The dialogue of civilizations, inter-cultural dialogue or engaging ‘Islam’ in Central Asia
On 21 September 1998 the soft-spoken then president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Seyyed Mohammad Khatemi, addressed the United Nations in New York calling on the General Assembly to establish a ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ and eventually to declare the year 2001, the ‘United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations’.1 Likely, Mr. Khatemi intended to challenge Samuel Huntington’s notorious prediction of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (Huntington 1993) and, more explicitly, to (re)present and reposition Iran as a civilized and respected member of the international community. However, Khatemi’s timing was terribly bad. On the very same day the Iranian president addressed the UN General Assembly, the international media preferred to cover a Grand Jury’s testimony of another president – Bill Clinton – about his titillating relationship with a White House intern. Khatemi’s conciliatory address went largely unheard and without much doubt his initiative would have trailed away as so many other UN resolutions have, past and present. But with the dramatic events of 11 September 2001 – the UN’s year of dialogue – Khatemi’s call for an inter-cultural dialogue obtained sudden urgency. While it was first the academic entourage of Samuel Huntington that felt vindicated, after 9/11 the idea of a dialogue of civilizations, especially between the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic world’, became popular among officials and intellectuals of various Western countries as a soft approach to engage with Muslim communities. Viewed as a rather inexpensive and non-committal tool in public diplomacy,2 diplomats and officials could always refer to the dialogue proving the good intentions of the West despite its military campaigns, its inhumane treatment of alleged terrorists and violation of exactly those basic human rights it claims to defend. Inevitable, the dialogue among civilizations was soon narrowed down to a monologue by the West in which the Islamic world became a discursive object – an essentially different ‘other’, mostly qualified by its deficits (for instance, the lack of democratic and transparent governance, economic development or the rule of law, etc.). Admittedly, most Western officials meticulously maintain
that the problem is not Islam itself and frequently hail the great cultural achievements of the Islamic civilization (especially those dating back to the Middle Ages), court moderate Islamic leaders or naïvely describe Islam as a religion of peace.3 Whether this demureness is related to domestic and international discourses of political correctness (frequently disrupted by right wing populists) or to foreign policy considerations (in order not to risk the diplomatic relations with the few remaining ‘good’ Muslim countries) shall be disregarded for now. Eventually, the dialogue among cultures became what its early proponents most likely tried to avoid: an antithetical mirror of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ following similar assumptions, that civilizations are essentialized entities, in which the West and the Islamic world emerged as independent categories disconnected from the myriad social realities individuals of these alleged civilizational entities share.4 Additionally, the West introduced another dichotomy in its approach to the Islamic world by distinguishing moderate (= good) Muslims – i.e. Muslims who generally accept Western values and for whom Islam is more a matter of personal piety than a model of public political order – from radical (= bad) Muslims (Mamdani 2005). The good Muslim/ bad Muslim dichotomy largely ignores the multiple social environments Islamic activism has evolved in and has undermined the credibility of any inter-cultural dialogue by imposing selective preconditions on potential dialogue partners. Not surprisingly, the West has been frequently accused of applying double standards in its preferences of whom to include and exclude in its dialogue (and political recognition). While some authoritarian Islamic countries imposing an appallingly sanguinary version of Islam on their population are courted as partners, undesirable Muslim political leaders who were (at times) elected in relatively free and fair elections are declared pariah. Moreover, the US-declared War against Terror became a pretence for many (secular) authoritarian rulers to settle their scores with oppositional groups now alleged Islamic terrorists, many of them part of a wider Islamic civil society. The ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ and respectively the inter-cultural dialogue has therefore become redundant, a performative act in virtual politics with limited commitment.5 And Central Asia is in this context no exception (Lewis 2008). After a brief survey on how Central Asia is imagined by Europe, I will reflect in my contribution to this volume on the many realities of Islam in post-soviet Central Asia, followed by some thoughts on how to engage with Muslim communities in the region.