Roots of conflict

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

KNOWLEDGE without thought is labour lost; thought without knowledge is perilous. There are tomes which are the product of considerable research but are devoid of any analysis worth the name. Opinions, based on little study but dressed up in strident rhetoric, are passed off as original analyses. This slim volume is a refreshing contrast. The authors are erudite. They also dare to reflect afresh on an issue of consuming interest in this century which has opene d its account with fears of worse to come.

Roberto Toscano has a law degree from the University of Parma, Italy; he studied international relations at the Johns Hopkins University and at Harvard and has written books on conflict prevention, human rights and ethics. He is currently Italys Ambassador to India.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is a wellknown Iranian-Canadian philosopher and a cosmopolitan public intellectual. He studied at the Sorbonne and did research at Harvard. He taught at the Academy of Philosophy in Teheran in 1993 and was Director of the Department for Contemporary Thought at the Cultural Research Bureau in Teheran as recently as 2002-2006. He also has an India connection, apart from publishing his writings in his country. He held the Rajni Kothari Chair in Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The book reflects their liberal impulses. Its concern is with the surge of violence. What is particularly unsettling is the fact that between the end of the XX century and the beginning of the XXI century we have been witnessing three different modes of violence not replacing one another, but rather present at the same time the pre-modern violence of Somali clans, the danger of classic inter-state conflicts (from the Falklands war to tensions between India and Pakistan) and postmodern violence carried out by terrorist networks not necessarily connected to a state and often not even operating on the basis of a unified command centre (Al Qaeda is by now a franchising label rather than an organisation).

Facing the confusing and unsettling picture, we witness the difficulty of thinkers of democracy and international affairs to understand the current proliferation of relativism, particularism and a variety of hard universalisms. A future for which the stage is cleared is rendering the democratic theory unable to grasp the nature of civilisation as an absence of violence. We have to ask ourselves how democracies could have been at once so close to and yet so far from understanding violence.

The scourge cannot be eliminated unless its nature, origins and consequences are fully understood. To be mistaken about it is to be in error on the goal of human civilisation. Strangely enough, it is the globalisation of modernity that is leading human civilisation to its uncertainties, challenges and maybe ruin. The fragility of the principle of politics, as a way of organising human existence, has rendered our century unable to grasp the nature of the political as ethical.

Power is a reality. It cannot be banished. But it can and must be mastered and used for the common good. It is the despair of the impotent, their rage at being wronged, that drives men to violence. Do you blame the Arabs after what they have suffered at the hands of the British, the French and later the Americans, for 90 years from 1919 to 2009?

The authors rule out culture as a source of conflict. Religion does not prod people to violence, either. It is the political exploitation of religion that leads to violence. Professor Robert Papes brilliant study of suicide bombers Dying to Win establishes, with a wealth of research, how the dispossessed are driven to this suicidal course. Tolerance and acceptance of cultural diversity, as an asset to be valued, can help. But the roots lie in festering, unredressed grievances.

Has non-violence changed those who practise it for better or for worse? One thing is certain. It has made democracies more inclusive and more just. It has also helped nations in their peaceful transitions from tyrannies to democracies. As such, non-violence has filled the gap between an ethic of responsibility and politics. Non-violence and peace are just two sides of the same coin.

The authors boldly address the issue of Islam and the West: The events in the Middle East [West Asia] have stirred up a sometimes acrimonious debate about Islam and the modern world. Some commentators in the West say the two are not compatible. Others, including many Muslims, ask why Islam lost the pre-eminence it once enjoyed as a civilisation and whether it can ever recapture some of its former glory. Muslims have responded to Western-style modernity in a variety of ways. Extremists like the Al Qaeda group and the Taliban violently reject it. But for many intellectuals in the Middle East the challenge, the mega-task, is to engage with modernity without sacrificing Muslim values. For them, the challenge for contemporary Muslim societies is to create their own modernity.

The authors make a very valid, but often neglected, point. The political Islamist rejects Islams teachings and its cultural heritage. The radical actors of the Muslim world in destroying the troublesome symbols of modernity have destroyed their own cultural vitality and dynamism. Their culture of death has resulted in a death of culture. Islamism has pushed Muslims to mourn their own modernity. By insisting on the ambivalence between being both Muslim and Modern radical Islamism has intensified the unresolved tension between Islam and modernity. As a result of this, Muslims who argue for democracy and secularism seem to be yelled out of the arena on the charge that they are not Muslim enough. Voices within the Muslim community, which insist that Islam should have nothing to do with hatred, terrorism and backward-looking find themselves marginalised.

They enunciate seven basic concepts and discuss the relevance of each to our situation ethics comes first; next, identity; followed by idolatory; history/memory; authority; conformity; and fear.

The chapter on Non-violence in a New Century draws on Gandhi, predictably. The book proceeds to discuss radical change without violence, the new faces of barbarism and religion and peace.

If we do not want to be the passive witnesses of present human disasters, and of the further disasters that are looming, we will have to accept that an intercultural approach is not one of the many possible options for addressing the problems of human society, but the only one that is consistent with life in a globalised world. Interculturalism is an imperative, not a choice. The book is a powerful plea for acceptance of diversity.

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