A few thoughts on Dunbar II and the clash of civilizations

April 15, 2009

 a corny optical illusion (do you see it?) (a corny optical illusion, do you see it?)

The fiasco of the 2001 UN racism conference, and the fiasco in the making that is the follow up racism conference (starting in Geneva on April 20 next week) points to a fundamental difference in perspective between east and west that makes consensus on a draft, meant to provide a framework to governments and NGO’s on how to deal with racism, xenophobia, etc, nearly impossible. There are two main issues that have led countries like the US, Canada, Australia and Israel to abandon the current conference in its preparatory stage. One of them is the attempt of the Islamic world to outlaw defamation of religion, which is being interpreted by the west as an attempt to curb free speech. The second problem is a focus of the Islamic countries on Israel’s policies in its occupied territories which comes across to non-Islamic countries as an anti-Semitic singling out of Israel, which of course undermines the purpose of the conference to begin with. Both issues have led to self-righteous outrage on all sides, but especially on the side of western counties, which either withdrew from the conference or threatened to withdraw, thereby ironically reinforcing the need for such a conference. Though self-righteous anger and uttering accusations back and forth is a lot of fun, one has to look beyond them if one believes intolerance is on the rise and a global conference could help. And I happen to belief that now more than ever there is a need for such a conference. From the treatment of illegal immigrants as criminals here in the US, the problems with gay marriage, gripes in Europe towards Muslims, and anti-Semitic and anti-Christian attitudes in the Arab world, it seems that the whole world could use an extra dosage of tolerance.

 So what is the underlying problem?

 It seems to me but I could be wrong, that east-west tensions are rooted in an inability to grasp each other’s fundamentally different perspective. Not being aware of how different our outlooks on life are, we assume the other thinks likes us and therefore behaves and more importantly misbehaves like us. And we judge the other the way we judge ourselves. However, east and west do no think the same. There is a radical difference. East and west have very different opinions as to what constitutes the center of our world. For the east that center is God, for the west it is the individual. God used to be our center too, but somewhere in history’s dark recesses we lost this insight and replaced it with a completely new emphasis on the individual. Hence the rise of democracy, human rights, tattoos and rock and roll. Once the perspective shifts, it is no longer possible to go back and remember what we once knew. It is like one of thoface-black-and-white-optical-illusion1se optical illusions in which it is not possible to go back. God has not completely disappeared in the west, but the structure in which God (or the idea of God) and the individual (or the idea of the individual) coexists has changed fundamentally. Such a Copernican shift in consciousness did not occur in the Arab world. God still inhabits his old place in the center of the universe. For the Muslim God is his meaning that permeates his daily life. I do not know which perspective is better. I prefer mine. But I am sure the Muslims will say the same. However, it think it is important to keep in mind what fuels a lot of disagreements. While we want to protect the individual from being persecuted for speaking his mind, an eastern mind wants to protect God from the blasphemies of the individual. While we want to make women equal to men and outlaw headscarves because they are symbol of submission, the Muslim women might want to dedicate her scarf to God. The capitals of Europe are the battlefields on which the perspective wars are taking place. Probably the most important battlefield at the moment however is Israel, where east has been meeting west for decades now in a confrontation of titanic proportions. I believe that this might be the main reason for the ‘singling out’ of Israel by the Arab world. It is the only battlefield in which the east can make itself heard, especially on an occasion such as the racism conference, where all our best values are being discussed. While we may not be able to see the world from the perspective of the other at this moment in history, we can keep in mind that these differences exist. And that the other values his perspective the same way we value ours. This does not solve anything practically. I do not know whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in public schools or whether religion should be constitutionally protected. However, keeping these different perspectives in mind may prevent us from accusing each other of ill will, racism, anti-Semitism etc for nothing. Especially on a conference that is meant to out root such evils. From where I stand, and believing that individuals shouldn’t suffer racism etc, having such conferences is always better than not having them. There are too many places in the world where certain people are not tolerated. The more countries that participate in this conference the better. Especially if those countries have a bad track record themselves.

