Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Attention: A crucial event overshadowed by others. | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Due to overwhelming events in our Arab region over the last week, the opportunity was missed to consider a crucial political-cultural event: the issuance of the International Agreement on the protection of Cultural Diversity which was concluded in the 33rd session of the UNESCO. The agreement achieved an international comprehensive approval with the exception of the United States and Israel. Both Canada and the European bloc played a very effective role in the issuance of this important document that will in fact define the framework of international cultural policies.

It is well known that this agreement came about as an institutional and legislative embodiment of the 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which was signed immediately after the September 11 attacks. It is also closely linked to the international efforts of many parties especially France, Canada, and some Asian countries to affirm the principal &#34Cultural Exceptionality&#34 to confront the course of global trade unification.

This phrase &#34Cultural Exceptionality&#34 means to give a status of particularity on cultural products as they reflect something beyond usual commodities with respect to their attachment to the issues of existence and different cultural identities. Therefore, these products should be protected as a common human heritage in contrast to the tendency of cultural and linguistic hegemony particularly that of the American culture. I need not refer to the well-known and already published statistics about the grave reality of the dangerous threat that several languages and cultures are facing. Many of these cultures are subjected to extinction, and some can hardly express themselves and be culturally present any longer. In fact, all the non-Western cultures suffer many difficulties in coping with the transformations that undergo the human knowledge through the new electronic mediums and information networks. This is not to speak of the monopoly of a single party (the United States) over the global image and photography industry which currently represents one of the most essential and lucrative industries worldwide.

The American opposition of the Agreement on Cultural Diversity could not be solely explained by the economic factors mentioned above; but in fact is related to a more important level of domination with respect to a certain hegemonic pattern of management of globalization at the cultural and axial levels. Needless to mention, the dynamic of globalization has given birth to a growing awareness of the necessity to build up a global cultural body that would conform to the new reality caused by the unified global economic market. However, the content of such a body remained a subject of controversy and fierce clashes even within the Western sphere itself which, contrary to the salient understanding, does not represent a single coherent body.

For example, since the mid 1990s when France protested aloud against using the term &#34Cultural Exceptionality,&#34 it wanted to express the cultural particularity of the Francophone culture, which is based on the heritage of &#34human enlightenment.&#34 It presented the Francophone culture as a frame that absorbs all the African, Asian, and the American &#34Sub-terrains&#34 in the realms that were mostly influenced by the &#34French Cultural Radiation.&#34 Similarly, when some Asian political and intellectual leaders raised the principle of &#34commitment to Asian values,&#34 they aimed to express the particularity of active Asian capitalism, which combines the vitality of the individual initiative with collective social values of that significant sphere. Furthermore, the &#34Alternative Globalization&#34 current has extended to the American culturally varied field itself. Thus, we witnessed the &#34Anti Cultural Mainstream&#34 and &#34Deconstruction and Variance&#34 groups inside the campuses and classes of the most prestigious American universities. All these initiatives represent the features of this rich course of &#34Alternative Cultural Globalization.&#34 The conclusion to be drawn from all these initiatives is that the entrenched perception rooted in our dominant Arab discourse, which sees the international order as nothing but an affirmation of the American hegemony is incorrect. Equally false is to say that international law is nothing but a tool of justification for that hegemony and that globalization is a pattern of neo-imperialism. True, the strategic balances of power (which are the only fixed facts in the international order) offer the United States a wide space for action, which seems unrestricted, as the only superpower. However, this fact, which seems very clear in geopolitical terms (even if relative in some contexts,) does not mean that the American giant controls all aspects of the global order.

The United States has stood against the new international legislations viewing them as dangerous and restrictive to its vital interests. This is apparent whether in relation to the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Tribunals, or the Kyoto environmental agreement. In addition, the new literature on development issued by the United Nations development funds and organizations represents a discourse highly critical of the classical American model by its focus on the cultural and axial aspects of the human development schemes. This in effect achieves no less than the integration of several focal principles of socialist thinking and that of the developing world for development, directly into the body of the Western liberal development models.

The conclusion is that the discourse of protest against the entire international order with all its institutions and legislations is a dangerous and delusive way. The best option is to make good use of the legal and organizational frameworks offered by that order to achieve in the best possible manner our political, cultural, and developmental rights. The Arab and Muslim countries who participated in the preliminary and preparatory meetings that led to the Agreement on Cultural Diversity have in fact managed to relay their concerns loud and clear as well as to effectively engage in the process to acquire consensus over these concerns. This is a useful lesson to consider and a good example to follow.