World Economic Forum

I participated in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that was convened in New York City under the theme “Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future.” The gathering, which has taken place in Davos, Switzerland since 1971, moved to New York in 2002  as a signal of Forum members’ determination to tackle head-on the extraordinary challenges faced by the world after the attacks of September 11th. From January 31st until February 4th, 2002, some 3,000 world leaders from business, government, academia, religion, the media and civil society had their first opportunity to develop an integrated response to these new circumstances. The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2002 contributes to shaping a new global vision.


The issue of conflicts among the world’s cultures and civilizations was a major theme during the WEF conference.  The tragic events of September 11th did not only impact the location of the meeting but also the content of its program, particularly the sessions that tackled the question of the impact of globalization on culture. Is globalization creating a convergence in cultural values or are there unbridgeable gaps that might lead ultimately to a “clash of civilizations?” Can different cultures co-exist peacefully, asked Moisés Naim, Editor-in-Chief, Foreign Policy Magazine, USA, who moderated a discussion focusing more on cultural differences than similarities. François Burgat, Director, Centre Français d’Archéologie et des Sciences Sociales de Sanaa, Yemen, said that there are no major differences in values among different civilizations but rather cultures express and articulate those values in distinct ways.  He believes that increased cultural awareness will help more people understand globally shared values. How many western elites, he asked, know a non-western language?
On a distinct note, Samuel Huntington, Chairman, Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, USA, said that there are indeed real differences in values and cultures among civilizations. The idea of a bridge, as suggested in the title of the session, implies there is something separating them. The issue is whether this is a “bridge over a chasm, a wide ocean, a changing stream or what?” He is not sure of the answer, but he is certain that differences exist, although they need not lead to clashes among civilizations.  Another interesting issue, he noted, is the role of modernization in cultural exchange.  In response to criticisms that his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Reality of World Order, dwelled on the clashes between Islamic and Western values and ignored the conflicts between Christian groups such as those in Northern Ireland, Huntington claimed that the clashes between Protestants and Catholics do not carry the same potential threat to world peace.

Kishore Mahbubani, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations, New York, asserted that nation-states make decisions on the basis of their own individual interests and impulses.  However, these differences in values and culture are not passive and will not go away until a truly global common ground is created. As someone who grew up in a Hindu household next to Muslim neighbors in a Chinese-dominated country under British rule, his experience told him that different cultures can co-exist peacefully. However, he believes that modernity and economic advancement has brought about an explosion of cultures that has never been witnessed before. The problem is how to handle “this explosion of healthy confidence in a world full of inequalities” without leading to a clash of civilizations.

Karim Raslan, Partner, Raslan Loong, Malaysia, pointed out that civilizations are not monolithic. There are just as many clashes within the same civilization as there are across geographic areas. Kuala Lumpur isn’t Kabul and Muslims in South-East Asia don’t share many of the values of Arab Muslims, he noted. Raslan added that Americans have tended to view many civilizations through the prism of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and they have a different way of looking at the Islamic world than Europeans do.
Theodore Zeldin, President, The Oxford Muse, United Kingdom, said that civilization is one of the instruments used to facilitate understanding among the six billion people in the world. But understanding what each of these people are looking for is one way to bridge differences in values and cultures. He noted that people are looking for love, friendship and respect, but these topics are not economic concepts and seem out of place at a meeting of business leaders.

Is Conflict Fundamental to Human Nature?

What makes some nations go to war, while others remain neutral? BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson, moderator of the World Economic Forum panel on the root causes of human conflict, pointed out that inequalities and extreme poverty are often cited as causes, yet South Africa, which experienced enormous inequality has arrived at peace. Other countries experience grinding poverty and still manage to avoid civil strife. Simpson suggests the causes of today’s conflicts are deeper and less obvious than generally realized.

Gareth Evans, former Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and current President of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, pointed out that there are many immediate causes of conflict, but added: The truth is that these things only act as triggers if there are underlying root causes. It was even suggested that in certain situations, talking about root causes of conflict might risk legitimizing the goals of terrorists. Samuel Huntington emphasized that differences in culture and civilization don’t necessarily have to lead to conflict but he added that earlier discussions have concluded that the need to feel respected is an important factor driving many people.
Taking the debate in a different direction, Giandomenico Picco, Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Dialogue Among Civilizations, noted that attempting to explain conflict by emphasizing concepts misses the point that some conflicts are triggered by the actions of individuals.