 In other words, to talk is always better than not to talk. In fact we can’t afford not to talk. A conference offers such an opportunity for dialogue. After all, these are not peace negotiations in which swaps of land are at stake. We have nothing to loose except our pride. Walking away from it is to acknowledge the defeat of all that is decent in us. It is the victory of our worst instincts over our capacity for wisdom and patience. It is allowing our ego and our pride to feel insulted, ignored and hurt at the expense of all those who really suffer because of racism, xenophobia, homophobia etc. We have to remember that besides the Individual and besides God, there is the Other for whom we created this conference. And we have to remember that the only alternative to dialogue to solve our differences is violence. And except for those few that thrive on conflict and war, nobody wants to send their sons to war.

 Ending on a good note. After the US made its decision to withdraw from the conference, the preparatory committee took out all references to the defamation of religion and Israel out of the draft paper. Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN is pushing for the US to participate. I am thinking, isn’t this exactly why we voted Obama into office? So what is he waiting for?


Link to the UN Dunbar Review Conference: http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009/stmt06-04-09.shtml

 Link to info about Navanethem Pillay, South African president of the conference:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navanethem_Pillay 

  Link to optical illusions website (just for fun): http://www.newopticalillusions.com/3d-optical-illusion/two-faces-illusion/

17 Responses to “A few thoughts on Dunbar II and the clash of civilizations”

  1. As someone who has lived in Israel, if I may just address a few points raised…?:)

    1 – there is no ‘islamophobia’ in Israel. The term itself is utterly meaningless. Nobody is phobic towards the actual religion of Islam. Some people – racists – are hateful towards Muslims, yes. This happens in many countries just as you find bigotry towards Asians, Blacks and Jews in many countries.

    But in Israel, the Muslim places of worship are protected, maintained and looked after by the Jews. Let’s compare this with how the Muslim and Arab countries have treated both Jewish and Christian places of worship: When Jordan occupied Jerusalem, it turned the holy Jewish sites into HORSE STABLES. Right now, in most if not all Muslim nations, Christians are suffering terribly; they are persecuted simply for *being* Christians.

    Last week, in Israel, yet again a holy Jewish site was desecrated. Far from ‘islamophobia’, Muslims in Israel are shown tremendous respect – far more than Jews and Christians have EVER been shown in ANY Islamic country.

    Please also remember that a Palestinian Arab state has been on offer: in 1936, 1948, 2000 and 2001. At Taba for example, Israel offered the Palestinians everything they had been asking for:
    – east Jerusalem
    – 100% of Gaza
    – 97 % of ‘west bank’

    What happened? The Palestinians rejected it outright purely because the one thing Israel requested was an end to terrorism. They walked away from the talks and refused to return.

    Let’s also note that the Palestinians vowed, publicly, that when Israel left Gaza, all terrorism would stop. Instead, terrorism has INcreased in the past five years. Hamas has been sending hundreds of suicide bombers and thousands of rockets into Israel – and Israel did nothing to retaliate until the end of 2008.

    Have you read the Hamas Charter? It makes it clear: Palestinian terrorism has nothing to do with land. It is about religion.

    I blog about some of these topics at http://ajewwithaview.wordpress.com

    • owlminerva Says:

