At first glance, dialogue is a simple concept, clear to absolutely everyone. In a sense, it is even speculative – everyone feeds off dialogue. Dialogue is the essence of communication between people of different ages, different sexes, different political convictions, different nationalities, and different ethno-cultural and religious backgrounds. And different civilisations, too.
We must propose an understanding of the word ‘civilisation’. There are thousands of definitions of ‘civilisation’; many of them go against scholastics and may be considered pseudo-academic. We have consciously gone down the path of simplification. While we are avoiding proposing a definition of ‘human civilisation’, let us briefly explain how we see ‘local’ civilisation, so to speak: far Eastern, Christian, Islamic, and so on. Such a civilisation is a way of life, which is created and regulated by its own values, concepts, and institutions.
The entire history of humanity is a history of dialogue between everyone, and yet also chronicles its violations, which in principle implies dialogue. There is a familiar combination of words: the dialogue between ‘East and West’. However, the relationship between them has remained mostly strained. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1922, Russian orientalist Sergey Oldenburg wrote, “The East, deeply captured by the West, still retains its old skills, and what (emphasis on what) he will make of them, we do not know yet, but we do want to know” (p. 8).
In the second half of the last century, the West–East dichotomy was mainly filled with political content. Typically, the East was understood as the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries established by it after World War Two; the West was NATO, which incidentally adopted Turkey. The term ‘illiberal non-West’ has also emerged in recent years (Pabst, 2018).
The discourse on intercivilisational dialogue often follows the dichotomy of West–East (although instead of ‘East and West’, they often refer to ‘North and South’), and in many cases this implies communication between Christian and Islamic civilisations. The definition of these civilisations dates back to religion, which was of great importance in the course of these civilisations’ formation and development. They shaped a way of life – usually, that way of life was Islam. A way of life could also be considered Christianity, even if it has not manifested so vividly in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The discussion about the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity is endless. Today, when we talk about their similarities, we pay more attention to their common feature of politicisation. In Islam it is felt more, but Christianity, contrary to the trend of secularisation, has not avoided it. Therefore, the dialogue between religions and civilisations is also a social and political one. Friction (which sounds more diplomatic and accurate, the Huntingtonian ‘clash’) between them is natural and inevitable. Conflicts occur because of economic, and therefore political and cultural, inequalities.
You must be objective with yourself and your opponent. In history, the strongest person always wins. This was the West, including Russia – or more specifically, Christian civilisation. Hence, the conclusion (offensive for Muslims and more broadly for Eastern civilisations, yet honest) was that there was a struggle between unequal socioeconomic and political development of subjects.
One often hears that the West should compensate the East for the latter’s losses in intercivilisational competition. One case is the complaints expressed in Central Asia against the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, for the collapse of the local way of life. I do not argue over the fact that Sovietisation cost Central Asia dearly. But the empires, Russian and Soviet, transformed and modernised the traditional world even this came about in a harsh way. History is merciless and it will always remain that way.
History is a ruthless phenomenon; this was always the case, still is, and will continue to be. As Francis Fukuyama (2008, p. 143) noted, “a society that is not threatened by competition or aggression stops developing and stops renewing itself; individuals who are too inclined to trust cooperation become vulnerable for the more belligerent” – and not always in the literal, militaristic sense. The same logic applies to civilisations as well. Can one pose the awkward question of what the East would look like if it had not clashed with the West?
The relationship between intercivilisational competition and harmony (and the task of dialogue) is deeply dialectic. The first implies the second and vice versa. But why are Eastern civilisations weaker than Western civilisations? What are the reasons behind the material success of some civilisations and the weakness of others? Perhaps one explanation lies in religion, which is not always ready to support change or propose its own rationale for reform. Europe was pushed forward by religious reformation. It is apparent that to this day, countries where it triumphed are still half a step ahead of their Catholic brethren – Northern and Central Europe – in terms of economic development.
It is meaningless and tactless to argue about spiritual, and particularly religious, superiority (i.e., which religion is better). Each religion claims its absolute perfection. Without it, every religion renounces itself. Such ambition creates challenges for dialogue, but it does not revoke it at all. Here, the task of religions is to seek common ground and harmony that always exists. Most of the world’s religions hold a positive attitude towards the human world because they consider it possible to constantly improve it, and each of them works in its own direction. That is what their doctrines are all about. This is one of the foundations and incentives for dialogue.
Another reason for this is that the West, as a civilisation, is gradually losing its dominant position. There is the Far East, specifically China, whose development, step by step, is evoking unexpected fear in the West; there is India (call it a ‘subcivilisation’, if you will); and there is still the same determined Muslim world. The West’s priority is far from certain.
