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An overlap of cultures, not a clash of civilizations

March 22, 2012

An op-ed I wrote, published in The Sydney Morning Herald today:

Last month, US soldiers burned copies of the Koran at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Days later, young people destroyed 238 war graves in Benghazi, Libya.

Intentional insult or error of judgement, such acts can look like cultures at war as did the Taliban when it dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved in stone 15 centuries ago.

At such times, people might believe we are being tugged towards the nightmare that the American writer Samuel Huntington predicted in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations.

And yet…I remember King Abdullah of Jordan saying in a speech at Davos, “Let us avert the clash of civilisations, and help the overlap of cultures.”

An overlap – the idea is inspiring, especially compared to the alternative notion of monochrome monoliths burning one another’s books and smashing their statues.
There have been, in the world’s history, some very fine cultures of tolerance.

In southern Spain in medieval times, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked together in the polity known as al-Andalus.

One of the caliphs, Abd al-Rahman III, ruling between 912 and 961, appointed a devout Jewish scholar, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, as his foreign minister. Think of the symbolism: Islamic ruler, Jewish minister.

While Christian Europe’s largest libraries were small, the Caliph’s library at Cordoba reportedly burst with 400,000 volumes. Jews had their sacred literature translated into Arabic because they liked the sinuosity of the language.

As Maria Rosa Menocal wrote in The Ornament of the World, it was a society that had the courage to “live with its own flagrant contradictions.”

I’ve sometimes asked Chinese leaders as we’ve talked over dinner, “What was your favourite dynasty?”

In my experience, the Chinese usually nominate the Tang, ruling between 618 and 907. It was the time, according to one of my interlocutors, “… when China opened to the world and the world opened to China.”

Its sometime capital was Xi’an, a walled city of a million people with mosques and churches and Buddhist monasteries where ancient texts from India were being translated into Chinese. Persian princes in exile made it their home.

The grid-like streets were thronged with tradesmen, horsemen, acrobats and musicians who had travelled from central Asia along the silk route. According to recent research it was cosmopolitan, an era when the empire was full of foreigners learning from Chinese civilisation.

Sydney businessman, John Azarias, recently wrote an account of the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, whose “constant companions of the mind were the multi-ethnic worlds of the Seleucids, of the Ptolemies, of Byzantium and of the Ottomans”.

It was, as Azarias said, a “quintessentially Alexandrian spirit.” Again, the culture was untidy, contradictory, pluralistic – not a culture demanding conformity to a single religion on language.

Surely rich enough to fit King Abdullah’s ideal of “an overlap of cultures.” As I heard Bill Clinton say once, “Our differences make us interesting. Our common humanity is more important.”

What can we Australians do to steer the world away from Koran burnings and the bombing of Buddhas and towards peaceful overlap and pluralism?

We can make sure that our multicultural society continues to tick over. There is no need to fetishise multiculturalism or to give it a capital ‘M,’ but simply to relax into our easy-going Australian ethnic and cultural diversity, based on tolerance and respect.

We can redouble our efforts in the UN Alliance of Civilisations, sponsored by the governments of Spain and Turkey. We can enhance our work in the region for inter-faith dialogue.

We can work with Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim community, which continues to spurn extremism.

As Burma democratises we will give it aid to educate and feed its starving children. We will encourage it to resolve complex internal conflicts and to entrench human rights.

But we will also encourage it to value the evidence of its pluralistic past – like the precinct in Rangoon that includes a synagogue created by Jews from Iraq in the 1890s sitting next door to a 1914 Sunni Madrasa which, in turn faces a Hindu temple and a Hokkien temple, with Methodist, Catholic and Anglican churches all nearby.

Running foreign policy is not just about protecting our national interest although by every tenet of diplomatic doctrine that comes first.

It is also being an exemplary global citizen when it comes to protecting human rights and the world’s oceans.

To this I would like to add, we can also promote and defend cultural diversity, the idea of a planet of seven billion that celebrates and does not deny its contradictions.

This is an edited text of my maiden speech yesterday.

8 Comments
  1. March 22, 2012 1:14 pm

    Grateful for raising examples of hope amid complexity. Thank you

  2. March 22, 2012 1:35 pm

    An overlap of cultures – interesting and relevant idea.

    How do Australians help create or add to an overlap of cultures between itself, and it’s immediate neighbours? Indonesia has been cited, but there is also the large and growing chain of its Asian nations linked up toward China.

    On the other end is PNG and the Pacific Islands. With an overlap of cultures comes understanding and tolerance.

    The only country Australia should not be worried about regarding an overlap of cultures is good old NZ!

  3. Malcolm permalink
    March 22, 2012 7:31 pm

    The Seleucids, Ptolemies and Byzantium rulers were all very similar ethnically (Greek) and the Seleucids and Ptolemies fought some nasty wars for control of the Levant. Also the Seleuclids tried to forcibly Hellenise the Jews so let’s not get too dewy eyed about the past. Similarly the Ottomans ran a millet system which kept Muslims, Orthodox and Armenians well and truly apart. In all cases including Moorish Spain and Norman Sicly where there was some degree of tolerance, the ruling class was very mono-ethnic.

