Has the Clash of Civilizations Begun?

Interview With Father Jesús Villagrasa

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ROME, SEPT. 21, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Was the terrorist attack on Black Tuesday the beginning of the long-predicted clash of civilizations?



For an answer, ZENIT interviewed Father Jesús Villagrasa, professor of metaphysics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome. On Sept. 11, the day of the attacks on the United States, Father Villagrasa was lecturing on the "Dialogue Between Cultures: Challenges of Multicultural Societies and Cultural Globalization."

Q: Are we witnessing the clash of civilizations?

Father Villagrasa: No, at least not for the moment. It is always a possibility. According to statements in the Argentine newspaper Clarin [Sept. 19] on Samuel Huntington, famous author of the book "The Clash of Civilizations," the clash depends on the reaction adopted by the United States and the Arab world.

If they join in the struggle against terrorists, it will not happen. If the North American reaction is violent and indiscriminate, it could be detonated.

After presenting the measures that the United States should adopt in its struggle against terrorists, Henry Kissinger, former American secretary of state, warned in The Telegraph [newspaper of London] on Sept. 16, that the United States and its allies must be very careful not to present their new policy as a struggle between Western civilization and Islam. The battle is against a radical minority of terrorists, not against the Arab world, he clarified.

Q: Is dialogue realistic or possible?

Father Villagrasa: Dialogue is not only possible but necessary for peace. In the Message for the World Day of Peace of Jan. 1, 2001, John Paul II said to all men of good will that the dialogue between different cultures is "the necessary way for building a reconciled world, capable of looking with serenity to its own future."

Of course, forceful measures will have to be taken against the terrorists and their supporters, and only against them, but the necessary and realistic way to overcome the root of the causes of this violence is dialogue. President Bush is giving proof of political wisdom with the development of intense diplomatic activity, and with his Sept. 17 visit to Washington´s Islamic Center, where he said that the enemies are not the Arabs or Muslims but the terrorists.

Q: You mentioned the Pope´s message for this year´s World Day of Peace, dedicated, specifically, to the dialogue between cultures. Why did the Pontiff choose this topic?

Father Villagrasa: The Pope wanted to support the 1998 U.N. initiative that, responding to a request of President [Mohammad] Khatami of Iran, declared 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Between Civilizations.

In making the request, Iran´s ambassador to the U.N. said that there are theories that institutionalize and exasperate past rivalries and conflicts, and oppose political and economic interests to the point of regarding civilizations as irreconcilable, and their clash, as inevitable.

Some observers believed there were hidden motives for the request: the desire to counteract the image of "intolerance" and "fundamentalism" that the Tehran regime has in the West; a political maneuver of Khatami to seek international backing and reinforce his reformist tendencies before the country´s more intransigent sectors; an attempt at defense against what Iran and other countries regard as the real danger -- the spread, on a worldwide scale, of a unique globalized culture, which threatens to eliminate any other type of culture or civilization.

Whatever the reason for the request, the initiative is more than opportune. Dialogue will always help to eliminate or diminish tensions and conflicts.

Q: All this is well and good, but how can there be dialogue with someone who doesn´t show his face, and instead of words of peace uses threats and savage attacks?

Father Villagrasa: There is little to discuss with a terrorist or a fundamentalist. It would be a dangerous monologue, because the fundamentalist believes dialogue is dangerous. I was surprised to see, in the edition of L´Osservatore Romano on the eve of the attacks in the United States, a sad fact about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: "There is a cycle of violence that springs when dialogue seems to be taking steps forward."

A violent person fears dialogue because, deep down, he knows he does not have sufficiently strong reasons to justify his violence. However, other channels remain open: diplomacy and intercultural dialogue in our multicultural cities; a dialogue that is not easy, not even among people of good will.

Q: What are the main obstacles to dialogue?

Father Villagrasa: There are so many! In fact, the difficulties tend to be shared by the different speakers, even if they are configured according to their own cultural or religious features.

To name a few: the lack of a genuine religious spirit -- a good Christian and a good Muslim are not violent; the intransigence and violence of someone lacking profound convictions; lack of education, ignorance and contempt for foreign cultures; the memory of painful past conflicts, fueled by fiery religious propaganda or "nationalist myths"; peoples´ deeply rooted prejudices; misunderstanding by members of their own community and culture, interpreting openness as weakness or betrayal of the faith or nation; generalized frustration when faced with lack of reciprocity in a speaker; Western secularism, which is so "foreign" to the religious cultures of other peoples, and incapable of appreciating others´ religious convictions; lack of consistency in the West, which pretends to be a solid, stable and respectable state of law while it legalizes such immoral actions as abortion; the intransigence and intolerance of small fundamentalist groups, which on both sides stir up passions and are suspicious of the "enemy" -- these groups are found not only among Muslims; there are also sects of "Christian inspiration." And there are also officials of Western governments who do not distinguish between a fervent group and a dangerous sect.

Perhaps the main obstacle is fear of the other, of the one who is different.

Q: Everything seems to indicate that the authors of the attacks are Muslim fundamentalists. With their claim of possessing the truth, will religions not continue to be the cause of constant conflicts?

Father Villagrasa: This problem was posed in all its radical nature by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, at a recent conference in a University of Tehran.

Christianity and Islam see themselves as universal and missionary religions, which by divine mandate must carry Revelation and salvation to all men. Is it possible to conciliate such a claim to truth with the attitude of dialogue? Is it not, instead, the cause of innumerable conflicts, including religious wars?

The cardinal said that, in the West, there is a widespread opinion that there can only be "dialogue of cultures," if religions forget their claim to truth and renounce their mission.

It is an unfounded opinion. Christianity proclaims the Gospel without impositions, with the highest respect for the conscience and freedom of men; it inspires feelings of peace. The people of the United States have given great testimony of faith by suffering in silence, by praying. Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York expressed these sentiments in his recent Letter to the Parishes.

The terrorists were not good Muslims. Sadly, satirist Jonathan Swift seems to be right: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."