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UN 'Civilizations' Forum In Brazil Hopes To Reframe Debate Over Global Culture, Politics

A Pakistani man prepares an anti-U.S. and anti-Facebook banner in Karachi earlier this week.
A Pakistani man prepares an anti-U.S. and anti-Facebook banner in Karachi earlier this week.
In his controversial 1993 thesis, American political scientist Samuel Huntington argued the world would see a "clash of civilizations." Huntington wrote that the "fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines for the future."

Seventeen years later, however, a United Nations agency is working to ensure that civilizations move closer together -- not farther apart.

Beginning on May 27, the UN's Alliance of Civilizations will host its third-annual forum, in Rio de Janeiro. The three-day conference, titled "Bridging Cultures, Building Peace," will be attended by high-level dignitaries including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Organizers expect more than 2,000 participants, including political, corporate, and religious leaders, as well as civil-society activists.

An Internet cafe in Karachi after the Pakistani authorities banned Facebook.
The Conference And Its Supporters

This week's conference will include a number of working sessions focusing on everything from migration to human rights to education. It will also hold a session focusing on social networks and the Internet, a particularly timely issue given Pakistan's decision to block Facebook after a group on the social-networking site initiated an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" last week. Islamabad followed that move with a ban, which it lifted today, on the video-sharing site YouTube in an effort to contain "blasphemous" content.

The alliance features almost 120 members in its group of friends, which includes countries as well as intergovernmental organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Council of Europe. The countries in the alliance include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Pakistan, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Despite existing for half a decade, the alliance only welcomed the United States as a member two weeks ago.

Evaluating The Alliance

The UN Alliance of Civilizations was formed in 2005 at the suggestion of the Spanish and Turkish governments. Prominent Spanish historian German Rueda Hernanz is among those critical of its work.

"[The notion of] an alliance means we have to have certain things in common. And the truth is that [the term 'alliance' is] being used in a disingenuous way -- a brutally high expenditure on the part of the world, because all UN expenditures in the end come from public money," he says. "[The alliance is producing] very scarce results or even negative results in the end."

The UN Alliance of Civilizations itself is not a large organization. It has an office with about 12 people in New York.

"But we do leverage the contacts that we develop and maximize the range of action of the alliance in that way," says Emmanuel Kattan, the alliance's communications adviser. "We work as a kind of interface, if you like, between the intergovernmental level and the range of civil society and youth initiatives that produce a lot of imaginative and creative ideas."

Will Khatami Attend?

The Alliance of Civilizations also includes a group of 20 high-level advisers. The group includes such heavyweights as Russian academic Vitaly Naumkin and former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Mohammad Khatami
The alliance would neither confirm nor deny whether Khatami will attend this year's conference. Khatami has been a champion of the idea of "dialogue among civilizations," attending the UN agency's forum last year in Istanbul. However, Iranian authorities have pressured Khatami against traveling abroad, leading him to cancel an appearance at an international conference last month in Japan.

Whether Khatami attends or not, the UN Alliance of Civilizations hopes to diminish misunderstandings between cultures.

"I would say that this is an opportunity to look back on [Huntington's 'clash of civilizations'] thesis 17 or more years after," says Thomas Uthup, the alliance's research and education manager. "The Alliance of Civilizations itself in a sense arose as a counter to that paradigm because there's a feeling that this paradigm, in reality, does not necessarily work."

To understand the confusing divide between civilizations, one need look no further than the conference host, Brazil. Brazilian analyst Matias Spektor points out that Brazil is the home to the largest black population outside Nigeria, the largest Japanese population outside Japan, and the largest Lebanese population outside Lebanon.

Samuel Huntington
'Reframe' The Debate

Spektor, an international relations expert at the Rio de Janeiro's Getulio Vargas Foundation, believes the conference represents an opportunity for cross-civilization dialogue.

"In the wake of 9/11," Spektor says, "much of the global political debate about how to deal with the war on terror was to split the world among those nations that were civilized and the nations that were barbarian. And the rationale of the alliance is to try not only to bridge the gap, but actually to try and reframe the way we go about debating about how culture and politics work in the 21st century.

"The idea that you have a world divided by civilized states and those who are lesser somehow is anathema to the beliefs of the organizers behind the alliance."

The conference is a rebuke to those who saw a "clash of civilizations" as inevitable.

The final day of the conference will open with a session titled, "The Dialogue of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order," a not-so-subtle dig at Huntington.