    What we need to promote is not a golden age of the past but a future built on liberal democratic ideals with a strong dose of Rawl’s overlapping consensus (and his justice as fairness principles)

  4. Bill Molyneux permalink
    March 22, 2012 8:07 pm

    It is not a position to either simplify or treat as an all nationalities solution. Yes you can have any number of nationalities melding and working with few major concerns– mainly with a basis in western cultures where English is a second language and the various ‘codes of christianity’ well understood, but where language and culture combine to create ongoing difficulties and generational problems of blending in, then sub cultures develop. These people function within a second level of a community with minimal interface with those who can converse openly in discussion forums. As was reported in todays media three chinese nationals who came to Australia on visitor visas were immediately recruited to make repeated bus trips between Melbourne and Sydney as money laundering mules. It would appear by their light sentences that their lack of language communication skills made them very susceptible to this recruitment. I repeat my oft uttered ‘rule’ that unless a common language is known and used on a day to day basis then enclaves where limited outside contact can only be a negative position in any attempts at integration. I also cannot beleive that any support for a divided Sharia law in Australia could be given any consideration, YET those who are proposing this from within would be suprised that there may be opposition to this.

  5. March 22, 2012 11:06 pm

    You could definitely see your enthusiasm in the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  6. March 23, 2012 7:37 am

    I have been a fan of yours since you were minister for education. I am glad you are back on the political scene as you are a giant intellect amidst an assortment of egos. Looking forward to your next position as PM Bob. Australia needs you if we are to find our way in the world as a great nation not just an also ran to the US.
    This article is stimulating and I thank you for that.

  7. Ralf Kluin permalink
    March 23, 2012 9:39 am

    As we traverse into this 21st century a fresh enlightenment is required by any number of us to deal with the problems of our times. I congratulate Prime Minister Gillard and the ALP Caucus whom have chosen Bob Carr. From my observation, Bob Carr has made it his business, using his intellectual skills, to demonstrate excellent and proven policy-making leadership. By accepting the job of Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and with the voting support of Parliament, he will diligently steer our foreign relationships as we face ongoing global challenges. Furthermore, some people, whom have lived through the 20th century Great Depression, and the Second World War, will also have been aware, amongst other events, of the explosion of technology into this century. I suppose that in this regard, our Australasian neighbours in the Pacific and Indian rim will be looking to us for our leadership and good “natured” advice and assistance. The sleeper affecting human survival is climate change, and the production of nutritious food and maintaining clean salt/fresh water is paramount for all living species. And it is in this respect that the words used by Bob Carr must be carefully analysed and understood as the impacts for the survival of life on Earth and our part in it, remains crucial in guaranteeing positive global outcomes for the species. We cannot afford any longer, to let as is being witnessed out of Mr Abbott’s spoken words and “negative” attitude, this ongoing doubtful rhetoric, concerning climate science and his anti-market “command-central ‘dictatorial’ styled economic-policy” to confuse reality. Only by enhancing the creative capacity inherent in most good people can we overcome the heavy pollution we’ve caused to make based on old technology. We have seen in the previous century, the impacts caused by those type of politicians as they condemn the lives of freedom loving people into penury. We must continue to vote for good foreign policy based upon a policy framework that reinforces the values of Freedom, Equality of Opportunity, Just-Laws and Order and Freedom of Speech, we will serve the “better angels” of humanity. On behalf of many of my family and friends I wish Bob Carr all the very best and good sailing.

  8. Valerie Davis permalink
    March 24, 2012 11:03 pm

    One needs to be careful with drawing boundaries around multiculturalism in terms of the value you ascribe to the original culture of the country vis a vis the newly arrived immigrant cultures. Part of what makes the countries of Europe so interesting to visit is that each country differs from each other as a result of the cultures that emerged and formed independently over the centuries. Unfortunately the present-day liberal ruling elite in Brussels appear indifferent at best to seeing this same history and tradition be subsumed in deference to the newly arrived minority cultures – for example the EU constitution cannot refer to Christianity for fear of offending some of the minorities and interest groups that have sprung up despite Christianity’s pivotal role in the making of European history and civilization for better or worse. To me this is a tragedy as I believe that one needs to have the gumption to recognise, protect and be proud of one’s heritage rather than attempting to disregard it for fear of causing offence. Multiculturalism also implicitly assumes all cultures are equal and can coexist alongside each other (I happen to take a skeptical view on this and I think events in the UK over the past 10 years lend support to my position). Multi culturalism can arguably work if the newly-arrived immigrants actively engage with the wider community and work on assimilation while still retaining aspects of their own traditions. However some aspects of the minority culture are just incompatible with traditions and rights of the host culture (for example due to religious reasons) and this can lead to long term ghetto-isation and fragmentation within society. This leads to a less integrated, less cohesive society where individuals don’t relate to each other, causing various societal problems and tensions. These consequences of multi culti are not appreciated enough I think in this overall discussion (the Germans are perhaps coming around to this viewpoint as of the last couple of years).

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