The Iman Foundation

Iman Chairman discusses need for greater dialogue between civilisations with Secretary General of the Francophonie

Monday, 12 November 2012

On the twenty first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the respected Berlin based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy invited the Chairman of Iman to deliver a keynote speech on pluralism, challenging extremism and the Middle East.

Ribal Al-Assad addressed a distinguished audience of diplomats, scholars and political figures, at the “World Without Walls” conference in Berlin, on Monday 8 November. The conference made the case for cultural diplomacy and soft power in building peace and supporting reconciliation.

In his keynote address, Ribal Al-Assad said:

“Whether it is through excellent institutions, such as the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, or through the vital work of organisations like the British Council in the UK, we must double our efforts to embed the enduring ideas of pluralism, tolerance, education and democracy – for they are amongst the noblest, and most beneficial concepts ever to have taken hold in our societies.”

He stressed the need to use the right methods and language in the fight against extremism:

"A profound and uncomfortable truth remains; prevailing Western thought has not moved much beyond Edward Said’s description of Orientalism; that is, the assumptions underlying Western opinion of the East as something unknown; something profoundly different.

"Can we bridge this cultural gap when so many in the West still think of “the other” when considering the Middle East? Years after the expression was first put forward, there are those who still speak of the notion of a “clash of civilisations.” Some people like to think of this phrase as a clever way of articulating the relationship between the West and the East. Or to put it crudely, as some do, between Islam and Christianity.

"Those who seek to contribute to this debate must use words responsibly; for in a battle of ideas, words are remarkably powerful. My friends, “War on Terror” is a conceptually flawed term. It suggests that there is a fixed enemy, and that it can be defeated by military efforts alone. If we speak of an “enemy” as if they wear uniforms and march under a flag, then we commit a dangerous act of simplification. The importance of using the correct language in categorising terrorism cannot be underestimated. For example, the use of the term Islamo-Fascism means nothing to Muslims, and only serves to further widen the gulf between the West and the Muslim world. This is the myth of the “clash of civilisations” and it hinders constructive engagement between Muslims and non-Muslims. Civilisations are not clashing: they are diverging.

"As the West advances at an ever faster pace towards economic, social and scientific heights, there are places in this world that are utterly unable to keep up. Violence in the name of Islam repulses me in a way that I cannot describe. But we will commit ourselves to a terrible mistake if we label such acts as a clash of civilisations. Instead, we must seize this moment, now, here, at this point in history to forge greater friendships and relationships between the peoples of this world who do not hide behind terror and violence.

"Western governments must support the great majority of mainstream Muslim writers, entrepreneurs, philosophers, human rights activists, journalists, publishers, editors and civil society leaders. The military efforts in Afghanistan are being supported now more than ever by increased development and aid, and this must become a central pillar of the West’s campaign to weaken and ultimately defeat the creed of perverted Islamist violence."

He concluded:

"We must seek to plant the seeds of pluralism in every school, village, town hall, Parliament, Senate and country of the world. All of us here today have a duty to support and encourage the free movement and exchange of ideas, not just goods. We must speak up when we see nations holding back the potential and the hopes of their people. We must encourage free-market economies and inclusive, modern schools. It is from these foundations that pluralism grows. Pluralism tackles extremism. It opens minds. It opens economies. It provides information. It encourages tolerance. It frees us from the past and yes, it can free people from the present.

"We are here in Berlin, where the free people of Berlin brought down the Berlin wall. But unfortunately there are many walls in the world that remain unbroken – walls within religions, between religions and between cultures. Let us come together and say that we will use all our will, all our technology, all our diplomacy, all our compassion and all our humanity to break those walls, and to unleash and set free the cultural, social and political energy that has brought us all here today, for the benefit of those that cannot be with us. Thank you."

Following the speech Ribal Al-Assad joined a panel discussion on “A World without Walls: Barriers to Equality and Coexistence.” The distinguished panel comprised of Ribal Al-Assad, Janez Janša (former Prime Minister of Slovenia), Dr. Miomir Zuzul (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Croatia), George Galloway (former British MP), Dr Jan Oborg (Director & Co-Founder of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research) and Mark Donfried (Founder and Director of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy) who moderated the discussion. The discussion focused on the the barriers to equality and co-existence for minority ethnic communities including Muslims in European countries.

After the panel discussion, Ribal Al-Assad was given the honour of proposing the toast at the conference gala dinner. He said, " I would like to propose a toast: to the spirit and ideals of this conference; that our divisions melt away, that our cultures may enrich one another, and that peace becomes the fountain from which we all may drink." The toast was well received.

On Tuesday 9th November, Ribal Al-Assad joined a panel discussion on "The 21st Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and its Impact on Global Politics: Predicting the Major Developments in Global Politics over the Next Two Decades." The distinguished panel comprised of Ribal Al-Assad, Dr Jan Oborg (Director & Co-Founder of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research), Dr Luc Reychler (Professor of International Relations, University of Leuven; Director of the Center of Peace Research and Strategic Studies (CSIS)),Dr Ahmad Ali Jalali (Former Interior Minister of Afghanistan), who moderated the discussion. Ribal Al-Assad talked extensively about the threat posed by Islamist extremism in the Middle East.

The conference was also attended by Lord Jack McConnell, Former First Minister of Scotland, Joaquim Chissano, Former President of Mozambique, and Dr. Alfredo Palacio, Former President of Ecuador.

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