Iqbal Riza, Under–Secretary General and Special Adviser for the Alliance of Civilizations to the Secretary General of the United Nations, spoke in his personal capacity to participants over lunch on June 7th. He began by observing that we live today in the shadow of the fallen Ottoman, Spanish, British, and French empires. Following World War II, the nations of the world were supposed to be equal, but this equality exists only in principle. Throughout history, human relations have been shaped by power, with the powerful dominating the weak. The impact that empires have had on their former colonies persists today. Acknowledging that power shapes societies leads to the question: how is that power exercised?
To explore this question, Riza drew upon two concepts articulated by the political scientist Joseph Nye: “hard power” and “soft power”.23 Both are means of subjugation, with hard power referring to military, industrial, and technological power, and soft power referring to cultural domination over societies, whether accomplished by tradition, example, persuasion, or intimidation. It is easy to see hard power, but soft power, though less visible, also controls. Soft power manifests itself in the Coca–Cola, McDonald’s, and Popeye’s locations found throughout the developing world.
Global media also wield soft power. The media are most often independent of government, but have their own worldview and agenda. Al Jazeera, for example, works within the framework defined by CNN, following its 24–hour news coverage model and aiming at the standard it has established. Popular media, such as Hollywood films, have an even wider impact, an impact that becomes negative only when it propagates stereotypes and prejudices.
Today, soft power continues to function according to colonial models. The formerly colonized still look to the metropole for culture and ideas, for recognition of artistic achievement, and even for their own history. In this sense, colonialism is still with us, just as Orientalism and racism are still with us. In other words, soft power is a historical process.
Of course, Riza noted, hard power still reigns politically. It remains an obstacle to free interaction between individuals, specifically in the divide between what are referred to as the “Western world” and the “Muslim world.”
Today people live in an age of extremism and terrorism, performed by both state and non–state actors. The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations was established in 2005 on the initiative of the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey, respectively José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, to build cultural bridges that can connect not just governments, but societies.24 Riza noted that this effort differs from interfaith efforts, and operates more along the lines of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, although this thesis is recognized as problematic.25
The foundations of the Alliance of Civilizations, which President Obama mentioned in his June 4th Cairo address, were led by the report of twenty eminent persons from member states of the United Nations — the High Level Group. The report of the High Level Group concluded that religion is not the root of this confrontation between the Muslim world and the West. Rather, the confrontation stems from the exploitation of religion for ideological and political reasons. The report was accepted by the entire membership of the High Level Group, which include former President Khatami of Iran, a Russian Middle East scholar, a Jewish leader in the United States, and a Jewish leader from the Middle East.
The report pointed to two other roots of the current confrontation. The first is the history of Western involvement in the East since World War II. According to the report, this involvement consists of the creation of Israel in historic Palestine in 1948; the invasion of the Suez by France, Britain, and Israel in 1956; the 1967 Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories; the United States’s post–9/11 attack on Afghanistan — which resulted from a horrible provocation — and the entirely gratuitous invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The second root of the current confrontation, according to the Alliance’s report, is the stagnation of Muslim societies. This refers to the failure of these societies to adapt to the world as it has changed. Today, Riza said, Muslim societies are characterized by repression, both in so–called republics as well as in kingdoms. This repression is particularly harsh against women, and includes the refusal to recognize the popular will.
Riza concluded by noting that his comments with respect to Muslim societies are negative, but he hails from the Muslim society of Pakistan, which is today the most violent place in the world. He closed by observing that the effort to build cultural bridges is impeded by the harsh realities he described, but not obliterated. It is imperative to persevere.Back to the top.