Ismail Serageldin


The Challenges of Cultural Diversity

 09/12/2007 | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I have been asked to address Cultural diversity.  But before I sketch out some of these challenges and suggest some questions for our consideration, I want to bring in a viewpoint that has not been sufficiently heard in these proceedings to this moment.  It is the viewpoint of the enlightened Muslim and humanist Arab, who finds the foundations for that attitude in the tradition that is presently identified by some who want to promote the clash of civilizations as the source of instability and the fount of intolerance, not to say terror.


I.  The Muslim and Arab Heritage:


Prof. Gremeck asked for a scientific historical analysis.  Well let me give you factual information about the Muslim heritage, that heritage that created Andalusia, that promoted science and learning during the dark ages of Europe, and that allowed such brilliant non-Muslim thinkers as Maimonides to flourish.


Andalusia was a marvelous mix of different communities, where Jews, Christians and Muslims consorted together and produced great poetry, architecture, science, philosophy and literature.  This contrasts with the conditions imposed by the Catholics after the defeat of the Arabs in Cordoba (1492), not to mention the infamous inquisition that followed (The Spanish Inquisition set up by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1478 with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV).  The Roman Inquisition, set up by Pope Paul III in 1542, supervised all the inquisitions against heretics, and the most famous trial was that of Galileo in 1633.


Contrast this with Arabs and Muslims meeting Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science:

They did not declare them heretics and burn their books.  They translated them into Arabic and wrote exegetes about their theses. They referred to Plato and Aristotle as Al-Hakimain, the two wise men.  Al-Farabi took what suited him from the legacy of Hellenism and founded the early constructs of the Muslim philosophical tradition.  This open attitude to knowledge and learning, this respect for other cultures is perhaps best exemplified by Al-Ma’amun, the son of the great Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who founded in Baghdad Beit Al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, where old manuscripts when translated into Arabic, earned their translators their weight in gold.  They recreated the great tradition of openness that prevailed in the ancient Library of Alexandria, and helped the intermingling of cultures.  They laid the foundation for the renaissance, and helped bring numerals and the zero from India to Europe (where they were called Arabic numerals).

Indeed, contrary to general perception, it was the Arabs and Muslims, who defined the modern scientific method, and who created the climate of openness and tolerance that allowed science to flourish during the middle ages.   Names like El Khwarizmi, El Razi,  Ibn Al-Nafis, Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, are forever engraved in the honor roll of humanity’s benefactors through their efforts at advancing knowledge and rejecting superstition.  Listen to their powerful, modern voices as it speaks to us through the centuries.


Listen to the modern voice of Ibn Al-Haytham (965–c.1040) , known in the West as Al Hazen:


“He who searches for truth is not he who reviews the works of the ancients… It is the duty of he who reads science books, if he wants to learn truths, that he should set himself up as an opponent to all he looks at.. [accepting only what is supported by evidence and argument].”


---  Ibn Al Haytham, Al Shukuk Fi Batlaymous


Furthermore, Ibn Al-Haytham did lay down the rules of the modern scientific method centuries before the appearance of Bacon, Descartes or Galileo.  Listen to his description of how the scientific method should operate, through observation, measurement, experiment and conclusion:


“We start by observing reality … we try to select solid (unchanging) observations that are not affected by how we perceive (measure) them.  We then proceed by increasing our research and measurement, subjecting premises to criticism, and being cautious in drawing conclusions… In all we do, our purpose should be balanced not arbitrary, the search for truth, not support of opinions”.


---  Ibn Al-Haytham, (965–c.1040)  Kitab Al-Manadhir.


This is a truly amazing description of the modern scientific method, which was way ahead of its time!


Likewise, listen to the voice of  Ibn Al-Nafis  on accepting the contrarian view, subject to the test of evidence and rational analysis.


“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly.  Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies.  Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is.” 


--- Ibn Al-Nafis, Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun.


These are stellar lights in the history of science and in the advance of knowledge. They are our forbearers and we, the Muslims and Arabs of today,  should be their proud disciples. We need to recapture that great tradition. It is our tradition, our history, our legacy.


Worthy of note is that the tolerance in society is general, it is not just related to the scientific work.  Contemporary to Ibn Al-Haytham in Egypt, Abul Alaa’ Al-Ma’ari (973-1057) lived in Syria.  Al-Ma’ari, a giant of Arabic literature, wrote poetry attacking religion, God and the prophets, and he was not punished for it, even though it generated a certain amount of opprobrium attached to his name.  His work was not only published and known in his own time, it has arrived down to us, now in the 21st century without loss.  Even more, he was appreciated for his talent as a poet and a linguist even by those who totally rejected his heretical writings.


For me, this is the tradition that Muslims and Arabs should be proud of.  They took the torch and carried it for centuries, and if today the torch has passed to the west, we should be proud that we have done our share and more in earlier times, and should strive to take our place, by dint of hard work and innovation, alongside our western colleagues at the forefront of the global endeavor to create a knowledge based, just and tolerant society.