Attributing conflict to abstract concepts, Picco suggested, can be a way of evading personal responsibility. This point has been particularly highlighted during the conflict in Bosnia, Picco said, and relayed that when he decided to take a walking tour of the Bosnian killing fields he realized how much of the violence had been triggered by the actions of individuals. “History doesn’t kill”, Picco told participants, “Religion does not rape.” He added that one danger in overemphasizing historical trends is that it can lead to a kind of fatalism, a conviction among individuals that there is nothing they can do to change social currents that have already been set in motion.

Huntington noted that conflict might also be an integral part of our psychological makeup. It seems to me that the root cause of conflict is in human nature, Huntington said. While this may be true, however, these tendencies can be restrained. That is one of the functions of government. Although Evans expressed skepticism about the likelihood of ever changing human nature, Simpson pointed out that there has recently been a decline in old-style military dictators in Africa, and that the world does seem to be making progress.

Omar Abdullah, Union Minister of State for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, noted that most people in the world would accept international standards, if they were applied equally. He stated that consistent standards must be applied in all cases, but that this is not currently the case. Huntington concurred and added that Palestine is the classic example of repeated application of double standards.

I asked the panel whether the breakdown of the nation-state might be another contributing factor in global conflict. “Certainly, the nation-state is changing and becoming less authoritative,” said Huntington. “I suspect that this decline will continue. What we need to do is to develop additional forms of authority.” Picco agreed that the dispersion of power is likely to further complicate efforts at conflict resolution in the future, and he claimed that it will be much more difficult to reach compromises on power. Finally, Simpson noted that the exclusion of large portions of the world’s population from global prosperity and a failure to show respect for one another can cause conflict as well as individuals. “Human nature is a root cause. Can human nature be improved?” asked Simpson and the answer seemed to be ‘Yes’.

Understanding Global Anger: More Storms Ahead?

After September 11th, questions about the roots and dimensions of global anger have taken on new significance. How are we to think about anger in the modern world? What can governments and non-state actors do to address some of the legitimate roots of, and credible threats posed by, economic, social and political grievances?  Opening the discussion, Frederick Schauer, Academic Dean and Professor of the First Amendment, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA, reminded all that it would be a mistake to assume that all global issues of conflict are focused on or related to the events of September 11th.

Leading off the panel, Amar Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, outlined the economic, social and political problems facing the developing world in general, and Africa and the Middle East in particular. He concluded that economic disparity is at the root of much of the anger. The perception that the United States employs double standards when dealing with individual states exacerbates this problem. He emphasized, however, that, “The question is not anger against the United States, the question is anger against one or more [US] policies.”

Kumi Naidoo, Secretary-General and Chief Executive Officer, Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, USA, added that it is important for the developed world to understand the historical roots of anger in the developing world. After September 11th, the good vs. evil rhetoric of the Bush Administration has made dialogue and understanding more difficult because it eliminates any space for dissent. He noted that, “With immense power comes immense responsibility.”

Aleksander Kwasniewski, President of Poland, called for a movement towards “high quality international solidarity” to address problems, and in particular to fight the extreme poverty facing the developing world. He said that the European consensus to fight terrorism after 11 September is an encouraging sign of what is possible.

Zaki Laïdi, Senior Research Fellow, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, France, disagreed that the European reaction to the terrorist attack is an encouraging sign, as Europe has failed to come up with a meaningful and effective coalition to counter the threat. He identified globalized capitalism, the economic elite and the United States as the three main targets of global anger. While encouraging capital flows from the developed world to the developing would address some of the problems, the most important issues are responsibilities shared globally.

Jack Greenberg, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, McDonald’s Corporation, USA, encouraged participants to look beyond the headlines when trying to determine the dimensions of world anger as “perception often doesn’t square with reality.” In France recently, and in Seattle during the 1999 WTO ministerial, protestors targeted corporations, including McDonald’s. At the same time, the numbers of consumers patronizing McDonald’s worldwide outnumbered the protestors by millions. With “facts, dialogue and discussion,” Greenberg asserted, policy-makers and the public can make better assessments of anger and more effective remedies to solve the problems at the root of that anger.

In conclusion, Schauer pointed out that almost half of the discussion focused on anger directed towards the United States. He agreed that this frustration is often caused by US policy, although it is sometimes directed against the United States itself. Finally, Schauer said that every participant had underlined the importance of dialogue. He ended by stating that dialogue and dissent present problems as well as solutions, and the issue of which of those outcomes emerges – and more importantly when and why it emerges – is a difficult question.

