Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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General panel discussion
In the chair: Adriaan van Dis, author

Panel members: Lourdes Arizpe, Assistant Director General for Culture, UNESCO; Anil Ramdas, essayist, Nasr Abu Zeid, professor of Arabic studies and Raymond van den Boogard, journalist.

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Lourdes Arizpe is one of the writers of the report; Ramdas and Van den Boogard both wrote essays responding to themes in the report. Nasr Abu Zeid is present because of his knowledge of and personal experience with Islam. The first question was addressed to him.

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General Introduction
Opening Address by Aad Nuis
Speech by  Lourdes Arizpe
A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
Concluding Address

Van Dis: Why is the West suddenly taking such an interest in the voices of other cultures, from the 'South'?

Nasr Abu Zeid: It is largely the result of the militancy there, all the shouting for attention, the violence. All we hear in the news is the radical aspect - look at all the interest in Islamic fundamentalism. That is a pity. A genuine interest in the culture would have been preferable. The result is that people in the West get the idea that Islam and fundamentalism are one and the same. This is incorrect and, what is more, it helps to reinforce the fundamentalist tendency.

Van Dis: Why is it, Mrs Arizpe, that the fundamentalists aren't mentioned in the report.

Arizpe: That's because we wanted to concentrate on more substantial things and to focus on what unites us, not on what keeps us apart. All religions meet in the area of ethics. And we're talking about ethics here, not doctrines.

Van Dis: Why doesn't the report talk about the Sharia - Islamic religious legislation or about female circumcision?

Nasr Abu Zeid: These are subjects for internal discussion, within the culture itself. On a global scale it is exceptionally difficult to do anything about them. It's possible to discuss them, but the solution must come from within Islam. The West can play a supportive role but it can't give us the answers.

And that's why we need to acknowledge the significance of the internal dialogue. This dialogue is essential to help women in the Islamic world to realize that the Islam that has been their oppressor can also serve as a means for women to achieve progress.

Riffat Hassan

Van Dis: In the essays responding to the report it has been suggested that UNESCO cannot choose. If - as with religious fundamentalism - something doesn't fit in with their enlightened ideas then it is simply ignored.

Ramdas (author of the essays): They are well-meaning ideas stated in civilized language, but we have heard them before over the past thirty years from intellectuals debating globalism and relativism. The only thing that is new is that the politicians and policy makers are now also expressing some interest. I'm pleased however to see all these ideas in one volume.

Van Dis: But aren't they just the same old liberal and democratic Western hobby-horses?

Arizpe: It is more important to realize that there is a need for absolute values. Our aim was to bring disparate ideas together, thus creating a framework. This report is a point of departure. The time has come now for solutions. A powerful statement is called for - if we tolerate the intolerant, then we're intolerant ourselves. We need a paradigm that will uphold the freedom to choose.

Van Dis: Respect for the other is central. Mr Ramdas put it so beautifully in his essay. Even the Pope couldn't have put it better. But doesn't respect have its limits? Does respect also mean tolerating suicide or circumcision so that a girl can be accepted by the whole family?

Every person has a right to respect because a life without respect is meaningless. Thus a society that damages people's self-respect is by definition unjust and uncivilized.

Anil Ramdas

Ramdas: The crucial thing for me is that a person's physical and spiritual integrity must not be violated. But the limits are not easily defined: for instance, if one chooses circumcision voluntarily, then it is called 'piercing'. If it's imposed, then it's an act of cruelty. Respect is a basic value that is certainly necessary, but it doesn't have the status of a universally applicable law. Each case needs to be discussed on its own merits.

Van Dis moves on to the subject of 'the media'.

Van Dis: In some Islamic countries TV is seen as a threat. How can these countries participate in the new developments?

Nasr Abu Zeid: In Egypt American TV channels can be received. American cultural values are thus imported. That has both a positive and a negative aspect. The biggest problem is that for Western people individual freedom is crucial, while in Arabic countries the freedom of the group is more important. Which of these ethical positions should one defend?