In criticising the orientalist approach, American thinker Edward Said (1978, p. 78) referred to the Western stereotype that “Europe is powerful and articulated; Asia is defeated and distant”. This stereotype needs rethinking. The competition between East and West is becoming more acute, which is reminiscent of the Middle Ages to a certain extent, when few people could predict the final winner.
Now Western civilisation, which is wider than Christian civilisation, has lost the feeling of its unconditional triumph in this competition, hence its fear of the future. This fear is exacerbated by the demographic situation: the Muslim and Far Eastern worlds outnumber, or will soon outnumber, the West. The ‘human number’ of Western civilisation is continuing to decline. It seems as though Eastern civilisations are enacting revenge. At the very least, they seek equality with the Western civilisation that overtook them throughout past centuries.
Talks that Europe will have turned into a kind of ancient Greece by the end of this century are exaggerated, but on the other hand, it is difficult to predict Europe’s place and role in the future world. The current hyperactivity of the US is largely motivated by a desire to maintain its position rather than expand it. Yet President Donald Trump is not so much looking to expand its position as he is afraid of losing it.
Globalism can be considered a victory for the West as long as you like. But it is merely an appearance of victory. ‘Local civilisations’ will not dissolve but will instead be reborn, and each in its own way. In his poem “Lui” dedicated to Napoleon, the great Frenchman Victor Hugo called the future emperor of France, who broke into Egypt in 1798–1801 and was then still known as General Bonaparte, “Muhammad of the West”. Beautiful. But a ‘new prophet’ will never come to the Muslim world from the West. Hence the demand for intercivilisational dialogue, which is becoming more complicated in the 21st century, but without which it will be impossible to orient oneself in the future. It is difficult to predict how it will happen, but it is necessary to think about it…
Nowadays, only the laziest do not talk about the emerging new world order. It is not the task of our introduction to participate in this ongoing discussion. Let us note just one circumstance: in the condition of transition – disorder – dialogue between civilisations is becoming especially important. Properly constructed, it will make this transition less painful and dangerous.
And one final point: dialogue is as eternal as the continents and the oceans. Have you ever thought about the Earth’s climate as the essence of dialogue between water and Earth? Everybody is talking about its disruption – about global warming. And this is a kind of disruption of the dialogue between natural elements. We are all afraid. Why? Because this dialogue is conducted without us; some experts believe that its violation is due to cosmic rays falling on the ground.
When dialogue in nature is disrupted, dialogue between people becomes particularly important. It offers real protection from both social and natural disasters. ‘Catastrophe movies’ are naive, even primitive. But there is a simple idea in them – in the hypothetical ‘new flood’, humanity will only survive if there is unity amongst people from ‘local civilisations’, be they Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or even those who survived after general progress of the pagans. Funny? But that’s what it is.
The nerve-centre of dialogue, around which it takes place, is that despite a common physiology and anthropology of people (although there are differences), we remain different in our perceptions of the world, our mentality, our sense of self, and our perceptions of the other. Civilisation will feel completely universal only when there a qualitatively different civilisation comes from space.
What is the focus of the work of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC)?
The easiest answer is ‘everything’. Moreover, as noted above, dialogue is a common process that encompasses all spheres of human life and takes place at various levels. It is conducted on political and economic platforms. It is unthinkable without taking into account the latest technologies, including information technology. And is it possible to ignore the demographic dimension? It is well known how the quantitative relationship between civilisations is changing, both globally and regionally.
Finally, there is dialogue:
– between religions (specifically between Christianity and Islam, which is more than difficult today);
– between civil societies of different civilisations; and
– between states.
Dialogue (and its successes and failures) has a huge impact on the geopolitical situation and on our common future. At the DOC, we want to pay more attention to the most acute and challenging issues.
Our institute is not only involved in research activities; our goal is to develop and improve dialogue, which is not easy due to the constantly and rapidly changing situation in the world. The DOC builds bridges between civilisations, between states, between social groups, and most importantly, between peoples, whatever civilisational identity they consider themselves to have.
The DOC has never imposed and will never impose an opinion on anyone. We simply hope that our scientific and practical experience can help people and organisations who, each in their own way, struggle for mutual understanding, thereby improving the atmosphere in our highly complex world. Only dialogue, however difficult it may seem, will ensure the future of the world, our universal civilisation.
Fukuyama, F. (2008). Nashe postchelovecheskoe budushchee [Our post-human future]. Moscow: AST, Moskva.
Oldenburg, S. F. (1922). Vostok-Zapad: Issledovaniya, perevody, publikatsii. [East-West: Research, translations, publications]. Nauka: Moscow.
Pabst, A. (2018). The global revolt against the liberal world order. In P. W. Shulze (Ed.), Multipolarity: The promise of disharmony (pp. 103–126). Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
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