'The Clash of Cultures,' A Dangerous Notion That Disseminates Violence

The Paris terrorist attacks of November have sparked a great number of comments and analyses, some providing relief and hope, others fanning anger and sadness.

I recently read an interesting interview given by Dr Ann d'Alcantara (Université Catholique de Louvain) and published in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, dated 21 and 22 November. Its conclusion shocked me: "An important shift has taken place since the Charlie-Hebdo attacks: it has now become acceptable to talk about 'the clash of cultures'. Before, political correctness, which entailed putting all cultures on a par in the name of equality, muzzled the debate. The idea of a 'clash of cultures' was repressed, consigned to denial, when in fact it is vital to name differences and be able to have an open debate about them. To deny them is to generate violence."

I am horrified... Are the terrible events we have experienced the result of a 'clash of civilizations'? Is the violence of Daesh born from such a clash? Is it not first and foremost a crime against humanity, a form of absolute madness that first hits with full force citizens from Muslim countries, their minorities, their cultural heritage; a crime that targets the East with all its riches and diversity, even before attacking the West?

This attitude is typically -- and unbearably -- Western and Eurocentric. It consists in interpreting the current conflicts from 'our point of view,' in the light of a confrontation between the Arab-Muslim world and our supposed 'civilized' world. One should bear in mind, however, that the prime victims of Islamic terror are those living in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries of the region, and the toll of which adds up to tens of thousands. The people there do not benefit either from the medical and humanitarian aid, or from the social and psychological support that we all take for granted here in Europe.

The war waged by Daesh is not a religious war! It is not a war between supposedly incompatible cultures! It is an abominable war led by a ruthless terrorist group that is godless and lawless. They use simplistic and radical religious discourses, they manipulate a young generation who has lost its bearings into the downward spiral of terror, ultimately leading them to turn their backs on universal values.

I refuse with all my heart to accept any form of a supposed hierarchy between superior cultures ('ours') and lower cultures ('theirs'). In no way do I want to deny the existence of cultural differences. On the contrary, we should take stock of cultural differences, cherish them and construct a common world which respects these differences. I am convinced that the values embodied by Arab-Muslim cultures and other world cultures have the potential to be mutually enriching. Such mutual enrichment is precisely what we have been all too slow in acknowledging and discussing. It should have been the subject of a day-to-day intercultural dialogue that ought to have nourished debates in our schools, universities, cultural institutions, media and public spaces. How is cultural diversity reflected in the audiences of our theatres, museums, concert halls, our opera houses? Where do we find it in the management of our cultural institutions?

I am convinced that we as Europeans are complicit in the oppression, the collusion, the injustice, the hypocrisies and the violence that has led to these disastrous events. Our responsibility does not provide any form of excuse for Daesh -- there is no excuse whatsoever for terrorists! Instead, our responsibility calls for self-examination, an introspection that is as necessary as it will be painful.

Not facing up to our responsibilities generates violence.

To defend fundamentalist rhetoric generates violence again.

To promote the theory of a clash of civilizations perpetuates violence again and again...

In our troubled times I have felt, more than ever, the need to listen to Mozart and Oum Khalthoum, to read the Syrian poet Adonis and the Italian writer De Luca, to see the films by Kiarostami and the Dardenne brothers, to meditate as I watch Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui unfold their choreographies. More than ever do I need to find consolation in the wails that Munir Barchir, that towering Iraqi musician, draws from his oud...

"May peace be with those who share with me
The exhilaration of light, the light carried by the butterfly
In the long tunnel of this dark night

Mahmoud Darwish, State of Siege