How different these enlightened voices from the past sound compared to the frenetic ranting and condemnations of everything that is new and different that we see and hear everywhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds today!  Armed with our past legacy, we can push for the modernization of our values so that they become the values of modernization.


II.  The Muslim world Today


Why was this possible a thousand years ago and is not even imaginable in the Muslim World of today?


Why did the Muslim World produce such havens of cosmopolitanism as Andalusia, yet today societies go on a rampage for some cartoons (offensive as they may have been) and cannot even tolerate some children naming a teddy bear “Mohamed”?


We all belong to multiple groups, to multiple realities, which were referred to as a “variable geometry” or the complexity of the society which is simultaneously local, regional, national and transnational, and even transcendental, across time and space.   Yet today in many of these societies people are not feeling secure and want to find security in asserting their identity interpreted in the most narrow and exclusionary ways.   It is a return to what Amin Maalouf called “Les Identités Meurtrières” which are those who try to reduce the definition of complex reality in terms of only a single dimension.  In addition, they feel victimized and are excessively concerned with defending that identity against any and all threats, real or perceived. 


So now let us come back to the sad state of the Muslim societies of today.   Today, the Muslim world is riven with strife.  The murderous killing fields in Iraq are fanning the flames of old sectarian disputes.   Muslims are killing Muslims in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Darfur, in Afghanistan and in many other places.  Intolerance rules. 


So what happened?  Clearly the Muslim and Arab worlds we see today do not reflect that glorious past..  Why?


Because that world feels dominated and victimized by a hegemonic west, resentful of its leaders and insecure in its self-image. 


Indeed tolerance requires security..


III.  Security, Terrorism and Globalization


The problem of security:


Only when people feel secure are they tolerant..


Look at the USA… they have long prided themselves on their profound commitment to the bill or rights.  Yet…Lincoln suspended Habeas corpus during the civil war.  After Pearl Harbor, Frajnklin Delano Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive order 1099 which put into concentration camps about 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, none of whom ever turned out to be a traitor.  Now, after the horror of 9/11, America has suspended due process, held people in jail without recourse, justified torture, promoted “rendition”, undertaken wholesale warrant-less eavesdropping on citizens, and legislated to make all this permanent. 


Luckily, some forces in America, such as the ACLU, are taking the government to task and mounting legal challenges to this loss of fundamental human rights which were guaranteed under the constitution through the bill of rights (amendments 1-10 and other amendments).




Yesterday, I discussed the reasons why technology and globalization and other forces will make terrorism an issue to contend with in the future as well as in the past…


Terrorism is not new.  But the increasing damage that can be done by terrorists today is being enhanced by a number of objective reasons, including:


  • The conditions of failed states or conditions of widespread anarchy (Somalia, Afghanistan, for example). 
  • The increasing density of human settlements.  
  • The increasing value of property, makes that comparable catastrophes a generation or two ago would cause much greater losses in monetary terms today. 
  • The availability of modern mass transport, both nationally and internationally,  means that terrorists can move around much more easily and that the vehicles of such transport --  planes, trains and underground rail --  are themselves potent targets of terrorist attacks. 
  • The specific vulnerability of certain extremely important industries to disruption by terrorist acts. 
  • Globalization and the information and communication revolution make it very easy for terrorists to plan their activities halfway around the globe, finance it from another part of the planet, assemble to strike somewhere and be gone to the four corners of the world within hours. 
  • The widespread availability of enormous amounts of weapons and explosives of all types for clandestine sale.
  • The extreme effectiveness of small light weapons.
  • New forms of terrorism such as cyber attacks and radiological attacks. 
  • Nuclear proliferation .
  • Bioterrorism, 
  • But above all, there is the ideological fervor of the suicide bomber.  It is far harder to guard against the danger of a killer who kills himself with his victims than it is to guard against one who is planning to escape the scene of the crime. 


It is the ultimate act, what Candido Mendes referred to as    « une logique sociale du sacrifice..

Le contenu du geste de destitution radicale…L’irrationnel absolu ».


So what can be done?


We need to have a strategy to ensure that the march towards inclusion, the commitment to Human Rights and the advance of democracy are not jeopardized by the presence of terrorism. 


We have had examples of democratic governments coping with terrorism without losing sight of their obligations to their citizens: The Red Brigades in Italy (who murdered Prime Minister Aldo Moro), the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the ETA in Spain, the Corsicans and the OAS in France, and the IRA in the UK.


But many of these same governments behaved differently before the Second World War.  What we need is to have a proper theory of societal interaction that defines the parameters of state action, the public space and the role of the civil society…


It is not enough to say we espouse the values of the enlightenment.  Long after the enlightenment, slavery continued, and so did colonization.  Entire people were subjected to genocide and others to the systematic destruction of their cultural identity, by these same western cultures that had produced the values of the modern enlightenment.  Recognizing past mistakes does not diminish the intellectual achievement of the enlightenment.. Les  lumieres…


But why does immigration make racism rear its ugly head again in Europe today?  Why this insecurity in most of the Muslim and Arab world?


