Education for diversity: The missing link

The increasing diversity of our societies – be it ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural – is generating growing anxiety in living together, driving communities apart and putting democracies under mounting pressure. There are many examples all around the world of our current difficulties in living together as well as repeated misunderstandings, clashes and even moments of crisis. But there are also countless cases of cross-fertilization between cultures and religions and billions of success stories of people interacting with mutual respect and appreciating their differences. People have more in common with each other than divisive differences and, given the opportunity, they will explore their common interests, spark collaborations and stimulate ideas that address the major challenges of today. However, over the past years economic, social, cultural and religious fault-lines that divide our societies have fueled growing tensions among communities and have encouraged the misguided view that cultures are set on an unavoidable collision course leading to a clash of civilizations. It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that in order to bridge divides, overcome conflicts and promote better understanding among peoples we need to engage in dialogue. To counter stereotypes and misconceptions that deepen patterns of hostility and mistrust within and among societies we need to address the sources of tensions that contribute to driving communities apart. First, tensions flare up when individuals or groups feel that their values and identity are under threat. Recent waves of migration, particularly in Europe, have often led to feelings of resentment and hostility against migrants. The success of many far-right, anti-immigration parties in various elections in European countries as well as in the European Parliamentary elections last June are a clear sign of a growing malaise. We cannot neglect a number of repeated episodes, incidents and symptoms showing an increased sense of insecurity which may undermine social cohesion and the building of inclusive societies in European states. For instance, the unfinished Islamic headscarf debate in Europe, the issue concerning religion’s place in schools in general and other controversies on various gender issues, which sometimes lead to inflamed quarrels and turn into violent disputes, clearly show that the sources of tensions are still there and that there are groups and forces of various types and nature prepared to exploit them. The popular initiative against the construction of new minarets in Switzerland just a few days ago is again a symptom of a profound unease that exists among populations and illustrates how fears and prejudices can create or increase the difficulties of living together. Tensions also arise when the rights of minorities and their place in society are at stake. From aboriginals and first nations often struggling to have their grievances properly addressed to migrants in Europe, North America and the Gulf states, from religious minorities in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to linguistic and ethnic «enclaves» almost everywhere in the world, societies are confronted with the challenge of balancing the rights of cultural communities and the need to maintain social cohesion. In times of intercultural tensions, it is important not only to uphold the rights of minorities who are often victims of harassment and discrimination but also crucial to make the case for migration and remind ourselves of all the benefits it brings to our societies. In the face of social frictions that affect multicultural societies and the hostility against immigrants that is all too often manifest, it is important to remember that the impact of migration has been, and continues to be, overwhelmingly positive. But, first and foremost, it is absolutely key to invest in education for diversity and cultural literacy and to massively engage in developing intercultural competences and skills, not only among youth but also as a life-long learning process on how to live together. We need education on human rights; education on citizenship and respect for others; education on intercultural understanding and dialogue; education on media literacy; education on religions and beliefs and both intra-and inter-religious dialogue. We need to learn about and teach intercultural competences to citizens. We need to create urban strategies and policies for intercultural dialogue. We need youth policies based on equal opportunities. We need to engage civil society at large, youth, religious leaders and the media. The United Nations initiative Alliance of Civilizations is aimed at addressing these widening rifts within and among societies, in particular the so-called West-Islam divide, by helping to mobilize concerted action toward policies for democratic governance of cultural diversity based on a paradigm of mutual respect among peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds. The Alliance was created to meet the need to expand and develop the intercultural dialogue agenda in international relations and give it top priority. To achieve this goal and implement it at local level where problems arise and have to be sorted out, the Alliance has called upon its members to develop national plans and regional strategies for inter-cultural dialogue and cooperation covering its four main areas of action, ie education, youth, media and migration. Past and ongoing political and cultural controversies and struggles show the urgent need for this long-term strategic approach, both at a national and regional level, and the need for new policies at all levels. We can no longer afford to hide the various symptoms of a looming crisis within and among almost all societies that puts at risk the fundamental values and principles of respect for human rights and freedoms, of tolerance and dialogue. We need to improve democratic governance of cultural diversity. We need to engage in a dialogue to counter increased polarizations that come up against a backdrop of growing tensions over a series of political issues and of growing cultural stereotypes. It goes without saying that political conflicts can only be solved through political negotiations. The long-term resolution of tensions between Muslim and Western societies cannot be achieved as long as some of the egregious sources of hostility are not successfully addressed. But it is equally true that even once sorted out, they will not fully solve the deep-seated suspicion and hostility that divide people along cultural and religious lines, within communities and societies. All findings are unanimous and show a great divide in the way Westerns and Muslims view each other, with Westerners seen by Muslims as patronizing and domineering, and Muslims seen by Westerners as fanatical and intolerant. Moreover, socio-economic marginalization and discrimination generate disaffection and intolerance and aggravate the chasm between Muslim and Western publics. In addition, the so-called divide between Islam and the West fuels further stereotypes and polarization and gives rise to extremism. But let us stress that the vast majority reject extremism in any society and support respect for religious and cultural diversity. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are concerned by the challenges of security, stability and peace. Millions of Muslim families worry about losing their young to religious and political extremism. In order to tackle this problem, new strategies to promote inter-faith dialogue on governance of cultural diversity, based on universal human rights, should be developed. We need to generate a mind shift among divided communities and this is the long-term aim of the Alliance of Civilizations. To achieve this goal, we need to give political priority to the development of democratic governance of cultural diversity, because, after all, cultural diversity should go hand-in-hand with protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, equal opportunities for all, economic solidarity and social cohesion. At the core of this new approach, we should place education for diversity and intercultural dialogue as a process of interactive communication within and between cultures. We need to raise awareness among policy and decision makers about the need to invest in public policies as they relate to cultural diversity and to intercultural dialogue. These policies should aim at developing intercultural competencies and skills as the core part of a national strategy on life-long learning about how to live together. The Alliance of Civilizations’ National Plans and Regional Strategies for Intercultural Dialogue and Cooperation are designed to help achieve these goals and are underpinned by a long-term vision and an acute sense of urgency: urgency because inaction can only aggravate the malaise, whereas small changes in circumstances can produce big shifts in behavior. And this is exactly what we need: to generate the will to live together with mutual respect and appreciation of our ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious differences. So, together, let us face our current difficulties of living together and use them as a window of opportunity to open up new avenues for better understanding and strengthened cooperation. Let’s give a chance to dialogue that delivers. Jorge Sampaio is United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations and former President of the Portuguese Republic (1996-2006).

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