      I have to disagree with your claim that there is no ‘hatred’ in Israel towards muslims. I think there is actually a lot of it, and it finds expression in a lot of jewish blogs. One only has to browse around a little. The racism expresses itself in the perspective on a conflict that completely dismisses first of all the Palestinians as a people with a unique identity, the palestinians as a people that have suffered because of the founding of Israel, and a people that up to this day is being mistreated in a decennia long occupation. The simple fact of denying all of the above is an expression of racism. Then we are not even talking about the second class stature of the Israeli Arabs that even though most of them are born them aren’t treated the way Jews are treated. Simply declaring Israel a purely ‘Jewish’ state is racist as there are a million non-jewish residents in Israel. Jews cannot marry non-jews in Israel, Israeli married to people from the occupied territories can’t bring them to live with them in Israel. How do you think all of this makes the Arab israelis feel?
      Thirdly, Israel has never offered Palestine a true viable independend state. Except maybe right at the beginning in 48 (actually the partition was done by the UN, Israel would have taken it all if it had been up to them) which i don’t think anybody could blame the Palestinians for not accepting the partition of their land. Other than that, was has been offered to them were patches of land that made independence practically impossible.
      I know that the Israelis feel that their opinions of Arabs are not racist but true. In other words, the belief that co-existence with arabs is impossible is not racism but simple fact.
      Well, I don’t know if you have noticed this, but any racist in the world will tell you he is not racist but honest.
      Racists unfortunately are not aware of their racism.

  2. […] Comments NG Lynd on Walkout at UN conference after…Ozymandias on A few thoughts on Dunbar II an…azadpalestine on Walkout at UN conference after…owlminerva on A few thoughts on Dunbar II […]

  3. Ozymandias Says:

    Durban is a joke and was rightly boycotted. A complete waste of time, populated by some of the worst offenders of human rights.

  4. Christa Says:

    Hey, thanks so much for commenting on my blog. I thought I’d return the favor.

    I really don’t buy the whole “Clash of Civilizations” argument or that the underlying problem at Durban is a miscommunication in East-meets-West. To say that is to ignore the very real grievances of the Arab countries towards Israel and its support in the West.

    This “clash” is not about civilizations, its about politics and the continuing struggle of Palestinian right of self determination that appears to be at odds with the Jewish right to self determination.

    Given that each culture carries the tendencies (and let me stress tendencies, not absolutes) you described above, its still not sufficient to explain the debate in Durban.

    You can read my analysis here:


    • owlminerva Says:

      i also think that the arab world has very legitimate grievances towards the west. The israeli occupation has little to do with differences in theological perspective. I was talking more about things like the demand of the muslim world to protect religion from defamation. This can only be understood if one is aware about how different they view the role of ‘God’ or religion in general in their life. Again, i am not saying one perspective is better than the other. We should be aware of the fact that coming from a perspective we can’t judge as if we are not part of the perspective. However, I do think these differences exist and should be taken serious if one wants to avoid total vilification of the other side. Not only on such conferences, but wherever muslims and westerners have to deal with each other. From the sharia-demands in the UK, to the head scarve debates in France, belgium etc. one has to keep in mind these differences. To ignore such differences leads to only more racism. I have a feeling there are also perspective differences going on in the Israel-Palestine conflict, though these are not theological differences. They are historical differences, narrative differences and political differences. The same argument holds though, one has to be aware of the perspectives of the other if one wants to avoid developing racist feelings towards each other. I have the impression that both sides on this conflict have no idea what the perspective of the other is or don’t care at all about the perspective of the other, so they see each other as evil. Not helpful. It only plays in the hands of those that want this conflict to go on forever.
      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Charles Says:

    From an international law perspective, the West has squandered a chance to draft a declaration that could have a momentous influence on combating racism. While declarations are by themselves legally non-binding, they at the very least, puts governments in a position to have to act.

    In such conferences, compromises and debates and behind the official meetings occur before a draft text becomes ready. Therefore, the official document often ends up a product ‘of like a shared consensus’ of the ‘lowest common denominator’ reflective of the kind of westphalian system we have. But at the moment, it’s better than nothing.

    As I’ve said in my blog, some of the Western powers have lost the plot by boycotting the conference, showing themselves uncapable of learning to deal with a world where different countries with different agendas exist.

    The West (and I use this term very loosely) likes to preach values such as multilateralism and international institutions but sometimes they just ‘back out’ when it doesn’t appear to suit them.

