Empathy & compassion
"Believing in dialogue paves the way for hope"
September 8, 2000
President Mohammad Khatami's speech at the U.N.-sponsored Conference
of Dialogue Among Civilizations in New York on 5 September. Translated
by the U.S. Federal Broadcasting Information Service (FBIS).
In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful
Mr. Secretary general, distinguished ladies and gentlemen. Only a short
time has passed since the General Assembly of the United Nations endorsed
the proposal of the Islamic Republic of Iran for dialogue among civilizations
and cultures. Nevertheless, this proposal has been gaining more support
from numerous academic institutions and political organizations. In order
to comprehend fully the reasons for this enthusiastic reception, it is
imperative to consider the prevailing situation in our world today, and
ponder the causes for this widespread discontentment with the existing
situation. This naturally, is a situation that cannot meet the approval
of any justice-seeking and humanitarian individual.
There have been some discussions regarding the political aspects of
the proposal for the dialogue among civilizations. Please allow me to,
briefly, address the non-political side of this issue, here today. One
of the issues, which I can only briefly touch upon, here today, is Iran's
exceptional geographical location. It connects Far East, Middle East, Central
Asia, and Indian Subcontinents and many other Asian cultures and civilizations
to Europe. This remarkable situation has placed Iran on the path of political
hurricanes as well as that of pleasant breezes of cultural exchanges and
also avenues for international trade.
One of the unintended, if only natural, consequences of this strategic
geographical location has been the fostering of a certain cultural sense,
which forms the primary attribute of the Persian soul in the course of
its historical evolution. If we look at this primary attribute from the
point of view of the social psychology, and then embark on a philosophical
scrutinization of the moral constitution of the Iranian spirit, we would
recognize a remarkable and exceptional capacity that we could refer to
as its capacity to integrate. This capacity to integrate involves reflective
contemplation of the methods and achievements of various cultures and civilizations
in order to augment and enrich one's cultural repertoire.
The spiritual wisdom of Sohrevardi [Iranian philosopher], which elegantly
synthesizes and integrates ancient Persian wisdom, Greek rationalism with
Islamic intuitive knowledge presents us with a brilliant and exceptional
example of Persian capacity to integrate.
I should also highlight one of the most important sources that enriched
Iranian thought and culture, namely Islam. Islamic spirituality is a global
one. Islam has, all through the history, extended a global invitation to
all the humanity. The Islamic emphasis on humane quality, and its disdain
for such elements as birth and blood, had conquered the hearts of those
yearning for justice and freedom.
The prominent position accorded to rational thought in Islam and the
rejection of an allegedly strict separation between human thought and divine
revelation also helped Islam to overcome dualism in both latent and manifest
forms. The Islamic civilization is indeed one of only few world civilizations
that have become consolidated and have taken shape around sacred text,
in this case the noble Koran. The essential unity of the Islamic civilization
stems from the unique call that reached all Islamic peoples and nations.
The high number of its followers were owed to the overwhelming response
that it received from various nations.
What we ought to consider, in earnest today, is the emergence of a world
culture. World culture cannot and ought not to ignore characteristics and
peculiarities of any particular local culture with the aim of imposing
its own upon them. Cultures and civilizations that have naturally evolved
among various nations, in the course of history, are constituted from elements
that have gradually adapted to collective souls and to the historical and
traditional characteristics. As such, these elements merge with each other
and consolidate within an appropriate network of relationships. In spite
of plurality and diversity, a unique form can be abstracted. In order for
the world culture to assume a unified identity, in form and substance,
and avoid the chaos caused by various cultural discords, it must engage
all the concerned parties in dialogues aimed at exchanging knowledge, experience
and raising understanding in diverse areas of culture and civilization.
Today, it is impossible to bar the transfer of cultural ideas among
civilizations in various parts of the world. However, the absence of dialogue
among thinkers, scholars, intellectuals and artists, from various cultures
and civilizations, precipitate an imminent danger of cultural homelessness.
Such a state of cultural homelessness, would deprive people of solace whether
in their own culture or in the open horizon of World Culture.
