May 2023
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M. Wibisono: Dialogue Within and Among Civilizations

We have the opportunity to reflect on the importance of dialogue among civilizations to world peace and the contributions of the family and universal values to that process.

Marco Polo’s encounters with the Tartars and other Asian nations influenced the Europeans of his time and encouraged them to promote contact and dialogue with other civilizations. Born an Italian in 1254, Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to have direct contacts with diverse civilizations in Asia. One of the most important among them was his meeting with and service under the great Kublai Khan, ruler of China. It resulted in an exchange of views, at least on an individual level, between the Christian civilization represented by Marco Polo and East Asian civilization represented by the king.

Civilizations have marked the history of humankind. Some could not stand against the tide of time, whereas others continue to exist. Mutual contacts among civilizations, based on reciprocal respect for others’ values and beliefs, like those between Christianity and China in the time of Marco Polo and between Christianity and Siam and Bantan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have led to peaceful intercivilizational relations. On the other hand, intrusive contacts, which are intended to impose one’s own values and ways of life over that of others — such as those between Europeans and Asians, Africans and South Americans in the colonial age — have often been counterproductive.

In contemporary times, dialogue among civilizations has become an essential and indisputable element in the maintenance of international peace and security. It is an antithesis to the clash of civilizations, an envisioning zeitgeist (spirit of the age) and a conception propounded by a well-known Harvard scholar, Samuel Huntington. It envisions the dangerous but untenable notion of future conflicts among civilizations, especially between the West and the rest of the world.

Indeed, at present we may be facing two contending conduits of action: dialogue versus clash among civilizations. Each has its supporters and opponents. Are we going to make the world a chaotic and clashing place, with its uncontrollable consequences, or a peaceful and harmonious one for the benefit of all humanity? The choice is ours.

Dialogue within civilizations, in my view, is no less important than dialogue among civilizations. History has recorded a number of destructive conflicts. Christian civilization in the medieval age and Islamic civilization in the time following the demise of Prophet Mohammed experienced sorrowful calamities. Post-Christian or Aufklarung (Enlightenment) secular civilization such as scientific positivism and rationalism could not escape from internal conflicts as well.

Civilizations embody diverse elements and dimensions, which interact with each other and often develop their own “subcivilizations.” These subcivilizations do not always live in harmony. Their conflicting positions often create discord among them. For example, in the early time of Islam, mostly political contentions between partisans developed to become more theological and metaphysical. European history features some notable and appalling conflicts among traditions and civilizations, such as the wars waged by Spanish Catholic rulers against Dutch Calvinists and Protestants from 1556-98; the French Wars of Religion from 1562-96, which led to the aggrieved St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; and the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-48.

If we want to build everlasting peace in a world characterized by diverse cultures, traditions, and civilizations, then dialogue among and within nations is indispensable. It is only through dialogue that differences can be resolved peacefully and lasting solutions can be found to vexing problems. I submit that dialogue has become more urgent than ever. And in this era of interdependence of countries and globalization characterized by the integration of markets, ideas, and societies, the strengthening of partnerships between governments, civil society, international organizations and the private sector is of paramount importance.

As regards the foundation of civilizations, I hold the view that family and its values as well as universal values as contained in the UN Charter and Millennium Declaration and embodied in different cultures and traditions are fundamental elements of world civilizations. The significance of family as a foundation upon which the values of peace are sown and nurtured was strengthened when the United Nations proclaimed 1994 as the International Year of the Family.

The Declaration on a Culture of Peace, adopted by the fifty-third session of the UN General Assembly, attaches great importance to parents or family as one of the key agents in the promotion of a culture of peace. The very challenge that confronts every government at present is how to design and implement adequate family policies that emphasize the values of peace.

I would like to conclude by quoting the wise words of Thomas Mann, a German novelist, saying that “Speech (dialogue) is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact; it is silence which isolates.”

[Source: Islamic Perspectives on Peace, Tarrytown, NY: Universal Peace Federation, 2006]