  6. owlminerva Says:

    you are indeed an old wise hippie. You are right. There is a lot of western hypocrisy. Though also eastern hypocrisy.
    I think there is some serious misunderstanding about the purpose of this conference. This conference is not a kumbaya song. It is a coming together of states with very different values and views trying to do something about racism. It is unavoidable that there will be problems and disagreements. It is because of these problems that there is need for such a conference to begin with. We shouldn’t pretend that all is rosy and we all share the same values. We don’t. What we can do however is understanding that there are difference and have a little respect for the perspective of the other. And keep in mind that in the end we all want to create a document that can help in diminishing racism.

  7. DaOldWiseHippie Says:

    i dont understand why the US withdrew in the first place, and the rest of the world. I sometimes feel out of all the western countries it is only UK which has really understood what a globalised world really means. The Dutch have had a long standing dispute with the muslism world, no we all know the reason why they backed out. Also it seems that free speech, most of these countries promoted, was only to be enforced where they liked it, afterall they themsleves couldnt keep themselves from shutting their ears to Iran. Hypocrisy…just another reason for east and west conflict

  8. Marc Says:

    Well, has anyone bothered to notice the Israel Review Conference which took place this weekend in Geneva as a kind of “parallel” event? If the final draft of the Durban 2 paper eliminates explicit reference to Israel,this is only because of the pressures put on the drafters by the US, EU, and all others who remember the first Conference in 2001. This is ultimately a form of prudence, not proof that the driving force behind the conference is anything other than Isra-bashing. The fear that this is not a conference about “racism” at all are well-founded. What do countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have to offer us in the way of constructive criticism about racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance and hate-speech? Nothing at all. They exist beyond the ken of self-criticism. Can this be said of Holland? the US? Israel?

    • owlminerva Says:

      well the references were eliminated because that sort of stuff is what happens if people get together and try to build an consensus. There will be discussions and fights and some things there won’t be agreements on. It’s normal. The fact that people disagree should be a reason to have the conference instead of avoiding it.
      With regard to racism. There is a lot of islamophobia in Israel. Take a look at the jeruzalem post. Isreali are just as racist as anybody else. And I don’t see them being very self-critical. On the contrary. A jew that has the audacity to be critical of israeli racims becomes himself the victim of it. They call him the antisemite jew. I belief there is not one country that doesn’t have issues with racism. So no country can afford not to show us. The idea that there is nothing to learn from muslim countries is arrogant beyond belief. I don’t even know what to respond to that. That is actually also an expression of racism.

    • DaOldWiseHippie Says:

      The point is Saudi Arabia, Iran and all other muslim countries are soverign nations, and have the right to enforce their will just like anyone else. They might not have much to contribute to the western world, but just ask any of the 1.3 billion muslism and they will tell you. Apart from that , a country’s controbution to above mentioned ‘isms’ isnt a measure of their wieght in international policy making and debate. The east is east and will not tolerate the west over taking its values and beliefs..just like the west cant accept the beliefs and values of the muslims world. The event that happened at the conference just goes to show how ready the west is to even give a serious consdieration to the muslism world, which i repeat makes up 1/6th of the world

  9. nevenera Says:

    In my opinion the reluctance of the US to go to the conference has much less to do with the east/west issues and much more to do with apologies and reparations for Slavery.

    That reason has been stated but it is conveniently buried in every news cast.

    We are not going to the conference on racism because of our inability to deal effectively with our racist past.

    The Israeli/Palestinian issue is just a smokescreen. If you read the language in the resolution and note that the Muslim countries have agreed to remove language against criticism of religion and that the Palestinians have agreed to not press the issue with regards to Israel, and the fact that we are still not going, leads me to believe that there are other reasons for us not attending.

    • owlminerva Says:

      yes you are right. They did remove essential language out of the draft. That sort of undermines our reasons for not going. You could definately be right about us not having come to terms with our own racist past and that being the reason why we are not participating. By the way I don’t think there is any country at this point that can really say they have no issues with racism. Especially those that are opting out have issues. The netherlands and australia not going for the reasons they claim is absurd. We all need that conference. All of us.

