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Empathy & compassion
"Believing in dialogue paves the way for hope"

September 8, 2000
The Iranian

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. Chairman,

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 civilizations:

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 developments.

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 dialogues.

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 equal footing.

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 and civilization.

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 should prevail.

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]

Thank you.

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