Some would blame the uncertainty of globalization…




To some the current uncertainty is due largely to the problems of globalization and the dislocation that it brings to the nations of the world…


The various countries today are indeed undergoing enormous transformations, at an unprecedented rate and thus their tolerance level is being tested, and their fear finds in immigration an easy target.   Terrorism having reared its ugly head, promotes suspicion of all who are different.  The enormous tsunami of globalization, seemingly unstoppable, uncontainable, uncontrollable has frightened people as their familiar moorings are being torn loose….  Listen to this powerful indictment:


“...exploitation of the world market [has] given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.  To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood.  All old-fashioned industries have been destroyed.  They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations....In place of old wants, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.  In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.”


Contemporary as they sound, these words do not come from the present. They are from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto of 1848. The pangs we are feeling today are remarkably similar to those felt in the industrial revolution two centuries ago. The question before us is whether we have learned from that experience to design a more humane way of dealing with the inevitable wrenching that accompanies such processes.


Globalization grows, fueled by the integration of the world economies, a revolution in telecommunications and the non-stop activities of capital markets that transact over 2.4 trillion dollars a day -- enough to buy and sell the whole GDP of the USA in a week! Indeed, the political boundaries of the nation states have become permeable to the ethereal commerce of ideas and capital as never before.


IV.  Suggestions and questions:


The social, economic and institutional Management of Inter-culturalism in Current societies


The general principle of representative democracy, a federal system, whether in the USA or in Brazil, provides the possibilities of recognition of general laws to protect the minorities being enacted at the federal level, that can thus prevent the oppression of the minorities at the local level.  This formulation ultimately helped the blacks in the USA.


Moving from egalitarianism to recognizing differences will make a big difference in the policy of the integration.  It underlines the problem of exclusion, but in many societies, the ethnic or sectarian lines of cleavage are the primary ones.   We have to look at recognizing differences as the motivators of exclusion, which they frequently are, not just as elements of value.  Of these differences, the most profound problems are those that emerge where lines of religious sectarianism are defining the camps.  Each sect claims to have the absolute truth, and promises its adherents salvation. It seeks to convert others and even claims the right to fight them as different because it is open to receive them as adherents.  Each sect wants to impose its vision of the state, without accepting a discussion of an alternative.  There is much to commend an approach that values individual Human Rights and underlines the notion of citizenship.



On individual rights and the rights of minority groups:


Human Rights are generally defined as negative and positive rights, translated by a bill of rights for the citizen, the individual citizen, against the power of the state.  A democratic system is one where the rights of the minorities are not being trampled by the power of majority.


But does that protection rest on the rights of individuals –independent of any group – or the rights of groups?


To the extent that each group is defined by some cultural output, such as a language specific literature, or other art forms such as painting, sculpture, dance, music, architecture – these forms of cultural products can be appreciated as an enrichment of the general culture without getting into a notion of particular protection or rights for the group rather than the individuals concerned.  Almost any definition of a group is exclusionary as well as divisive. 


We must retain the four dimensions: the individual, the community (a matter of scale), the sovereign nation (where the authority for the rule of law is vested) and finally: humanity, which defines transcendental responsibilities including future generations as was explained by Mireille Delmas-Marty.   National law must conform to international law.


International law and the HR dimension:


There is a view among many in the Arab and Muslim worlds that the major powers use double standards in defending human rights, and that, for example, Israel can get away with sustained military occupation, annexation of territory by force, refusing the Palestinian right to self-determination, collective punishment, extended curfews, mass arrests without trial, targeted murders, killing of civilians and destroying Lebanon to cite a few examples.  What do you say to those who doubt the effectiveness of international law, of humanitarian principles and multilateral action?


To the extent that we are calling for inclusion and diversity, those who suffered in the past, those who must be included in that diverse community, with a broader recognition of their human rights and an enhanced participation in the pluralistic enlarged community must somehow get over their grievances…


Here we confront the problem of what Wole Soyinka called “the burden of memory and the muse of forgiveness”…


Is it better to think in terms of a political process such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than judicial redress?



V.  In Closing: A call to action


All rights to all people in all places at all times.


Therein, lies the challenge before us.  The time is for actions, not words. Together, let us create a united front of the caring. Let us think of the unborn, remember the forgotten, give hope to the forlorn, and reach out to the unreached, and by wise actions today lay the foundation for better tomorrows.


For myself, I am unambiguous.  I state my credo loud and clear:


The world is my home

Humanity is my family

Non-violence is my creed

Peace, justice, equality and dignity for all is my purpose

Engagement, rationality, tolerance, dialogue, learning and understanding are my means.


With outstretched hands we welcome all those who share these beliefs…


And in closing, I remember, half a world away, half a lifetime ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke of world peace, he said:


“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


Those words are as pertinent today as they were half a century ago.   In the post 9/11 world, it is important that we all remember that common humanity, and build a new basis for common understanding and mutual respect.  This will not be easy to achieve given the enormous engagement of the US in its “war on terror” and the profound changes occurring at an ever faster pace in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  But do it we must…  And we will!


Together, we will move on to that world promised by Tagore in his Gitanjali:


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led by thee into ever-widening thought and action ---

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.


--- Tagore  The GITANJALI:



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