People to People International – Cairo
2 April 2008
I prefer to speak about the cultivating of intercultural understanding through dialogue before discussing the role of the media. Whenever I talk about promoting a culture of mutual understanding I must mention Mary Eisenhower, granddaughter of a former American president, who is considered one of the pioneers in this field. Her association, “People To People”, is supports and builds bridges with members of other cultures. Mary Eisenhower comes to Egypt from time to time with large numbers of young people from all races and religions to live with Egyptian youth for a week. She encourages mutual understanding through direct experiences on the ground. When I say “people”, I give special importance to young people who are in need of protection from extremism and violence, and who run the risk of rejecting the other.
As for the role of the media to support exchanges between people from different cultures, we must think of the media as a massive school for millions. By contrast, conferences or lectures influence a few thousand at most. The media could either serve as a school for learning about mutual understanding between peoples, beginning with recognition of the culture of the other. Alternatively, media could play a dangerous role, as a school from which the masses learn violence and extremism. This is why it is society’s responsibility to insist that the private and/or political leadership of media outlets create mechanisms of cooperation with institutions that develop civil society.
Those who are serious about working towards mutual understanding through dialogue among civilizations must learn how to communicate effectively with media professionals. For example, no media professional will take the time to read a lengthy memorandum. One must deal with the media through summaries and sound bites. That is the language of their profession and they will not cooperate with outsiders through any other means.
As for the dialogue of civilizations, which we started talking about since the famous book about the clash of civilizations showed up, I believe that the expression “clash of civilizations” is not an accurate expression. I prefer the expression “intercultural dialogue” or “cultural exchange” and once again each one of us must have a background about the culture of the other based on the principle that the headwaters of cultures are integrated, and both of us must see the other culturally as that will extremely help both of us avoid major historical mistakes against the others. If the public in Denmark, for example, knew enough about the culture of Islam, logically, they would never have accepted that aggression on Islam published in their press which reflected a real ignorance of Islam, its values and symbols.
As for the role of the media concerning the dialogue of cultures, if we agree and promote the idea that the expression “dialogue of cultures” is more accurate than “dialogue of civilizations”, the media might start to convey the message that the culture of one group of people can enrich the culture of other groups.
When discussing intercultural exchanges and dialogue, it is becoming commonplace in international forums for people to talk about interfaith dialogue as if there is a conflict between religions. Personally, I do not believe that the conflict is between religions. Rather, such conflicts are instigated by institutions and political figures that hold religions hostage to achieve their own material gains.