Interfaith Dialogue as applied Cultural Diplomacy Challenges and clashes

της Κατερίνας Δημητριάδη Msc στην Πολιτιστική Διπλωματική

More often than not, it has been argued that what is at stake in modern societies is the issue of identity and identity building. Religion plays a leading role in this process. Even though it would be constraining to argue that religion is the only factor shaping a person’s cultural identity,[1] it is undoubtedly the issue of tradition exceptionalism and religious beliefs that can legitimize the denial or reinforcement of the world’s system either through the rejection or through the affirmation of its norms and values.[2]

Thus, in a world of globalized economies and societies, religion seems not to have lost its importance. Empirical evidence indicates the exact opposite even in societies that have undergone the process of secularization.[3] Religion has always been a point of reference for people to feel a sense of belonging in a group or a means to retain coherence within societies.

However, religion is considered to have destructive consequences especially when it is expressed in the form of extremism. It can be argued that religion is put to the test, mainly because “Grand Narratives” and religious ideologies have been politicized and motivated to escalate and de-escalate “clashes”. Huntington’s clash thesis,[4] has had a serious impact on considering the challenges of an emerging post-secular era within an “us versus them” mentality.[5] Indeed, the construction of “the excluded other” as an enemy is of vital importance for the assertion of our own identity. The existence of the “other” culture or religion is a conditio sine qua non for the self-definition of our own culture and religion.[6]

Moreover, there is a growing disquiet in the Western world following the increase of terrorist attacks and violent extremist activity. The ensuing manifestation of xenophobia and racism have also been linked to the policies of multiculturalism that have been implemented in recent decades. It is claimed that multiculturalism has failed to prevent the isolation of cultures.  It is contended that multiculturalism is based on a superficial respect for diversity, without solving the social and economic problems arising from the exclusion of groups from the social corpus, which would gradually lead to the creation of an open society. Minority groups are ghettoized, provoking cultural confrontation and exclusion, whilst there is an upsurge of cultural or conservative nationalism.[7] As a result, racial fears and intolerance are legitimized hindering peaceful coexistence of divergent groups, the creation of inclusive societies or of a public space where we can all encounter one another.

Hence, there in an urgent need to build upon solid grounds to generate perception change.  Taking into consideration that the social determinants are mostly cultural, religion and culture as well as their interplay in constructing and asserting identities should be reexamined as soft power mechanisms in world politics. Interfaith Dialogue as applied Cultural diplomacy could work as an antidote that can have a favorable impact in a unification-seeking process, which will be based on shared values.

The significance of the concepts of culture and cultural values presents considerable variations. Nevertheless, cultures cannot engage in a relationship of interaction through cultural exchange, unless the conditions for mutual understanding of the values system of the parties involved, as well as the absence of bias or stereotypes, are met. Cultural diplomacy plays a central role in the creation of cooperative relations and frameworks.

The definition and scope of the concept of cultural diplomacy has a causal relationship with the political and social context in which it evolves as a phenomenon.

If cultural diplomacy is about “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding”,[8] what are the dimensions of cultural diplomacy within the framework of interfaith dialogue.

Interfaith dialogue can be defined as the “positive and cooperative interaction between people of different religions, faiths or spiritual beliefs, with the aim of promoting understanding between different religions to increase acceptance and tolerance”.[9] Interfaith dialogue as Cultural Diplomacy is practiced by different actors and groups. Their efforts to promote acceptance of religions by creating interfaith and interreligious networks is of great importance for the development of cooperative action to create a “culture of peace”.

Interfaith dialogue is not based on missions of conversion or persuasion. It does not abide by sacred texts nor sustains claims of exclusive truths. It requires synergies to build bridges between followers of different religions and cultures in order to eliminate biases, ignorance and misunderstanding, which ignite extremism and hatred. Its goal is to establish communities in which constructive dialectical processes facilitate awareness, cooperation, respect and tolerance. By giving people from diverse religious backgrounds the opportunity to interact with each other, to discuss about the different aspects of their faiths, they will be able to realise, at least to a certain extent,[10] that in fact divergent perceptions or worldviews should not be a barrier for humility, trust building and forgiveness.

What is more, religion can be viewed as a soft power mechanism, which can contribute to global governance. Specifically, Steiner suggests that an extension of Nye’s notion of soft power[11] “as an accountability mechanism for power in world politics”,[12] reveals that the engagement of religious leaders in dialogue with political leaders can put into serious question the legitimacy of policies followed. Such a voicing of global ethics, could affect decision makers, as long as it is for the benefit of the weak and the vulnerable.

Thus, interfaith dialogue can play a key role in the field of Cultural Diplomacy.[13] By fostering dialogue among divergent groups and a sense of unity through multiplicity for a common cause, it can promote global peace, reconciliation and transform animosity to sustainable cooperation in conflict resolution.

[1] Bilgin, P. (2012). Civilisation, dialogue, security: the challenge of postsecularism and the limits of civilisational dialogue. Review of International Studies, 38 (5), 1099-1115. doi: 10.1017/S0260210512000496, p. 1099.

[2] Steiner, S. (2011). Religious Soft Power as Accountability Mechanism for Power in World Politics:

The InterFaith Leaders’ Summit(s). SAGE Open. Volume: 1 issue: 3, Article first published online: November 2, 2011; Issue published: October 1, 2011.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244011428085

[3] See Casanova, J. (2006). “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective. The Hedgehog Review, 8, 7-22.

[4] Huntington, Samuel (1998). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, London˙ New York: Touchstone Books.

[5] Bilgin, p. 1103.

[6] See Koechler, H. (2002). “After September 11, 2001: Clash of Civilisations or Dialogue?”, Lecture at the University of the Philippines, Asian Center, Manila.

[7] See Taylor, Ch. (2015). Polipolitismikotita. Eksetazontas tin politiki tis anagnorisis (Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Athens: Polis.

[8] Cummings, M. (2003). Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: a Survey. Washington, Center for Arts and Culture.

[9] Academy for Cultural Diplomacy. Cultural Diplomacy Research Historical Examples of Inter-faith Dialogue Achievements. Available at http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/index.php?en_historical-examples (Accessed 10/7/2017).

[10] Concerning the limitations of such processes see Abu-Nimer, M. (2001). “Conflict Resolution, Culture, and Religion: Toward a Training Model of Interreligious Peacebuilding”. Journal of Peace Research, vol. 38, no. 6, 2001, pp. 685–704Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks,CA and New Delhi) [0022-3433(200111)38:6; 685–704; 019467.

[11] Joseph Nye defines soft power as the ability to get others to want the outcomes that you want through culture, values and ideas. See Nye, J. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.

[12] Steiner, p. 1

[13] Academy for Cultural Diplomacy. Cultural Diplomacy Research Historical Examples of Inter-faith Dialogue Achievements. Available at http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/index.php?en_historical-examples. (Accessed 10/7/2017).

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