An overlap of cultures, not a clash of civilizations
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.