Van Dis: What the report proposes is control based on consensus.

Van den Boogard: Yes, but, at an international level, who should prescribe the standards for radio and TV broadcasts? Take MTV, for instance. Its European broadcasts are transmitted from England. That means that you don't get any women's nipples on the screen. In Holland that wouldn't be a problem.

Ramdas: In Bosnia and Ruanda the media played a pernicious role by encouraging murder. What is one supposed to do about that?

Arizpe: We need to have a norm that is universally applicable, no matter how long and painful a process reaching a consensus may be.

Van den Boogaard: But why should I be interested in reaching a consensus with someone with whom I don't have any values in common? In that case I'd sooner have a culture shock - the jungle of opinions.

Ramdas: I'm also in favour of the jungle, but on the other hand not everyone has the same access to the media. That means that at present those who shout the loudest, win the argument. But prohibition isn't an option. If you want to communicate ethical norms and values, that has to be done through competition. So you have to make better, more attractive and interesting TV than the bad guys. It is an area that should be free from political control. If, as in India, politicians want to block the growth of commercial channels, by force if need be, then they should offer better state TV instead.

Arizpe: If you have to choose between a jungle and a zoo, I'd also choose the jungle. But what level are you talking about? At a local and national level I'd also be in favour of the jungle of opinions. But that's dangerous at an international level. There you do need to have norms and values.

The participants moved on from the theme of the media to the topic 'A Commitment to Pluralism'.

Van Dis referred to Livio Sansone's essay. Sansone states that at present there is an exaggerated concern with ethnicity. The ethnic conflicts of today are essentially social conflicts, he argues. The old struggle between rich and poor, that's what it's still about.

Arizpe: That's true, but the ideologies that were once used to fight this battle have been abandoned. Today, culture is both the goal of the struggle and the means with which it is fought.

Ramdas (returning to the theme of fundamentalism): The report did not ignore fundamentalism; on the contrary, that was exactly what it was about. It warned against it, at least implicitly. Against that lack of self-confidence that is turned inside out to become an exaggerated form of overconfidence. That is fundamentalism. I think that people should put up a harder fight against it.

Nasr Abu Zeid: But it is practically impossible to reach any agreements on that at an international level.

Arizpe: You can, you know. First you have to ensure that everybody has freedom of choice. For this reason we should continue to struggle for a pluralist society.

Audience: People focus too much on Islamic fundamentalism and they ignore the fact that the strength of Islam is its cultural diversity.

Van Dis: Is there anything in this report for artists?

Ramdas: They should ignore it. Artists should only listen to their own inner voice; that's how their creativity develops. Being tolerant or politically correct is not their concern. TV producers and government officials who are responsible for cultural policies – they are the people who control the purse-strings. For them it should be instructive.

" artist does not need the report, although it can't do any harm to read it. Art is always multicultural by definition. Interculturalism moreover is not confined to Europe. I've come across it in Asia too. There you see Western culture approached from an Oriental perspective. For a Westerner that isn't always pleasant, but it's certainly interesting.

Josette Féral

Arizpe: Artists are the people who should read the report. It deals with the ability of the human spirit to transcend cultural and historical differences. Artists have a responsibility – through their art they reflect their age.

Audience: Religious fundamentalism has been talked about, but the tyranny of the free market that we are subjected to in our age is another form of fundamentalism. I don't hear any mention of that.

Van den Boogaard: It's old-fashioned to depict the free market economy as evil. The free market is not bad for the poor, quite the reverse. More and more cheap technology is coming on the market. In the end everyone will be able to set up their own TV station.

Van Dis concluded the discussion: We talked about diversity; one thing I missed however was any mention of youth culture although this could well be a unifying force. Michael Jackson, for instance, can be heard from North to South and from East to West. Aren't we all mestizos today? I'd go along with what Sansone says – we could do with more surrealism.

our creative diversity