Ladies and gentlemen, the notion of dialogue among civilizations undoubtedly
bears numerous theoretical and analytic questions. I do not want to downplay
the importance of such intellectual and academic undertakings. I would
rather want to stress that in formulating this proposal, the Islamic Republic
of Iran presents an alternative paradigm for international relations. This
should become clearer when we take comparative notice of prevailing paradigms
of the international relations. It is up to us to find the grounds for
replacing it with a new one.
In order to call governments and peoples of the world to follow the
new paradigm of dialogue among cultures and civilizations, we ought to
learn from the world's past experience, especially from the tremendous
human catastrophes that took place in the 20th century. We ought to critically
examine the prevalent, and the glorification of might. From an ethical
perspective, the paradigm of dialogue among civilizations requires that
we abandon the will-to-power and instead pursue compassion, understanding,
and love. The ultimate goal of dialogue among civilizations is not dialogue
in and of itself, but attaining empathy and compassion.
Esteemed participants, there are two ways to realize dialogue among
A. The interaction and interpenetrating of actual instances of cultures
and civilizations with each other, resulting from a variety of factors,
presents one model in which this dialogue takes place. It is obvious that
this mode of interaction is, of course, involuntary, unpremeditated, and
is dominated primarily by social events, geographical situation, and historical
B. Alternatively, dialogue among civilizations could also mean a deliberate
dialogue among representative members of various civilizations, such as
scholars, artists, and thinkers. In this latter sense, dialogue entails
a willful understanding and stem from premeditated deliberation. It is
not at the mercy of historical and geographical development. Even though
human beings inevitably inhabit a certain historical horizon, we could
still aim at meta-historical discourse. Indeed, meta-historical discussion
of such eternal human questions as the ultimate meaning of life and death,
or goodness and evil ought to substantiate and enlighten any dialogue in
political and social issues. Without a discussion of fundamentals, and
by simply focusing attention on superficial issues, the dialogue would
not get us far from where we currently stand. When superficial issues masquerade
as, real, urgent, and essential, and where no agreement, or at least mutual
understanding is reached among the participating parties regarding the
truly fundamental issues, in all likelihood, then, misunderstanding and
confusion would ensue instead of empathy and compassion.
The migration of ideas and cultural aspirations have been a continuos
and recurrent event, in human history, and are as natural as the migration
of birds. Translation and interpretation of languages have always played
an important role in establishing dialogue among civilizations and cultures.
At times, we encounter a difficult situation where we interact with
a language which sounds the same as the one we use, however, the universe
to which these two languages belong are very different. One of the most
arduous passages in the road of dialogue among cultures arises when a party
to the dialogue attempts to communicate with another by employing a basically
secularist language - I'm here referring to a broad and general concept
of secularism which means the rejection of any intuitive spiritual experience
and any belief in the unseen - in an essentially sacred and spiritual discourse.
Such a dialogue would not be impossible. The true essence of humanity is
more inclusive than language which makes it meaningful to hope for fruitful
It now appears that the Cartesian-Faustian narrative of Western civilization
should give way and begin to listen to other narratives proposed by other
human cultures. Today, the unstoppable destruction of nature stemming from
the ill-founded preconceptions of recent centuries threatens human livelihood.
Should there be no other philosophical, social, political and human grounds
necessitating dialogue but this pitiable relationship between humans and
nature, then all selflessly peace-seeking intellectuals should endeavor
to promote dialogue as urgently as they could.
One goal of dialogue among cultures and civilizations is to recognize
and to understand not only cultures and civilizations of others, but those
of 'one's own". We could know ourselves by taking a step away from
ourselves and embarking on a journey away from self and homeland and eventually
attaining a more profound appreciation of our true identity. It is only
through immersion into another existential dimension that we could attain
mediated and acquired knowledge of ourselves in addition to the immediate
and direct knowledge of ourselves that we commonly possess. Through seeing
others we attain a hitherto impossible knowledge of ourselves.
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In dialogue among cultures and civilizations, great artists should undoubtedly
get due recognition together with philosophers, scholars and theologians.
For artists do not glance at the sea, mountain and the forest as mere mines
and sources of energy, oil and fuel. For the artist, the sea embodies the
waving music of a heavenly dance; the mountain is not just a mass of dirt
and boulder; and the forest not merely as inanimate timber to cut and use.
A world so thoroughly controlled by political, military and economic conditions
inevitably begets the ultimate devastation of the environment, and the
eradication of all spiritual, artistic and intuitive havens.
