
Dr al Otaiba gained his PhD from the University of Cairo with flying colours in 1976. He has written many books in Arabic that discuss language, civil society, gender, education, and migration. He is also a successful entrepreneur – the chairman of Noor Capital – an advisor to both the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, and the current President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, and a six-times president of Opec. And if all that weren’t enough, he is a prolific poet and currently the Director of Arabic Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. A set of credentials that tell us he is a man we should listen to and take seriously.
Back to the book, the title immediately tells us what to expect: a dialogue rather than the more fashionable “clash” of civilisations”. It is a topic the book extensively explores, dividing the subject into three parts, with an enlightening introduction that clarifies key terms such as “civilisations”, “culture” and “dialogue”.
In Part One, the author expounds on the importance of communication between civilisations. He argues that dialogue can either be a choice or a duty. He brings history into the discussion, explaining the valuable contributions Arab-Islamic civilisations have made over the centuries to inter-cultural dialogue.
The second part, with the title, “Obstacles and Dialogue”, is mainly concerned with the challenges that anyone wanting to participate in a cross-cultural dialogue are likely to encounter. Dr al Otaiba’s argument, essentially, is that meaningful communication between civilisations is not an easy process as both sides continually encounter what is best termed “conflicts of interest”.
Such conflicts are particularly hard to resolve as, once raised, the opposing cultures have to make concerted efforts to continue the process of dialogue before they can find a mutually agreeable solution. This section of the book does more than simply extol the importance of dialogue between civilisations, but emphasises that in the modern world it is essential if the conflicts aren’t to degenerate into something far more serious.

“Spaces and Horizons of Dialogue,” is the title Dr al Otaiba gives to the third section. His argument is that economic progress should be a means for promoting mutual understanding among people and cultures. He advocates different cultures sharing with each other their progress across the whole range of human activity: industry, education, agriculture, tourism, etc.

As a result of the processes of globalisation, different cultures and countries are having more contact with each other anyway. The “global village” that we all talk about means that we are all more likely to interact with one another. If there is to be less conflict, not more, then cultures should make communicating with each other a priority. As the book points out, the progress of one particular culture could be directly affected by the way it communicates with another.

In many ways, Dr al Otaiba is a mouthpiece – and a representative – for the entire region. The Middle East in recent years has become synonymous with cultural disputes. However, as this book so ably demonstrates, it is this region that also supplies the thinkers with solutions to the problem. The Dialogue of Civilisations is required reading.

The Dialogue of Civilisations is translated into English and published by the Red Sea Press and Africa World Press

By Dr Salem Humaid, an Emirati writer and researcher in cultural and anthropological studies based in Dubai.

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