|Colloquium “The Culture of Dialogue”, JPC Dialogue Between Cultures for PeaceTuesday, 11 October 2011, UNESCO–Fontenoy, Conference Room XITestimony of Pax Romana IMCS by Christopher Derige MALANO
on the added values of dialogue between cultures
Dear Mrs Stenou, Directrice de la Plate Forme Intersectorielle pour une Culture de la Paix et da la Non Violence; Mrs Deremble, Presidente de la CPM Dialogue entre les Cultures pour la Paix, Mister Loing, President of the Liaison Committee of NGOs, distinguished speakers, colleagues and friends:
From the onset I would like to take this opportunity to thank the JPC/CPM for the kind invitation extended to the youth of Pax Romana. It is an honour for us in this our 90th anniversary year of our founding in 1921 as a university student movement for peace building to share with you some of the insights we have gained through experience and that are important in today’s reality. For those who are unfamiliar with Pax Romana, it is an inter-generational NGO consisting of students in higher education, intellectuals, and professionals. The student movement is present in over 80 countries around the world and has been working in the past four years on the global theme, “building a culture of peace and solidarity”.
The sub-theme with which I base this intervention is “the added values of dialogue between cultures”. While there are many examples which I would like to cite, I will focus on the following two: 1) the renewed awareness and understanding of one’s own self and/or culture, and 2) dialogue as a means of mutual understanding. For this testimony, I draw primarily from the experience of one of our projects supported by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, entitled, “Speaking and Listening with Respect,” which initially took place in the Sudan, Egypt, and Canada between university students. The minority status of either Christians or Muslims was taken into consideration for the selection of these countries.
Where do we find ourselves? We noticed that our world is increasingly marked by tensions and conflicts which have cultural dimensions. Pax Romana believes that as students we have an important responsibility to be “artisans of peace”. The university has a social function in society and, in order to promote social cohesion, students are called to be intelligent and respectful participants in dialogue. There are many dialogues which happen between notable cultural icons or at some level in the upper echelons of social hierarchies, but what about us, the everyday people? What about the youth? Are we not also representatives of our culture and society? Yes, we are! Therefore we developed this project to directly engage university students with each other. We wanted to dispel misapprehensions and to give an objective and informed appraisal of cultural identities. So we started with our immediate surroundings, the university.
Before I speak about the two added values, I would like to briefly mention the methodology we used in our initiative. We asked the students to create a set of ground rules which they would all abide by throughout the dialogue process. While we could have easily given them prescribed regulations which we as coordinators considered essential, we also acknowledged this lacked the participatory engagement of the stakeholders. In having them develop their framework on their own, and of course with our guidance, allowed for greater ownership of the organically established rules, rather than our imposed rules which originated from outside the circle of stakeholders. One of the most successful means for dialogue is around a meal. Eating is something we all do, recipes have been created as a result of our surroundings, and food is something tangible which serves a convenient entry point to eventual deeper interactions.
The first added value of dialogue between cultures is self-awareness. People who engage in the process of inter-cultural dialogue are very often quite conscious of their identity and sensitive to their surroundings. Whether arriving to this point either prior to taking part in a dialogue or gaining this insight through the process itself, it is a benefit for all of society. For those who already have some kind of self-awareness, they usually find something new about themselves. As I understand it, dialogue is not a mere conversation of “you speak/I listen” and “I speak/you listen;” rather it is a deeper and meaningful interaction between the stakeholders. Dialogue between cultures, therefore, draws us toward the healthy practice of introspection at the collective and personal levels because one cannot truly enter into a dialogue without introspection.
Throughout the project I had received many comments from participating students saying that when they engage in dialogue, not only did they discover something new about their counterparts, but they were able appreciate their culture in a new light. For example, one of the Canadian students said that his country was very open to migrants and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. While for him this is a true statement, he did not confine himself to it and was willing to take a step back to make a critical analysis of his reality. During the dialogue with international students at the University of Toronto he also came to see that while Canadians celebrate their diversity he came to realise that the neighbourhoods were not as diverse as he thought, ethnically nor economically. From a wider perspective Toronto is very diverse, but the inhabitants are often ethnically concentrated into different areas of the city. With this experience he could question for himself and for his fellow Canadians how diversity is understood and what it constitutes. Furthermore he has seen the need for a redevelopment of which macro and micro indicators statisticians can use to more appropriately measure diversity.