The inevitable fate of such a world is nothing but nihilism. Rational
thinking of the philosopher, the learned language of the scholar, and the
earnest efforts of the social engineer cannot suffice to remedy this nihilism.
We need the magical touch and spell of the enchanted artist and the inspired
poet to rescue life, at least part of it, from the iron clasp of death
and to make possible the continuation of life.
Poets and artists engage in dialogue within and through the sacred language
of spirit. This language has remained safe from poisonous winds of time,
and in the very cold and merciless season of faithlessness it still brings
us good news of original human ideals.
It still calls people to persist on the path of hope and faith. As some
thinkers have emphasized, the present situation of man in nature is indeed
a tragic one. The sense of solitude and monologue and the anxiety rooted
within it embody this tragic world. Our call to dialogue is aimed at soothing
this sense of tragedy.
In addition to poetic and artistic experience, mysticism language or
dialogue. Mystical experience, constituted of the revelation and countenance
of the sacred in the heart and soul of the mystic, opens new existential
pathways onto the human spirit. A study of mystical achievements of various
nations reveals to us the deepest layers of their life experience in the
most universal sense. The unified mystical meaning and content across cultures
and the linguistic parallelism among mystics, despite vast cultural, historical
and geographical distances, is indeed perplexing. Promoting a dialogue
the bed rocks of understanding between cultures and civilizations.
The proposal for a dialogue among civilizations builds upon the study
of cultural geography of various fields of civilization. Yet the unique
and irreplaceable role of governments should never be overlooked in this
process. In the absence of governmental commitment to their affirmative
vote to the resolution on dialogue among civilizations cannot maintain
high hopes for the political consequences of proposal. Member states of
the United Nations should endeavour to remove barriers from the way of
dialogue among cultures and civilizations, and should abide by the basic
precondition of dialogue. This fundamental principle rejects any imposition,
and builds upon the premises that all parties to dialogue stand on essentially
The symbolic representation of Themis - goddess of divine law and justice
- has already gained virtually global acceptance, as its statue appears
on judiciary courts of many nations. It is now time to ask Themis to remove
her blindfold. Let us ask her to set aside the lofty scale that currently
weighs political and economic might as the sole measure. Instead, she should
call all parties to an open discussion in various domains of thought, culture
She ought to look observantly at the evidence with open eyes, and by
freeing herself from any prior obligations, she should finally charge citizens
of the world with the task of making political, economic and cultural decisions.
At the very same time that political organizations and academic institutions
consider and discuss various aspects of the proposal for dialogue among
civilization, the dialogue continues to take place day after day as a matter
of fact. In the domains of economics, politics and culture, problems and
issues rarely remain local and indigenous.
We all deeply engage in making use of each other's so cultural and spiritual
findings. The penetration of eastern religions to the West, repercussions
of Western political, cultural and economic developments in the East, and
most significantly the expansion of global electronic communication have
all rendered dialogue among civilization a reality close to home. Gradually,
these developments should penetrate to deeper layers of our lives. As elements
of World Culture seep through - and these should of course be deliberately
screened - common underground water tables would form connecting disparate
cultural and geographical regions. The science of "serniotics"
provides us with tools to excavate common underground links and thereby
approach the common language" that we need for any dialogue.
We should listen in earnest to what other cultures offer, and be relying
on profound human experiences we can seek new ways for human life.
Dialogue is not easy. Even more difficult is to prepare and open up
vistas upon one's inner existence to others. Believing in dialogue paves
the way for vivacious hope: the hope to live in a world permeated by virtue,
humility and love, and not merely by the rein of economic indices and destructive
weapons. Should the spirit of dialogue prevail, humanity, culture and civilization
We should all have faith in this triumph, and we should all hope that
all citizens of the world would be prepared to listen to the divine call:
So Announce the Good News To My Servants -- Those who listen to the Word,
And follow The best (meaning) in it. [Koranic verse]
Let us hope that enmity and oppression should end, and that the clamor
of love for truth, justice and human dignity should prevail.
Let us hope that all human beings should sing along with Hafez of Shiraz,
this divinely inspired spirit, that: No ineffable clamor reverberates in
the grand heavenly dome more sweetly than the sound of love. [Koranic verse]