  10. Shemaiah Says:


    I disagree on several levels. First and foremost, the differences between the ideologies of “east” and “west” are oversimplified and overemphasized. This is a way to rationalize religious extremism by people who look at it from the outside, as cultural relativists. After all, there is not much difference between the Islamists of today and the Christian extremists when they had control over a large part of Europe in medieval times.

    Second, I reject your notion that differences in theological perspectives are at the center of this issue. I believe that theology serves as a medium for control. Wealthy Muslim clerics and governments control the mindset of their much poorer populations, teaching them that “the west” (and, quite obviously, “the Jew”) is the epidemy of evil. As a religious Jew, my religion is no less important to me than a religious Muslim’s is, yet you seem to indicate that ethnocentric behaviors are excusable actions in light of religion.

    While I am usually in favor of diplomacy, this is not the time to engage in it. The terms of the conference are such that it is obviously anti-Semitic. I do not believe the Israeli State should be able to escape criticism– but I believe if it is criticized, all states should be critized equally. Yet, because some of the states have Sharia law, they would be unable to criticized by this conference. The invitation of Ahmadinejad to this conference should be an indication of its true platform.

    This is as bad a problem as the UN Human Rights council being made up of nations such as Saudi Arabia. I like what you have to say– but I think anti-Semitism has had enough of an audience lately.

  11. gimmetruth Says:

    I agree with your conclusion: talking is better than not talking. I also agree that we’re all locked within a perpetual state of mutual misunderstanding that has led to less tolerance and misplaced self righteousness.
    I do have to part with you on the “culture” talk woven within your argument. While it is certainly true that many of us in the US, EU, and Muslim world have boxed ourselves in the confining space of a world dominated by “west” and “east” talk, I don’t think this is an accurate way of understanding what’s going on. In other words, there’s a bit too much “difference” in your framework than really exists. The west/east dichotomy is appealing for its simplicity but dangerously untrue. I don’t know how, for example, you can assert that the “east” is a “world” in which God is at the center. Just consider that last 50 years of Middle Eastern history and you’ll see quite a bit of difference within the region expressed through the dominance of Arab, secular nationalism, communism, what has been called Islamism, and other less dominant trends. All of which, I might add, are still present today but to differing degrees.
    Also, I don’t think it’s true that the “west” can be characterized by such internal unity. Throughout the so-called western world, there have been diverse trends competing for dominance including the evangelical movements of the south, the liberal movements of the northeast, and others. Not to mention that the US and EU are constituted by such internal variation that it seems hard to assert that any sense of a west actually exists. Bush junior certainly had a mixed bag of religious politics guided by the hand of “God” as he believed.
    My point isn’t to dismiss your points, which are true once we accept–as many have–the culture talk of two distinct civilizations. But rather that there is a danger in perpetuating a dangerous movement committed to privileging ideas about difference over ideas about reality.
    Let’s talk at Durban. Rather than setting conditions for the discussion, what I think should occur is an honest consideration for what everyone has to say and why. Is Zionism racism? Let’s ask that question and examine its accuracy? Is Saudia Arabia’s ban on other religious communities just? Is the Vatican’s? More talk is better than less, as you eloquently stated.

    • owlminerva Says:

      yes of course such general statements about east-west differences are oversimplified. General statements always are. And in the west we have our own religious extremists and the east has its own seculars. But i do think in general there are serious differences and we should become aware of them. We can’t be stuck in our own perspectives. We need to be able to make sense of demands of the ‘east’ (i realize the term itself is naive) and why we disagree with them. Without being aware of differences in perspective we can’t make sense of the desire of the muslim world to outlaw defamation of religion. Denying the differences is not helpful. It actually leads to less understanding, empathy and tolerance. I do not belief that the purpose of dialogue is to become the same or convince ourselves we are the same. I think it means trying to be open to the other, trying to understand the perspective the other is coming from, and finding common purpose.

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