Dragan Klaic: Seeking to make sense of Intercultural Dialogue year 2008

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Written for the General Assembly of the European Forum for Arts and Heritage - EFAH, Helsinki, 6 October 2006 (EFAH was the former name of the association Culture Action Europe)

Cultures do not dialogue with each other. They compete, clash, fight, interact and mutually influence each other. In the outbursts of anger, such as provoked by the Danish cartoons or by the recent Pope's remarks, there is a message of outrage but this is not a dialogue. When Pope invites the Vatican ambassadors of Islamic countries to Castel Gandolfo to offer his excuse and express his respect of Islam, this is not a dialogue either but fence mending.

Beyond facile politeness. Intercultural Dialogue (ID) tends to boil down to an exchange of polite truisms. People speak but do not necessarily listen to each other nor respond to each other's statements. They kindly nod and recite their own litanies. As such, ID is meaningless, a waste of time and money.

Representational authority is problematic. Who is speaking in the name of a culture? Who can claim that right? Bishops, rabbis, imams tend to usurp that authority but are often promoted by well-meaning dialogists to the status of qualified representatives of cultures rather than handled as leaders of specific religious organizations.

Avoid conceptual mix up. ID shouldn't be confused with inter-confessional dialogue and inter-church dialogue. The first is for the believers only, the second is for the religious hierarchy. It is none of the European Commission (EC) business to instigate those dialogues.   

Who needs ID 2008? The EC sees ID 08 as a PR exercise, to appease the morose and suspicious Europeans and hide its own deep institutional stasis. It wants emblematic events of high visibility, of manifestative and not of dialoguing format. Do we need more conferences on European identity? More parades of stereotypes, more of kitschy merchandising expressing diversity in the fashion of a souvenir shop?

Constitution, not ID. The European Union does not need ID, it needs a constitution after failing in 2005 to produce one that could be acceptable. ID 08 cannot be a compensation for the non-existing constitutional treaty nor a fog covering the disfunctionality of the present Treaty of Nice, as applied by default to 25+ countries.

Bad delivery record. EC wants to dedicate 2008 to the ID but in the meantime it cannot deliver even its basics. Look at the delay of the Culture 2007 call for proposals that will result in decisions becoming known only in the fall of 2007. Many networks and other organizations that are the rudimentary infrastructure of the international cultural cooperation in Europe won't survive this. Why would we trust EC and why would anyone seek to help EC make something meaningful of the ID 08 when the EC's record of delivery is so disappointing in cultural matters?

Too much dialogue? From January 2007, there will be more than 780 members in the European Parliament. Is that not TOO MUCH of the ID in itself?

Prerequisites. What constitutes a dialogue? A bilateral exchange only? To orchestrate a meaningful multilateral dialogue is more complicated. The prerequisites are a clear topic, a dramaturgy / format accepted by the participants, some common referential framework and a skillful moderation. EC cannot provide that. So it will subcontract it, probably to PR agencies.

The other voices. ID 08 would make sense if it would in a systematic way seek to give voice to those who do not have it: oppressed women, refugees and asylum seekers, Roma, unemployed and other disadvantageous minorities in Europe, and NOT to established and habitual authority voices. And wouldn't this ID need to include voices from outside Europe: the oppressed and the scared, the hungry and the sick? How do they get their voice heard in the ID buzz? ID 08 would make sense only if it would empower the underprivileged, silenced and subjugated Others, also outside Europe, thus as an intervention to alter opportunities and not as a tactic to elude, diffuse, efface the existing inequalities through the banal politeness of a dialogue.

In which language will ID take place? Only in English, mainly in English? Could we see before the ID 08 a major commitment to multilingualism in Europe, by the national governments and the EC? As a confidence building measure. To include investment in the proficiency of Europeans in Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Swahili as well.

Support networks. Instead of investing in the ID 08 as a PR exercise, EC should invest in cultural networks that have been essential in securing cooperation and mobility of artists and cultural products and ideas across Europe and have been carrying a cacophonic but enriching and stimulating ID for years.

More than just a dialogue. We, citizens of Europe, need more than ID. We need major engagement in the build up of intercultural competences instead of identity towers. We need more opportunities for the intercultural, creative engagements (across the borders, but also in vicinity, from own neighbourhood to the national state) instead of promotional actions of national governments in the international area.

Kyoto model? Can we use the ID 08 to set objectives, quotas and norms to be reached in the next 10 years that will boost the intercultural competence of citizens, enrich the landscape of international cultural cooperation in Europe and speed up the formation of a dynamic and polyphonic public space in Europe? Something like a Kyoto protocol rather than another Lisbon agenda.

EU foreign policy. If ID 08 is invented as an appeasement instrument against intolerance, radicalization, hatred and violence, including terrorism, what about the causes rather than consequences? Instead of producing the ID 08, the EC better articulate its foreign policy and security policy and ensure that they include a strong cultural dimension.

Brussels-Strasbourg. Council of Europe has also been busy with notions of conflict and intercultural dialogue. Could the EC and Council of Europe use 2007 to work out their shared responsibilities and articulate their specific roles for ID 08?

Contact zones. If the EC has 10 million of euro to spend in the ID 08, they should be invested in contact zones, i.e. social spaces (including cyber space) where cultures meet, interact, clash, influence and appropriate each other. Invest in opportunities and capacities of people to take part in any dialogue, esp. internationally, in international cultural cooperation.

Concretely,

  • Seek suggestion for 4-5 all-encompassing metaphors and develop ideas from them.
  • Turn to the forgotten cities of former intercultural glory and work to revive this memory and experience: Trieste, Thessaloniki, Bratislava, Wroclaw, Constanta... seek local initiatives from those cities by the NGO's and involve young people, then match local support with the EC means and facilitate the insertion of partners from abroad, not just for the sake of the recovery of the lost intercultural riches but for the rethinking of the future local development.
  • Select a few focal points beyond the EU borders on ID: Cairo, Moscow, Istanbul, Casablanca: set off activities on intercultural competence and strengthen the capacities of the local NGOs in cooperation with at least three foreign counterparts from the EU.
  • Profile in articles, interviews, RTV programs and on the web some successful refugee artists, students and professionals in the EU and their perceptions of interculturalism in Europe.
  • Support the production, promotion and distribution of 12 more films like Whose Song is This by Adela Peeva and Kennedy is Coming Home by Zelimir Zilnik.
  • Create a year-long European artists leadership program stressing the development of intercultural competence and international network for a group of young future cultural leaders.
  • Impose a one-year long moratorium on conferences on intercultural dialogue and identity of Europe.