The second example which I would like to focus on is dialogue as a means of mutual understanding. Stereotyping and labelling casts an unfair light of the “other”. When the project first started in Egypt several years ago, we asked the students how much they knew about the various communities in their city, Cairo. Overwhelming majority said they knew a lot since they have co-existed with each other for centuries. As students spent more time with each other a fraternal spirit was building, so too the bonds of trust. This allowed for deeper exchanges. Some of the dialogue we listened to was very promising. For example it was surprising for some Christian participants to hear directly from several of the Muslim participants that they are culturally Muslim but do not strictly follow the rituals regularly. Likewise it was interesting for some of the Muslim participants to have heard from some of the Christians that ritual fasting was, as they personally experienced it, associated with consuming more than usual or eating richer foods. This interaction was important because the students understood in a very different way the challenges that are experienced vis-a-vis the rituals and social practices. They were able to dialogue about culture and faith without having to delve into a doctrinal discourse.
Clearly a dialogue of this nature only touches upon the experience of individuals and not to an overarching generalisation of an entire culture, nor does it enter into questions of theology and dogma. The point here is that while the participants were of different faith traditions, they were able to see that the experience between what ought to happen and what actually takes place also exists in another culture. Coming to realise that someone who was thought to have been different is actually quite similar is a powerful realisation in terms of overcoming barriers. The distance between the stakeholders is bridged with this experience and knew knowledge. The result of this process of interpersonal exchange was that each participant painted a more human face of his/her counterpart and not simply pre-categorising them as X, Y, or Z based on what they had previously known about the other.
In conclusion, I want to give you some news about what has been going on since when we first started this project. Given a great first experience, the university students in Toronto have taken the initiative to continue this dialogue. The latest edition of this exchange took place in the months of March and May of this year. Since the initial project started in Egypt, the students have decided to create small dialogue groups which meet regularly. Maintaining small groups have allowed them to truly build trust amongst themselves for deeper discussion. During the protests earlier this year, fruitful dialogue happened in understanding the interplay between majority and minority groups. As the Republic of South Sudan was declaring itself the newest country in July of this year, university students met in the northern capital of Khartoum, Sudan. In a gesture of solidarity between the two Sudans, they gathered for a dialogue on the role of young people in the new reality. It is also interesting to note, perhaps with a regard to impact, is that the coordinator of the Local Organising Committee for this project, who is South Sudanese, has recently been elected International President of IMCS Pax Romana.
The wide-reaching effects of this project have also extended to the United Nations. As you might have known from 12 August 2010 until 11 August 2011 the United Nations observed the International Year of Youth with the theme “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”. Our rich experience and expertise at the grassroots level as a youth NGO has caught the attention of the Secretary General of the United Nations. We were the only youth NGO invited to speak during the inauguration of the International Year of Youth which was held in the General Assembly Hall. Likewise, in the official brochure of the International Year of Youth, Pax Romana is the only youth NGO quoted in it.
We firmly believe that if dialogue between cultures is to be effective, we need to expand dialogue opportunities beyond the big names and symbolic gestures. We need to promote it at all levels, but most especially at the grassroots level. This is a large goal to accomplish; and a necessary one which cannot be ignored. Taking note of how susceptible young people can be in terms of the exploitation of cultural differences by ideologues intent on swaying people to their causes, this is a crucial aspect to consider in achieving peaceful coexistence in multi-cultural societies. It is necessary for young people to have the necessary tools to comprehend, analyse, and act accordingly for a better world. Our youth-developed and youth-led effort is our organisation’s commitment to engaging young people to accomplish just that. But, youth-led NGOs surely cannot do it alone. There needs to be support from the various intergovernmental organisations. So I close with a call to UNESCO, its member states, and to NGOs for an increase in support for inter-cultural dialogue, in particular one which engages young people.
 Christopher Derige MALANO is the outgoing Secretary General of IMCS Pax Romana having served an elected term of 4 years (2007-2011).
[ENG] http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/iyy/guide.pdf, [FRA] http://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/brochure-fr.pdf, [ESP] http://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/brochure-sp.pdf, [RUS] http://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/brochure-ru.pdf, [ARA] http://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/brochure-ar.pdf, [CHN] http://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/brochure-ch.pdf