Mahathir Urges Muslims to Reject Deviant Teachings

Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Dr Mahathir bin Mohammed accused deviant Muslim religious leaders of distorting the fundamentals of Islam for their own political ends. At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2002 he urged Muslims to reject the teachings of these “political ulamas” (Muslim scholars) who, he said, are only knowledgeable about those teachings of Islam that seem to support their political views. “Many misinterpret and distort Islam to legitimize their political creed. A favorite one is that only ulamas (Islamist scholars) may rule a country, democracy notwithstanding,” Mahathir said. He also criticized them for not having the breadth of disciplines of the early ulamas. “These political ulamas reject knowledge that is not specifically religious for fear that such people might challenge their authority,” the Prime Minister said. “Although the early Muslims were great scholars excelling in mathematics and the sciences, today’s Muslims are generally backward in most fields of learning. They are also not knowledgeable in Islam.”

Mahathir noted that Islam is a religion of peace and moderation. “If today Islam is perceived to be a religion of backward, violent and irrational people, it is not because of Islam itself as a faith and way of life. It is because Muslims have deviated from the fundamentals of Islam, have abused the teachings in order to justify their personal greed and ambition,” he said.
“Extremist deviants are always snipping at us,” the Malaysian premier complained. His government has been labeled “secular and un-Islamic” by the opposition Pan Malaysia Islamic Party, led by people who claim they are ulamas. This hatred for the secular government has been fostered from as early as kindergarten and the campaign against it has absorbed much government time and hindered development, he said. But Malay Muslims have largely refused to fall for deviant teachings or to give power “to self-appointed ulamas incompetent in administration and development”.

The Voice of Islam in Development

After September 11th and the war in Afghanistan, the West has sought greater understanding of the relationship between Islam and modernity. Leaders of Muslim states addressed the relationship in a panel which made clear that Islam has no place for terrorism, that all religions share common values, and that Muslims can lead, rather than just follow, on the road to development.
The September 11th attackers “have no religion,” declared Nemir A. Kirdar, President and Chief Executive Officer, Investcorp, United Kingdom. They exploit Islam “for the sake of public relations.” Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, added: “These terrorist people would like to divide the world” along the lines of religion, but it is the duty of good Muslims not to allow them to do so. H.R.H. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, Chairman, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Saudi Arabia, agreed, and added that he adamantly rejected the assertion that Saudi Arabians were somehow responsible for producing terrorists.
The panel drew strong connections between Western ideologies and Islam. “Three religions pray to one God,” said Al-Thani. William A.

Haseltine, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Human Genome Sciences, USA, asked the panel whether the West should be concerned about the proselytizing aspects of madrasas (religious schools). H.H. Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, responded that Bahrain does not see Christian missions as a threat, and similarly the madrasas should not be perceived as a threat to the United States. Al Saud made clear that his government does not support these madrasas.
The panel broached several important issues concerning the compatibility of Islam with political and economic development. All agreed that the Islamic world is filled with the potential for growth and stability. Al-Khalifa argued that historically, mathematics, philosophy, medicine and free trade “developed not in spite of Islam, but because of Islam.”

The panel then debated the dimensions of ijtihad, or the working out of Islamic rules, in modern society. Al-Thani argued that “we have to divide the state from the church or mosque,” but emphasized that the essence of Islam must be kept in each country’s public policy. Al-Saud said that he was surprised at Al-Thani’s support of mosque-state separation, and pointed to Turkey as an example of a state that has gone too far in that direction, resulting in the repression of certain Muslim practices in everyday life. He said that ijtihad should only be taken up by those with a strong knowledge of Islamic teachings so as to avoid the type of misinterpretations that led to the attacks on September 11th.

A vigorous debate took place over the rights of women in modern Islamic society. The Saudi ban on female drivers was quite a hot topic. François Burgat and others criticized the ban, although Burgat emphasized that he is normally the first to rush to the defense of the Saudi record in general when it is attacked in the West. Al Saud responded that over 198,000 women attend Saudi universities, 19,311 Saudi women hold advanced degrees, and in general women are concerned with much greater issues than the right to drive.

Humanity is still in an adolescent phase

In spite of all the modern technologies that are making the world into a global village, and although humanity has greatly suffered from conflicts and wars throughout its history, so-called globalization has thus far failed to significantly encourage understanding and tolerance among the world’s different cultures and civilizations.  Does the monochromatic economic approach of globalization widen the gap even more?  It would seem unfair to lay all the blame on globalization, as all of humanity shares both the responsibility and the burden.  Despite modern history and the prosperous development of some countries in the world much of humanity has not yet fully matured. Yet, future holds the power to bring about lasting change and human advancement.

Said Samir
New York Feb. 2002