Culture is the bridge to humanity

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The Darwish band performs its dance in front of the Umayyad Square, as hundreds of Syrians celebrate the occasion of World Peace Day in the event of 'Peace Talk to Me', organized by a group of civil society associations in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism and the Governorate of Damascus in various places in the city of Damascus, 20 September 2018. [Youssef Badawi/EPA/EFE]

We need alternative narratives to tackle extremist discourses and radicalisation, and this is why we have to invest more in culture, writes Stavros Papagianneas.

Stavros Papagianneas is the managing director of StP Communications and author of Rebranding Europe.

We are currently living in the midst of a historic time period in which mistrust and polarisation between societies are rising. Disinformation, fake news, hate speech and intolerance are poisoning our lives.  Especially, the nations in the East and South part of the Mediterranean are victims of bloody conflicts.

More than 20 years ago, the European Union set itself a foreign policy ambition for the entire Mediterranean region in the Euro-Med Barcelona Conference in 1995. Since then, we have experienced the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the US interventions in the Middle East and the Arab uprisings that have drastically changed Europe’s policy outlook in the region.

Citizens need alternative narratives to fight extremist discourses, uprising fascism and radicalisation. That is why our societies have to empower young voices by providing platforms for young people to build together more open, inclusive and resilient communities.

Especially in the Euro-med region where war is still there. And that is what the Anna Lindh Foundation is doing. Bringing people together and building a culture based on dialogue and exchange.

Inclusiveness and empathy are paramount. We have to firmly believe in the power of dialogue and culture because this increases our tolerance, makes us freer, enlarges our perspectives, boosts our progress, makes our democracies stronger and gives hope and courage to oppressed people around the world.

During the presentation of the findings of the new report of the Anna Lindh Foundation on 22 November in Rome, Elisabeth Guigou, President of the ALF highlighted how important culture is in finding solutions for the issues of the day, not only in the Euro-Med region but in the world in general.

She said that “if we fail to invest in culture now there is a danger that we will all be caught up in a global maelstrom in which cultures would be hijacked for the most retrograde and criminal ends. If on the other hand, we all resolve to meet this challenge head-on, in 25 years the people of both shores of the Mediterranean will form a human and economic community united by their common destiny and capable of making a lasting mark on history. Globalisation would not then breed marginalisation and the frustration and loss of identity this can engender.”

The report revealed that the centrality of intercultural dialogue is pivotal in addressing the issues of the day in the Euro-Med region. The findings of the report on Intercultural Trends and Social Change in the Euro-Mediterranean show that the centrality of intercultural dialogue is pivotal in addressing the issues of the day, from the social impact of the refugee crisis to the root causes of radicalisation and challenging extremist narratives.

More than 13.000 people across 13 countries were interviewed about their expectations, concerns, interests and values. The countries surveyed included eight in the EU (Austria, Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the Netherlands) and five Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEM) countries (Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Tunisia).

The report presents evidence of a convergence of aspirations and expectations among societies in the South and in the North of the Mediterranean in terms of great values of aspirations of peace, humanity, openness, sharing, without eliminating cultural differences.

The vast majority of citizens interviewed say that education programmes, multi-cultural classrooms, youth-led initiatives and support to youth participation in public life are key to prevent conflicts in our societies that are becoming more and more diverse.

They also recognise a high level of importance to the organisation of cultural and artistic initiatives, of training in diversity management and prevention of radicalisation, the support of exchanges between people from different parts of the region and the enhancement of media literacy.

Looking at the possibilities for dialogue between the regions, the survey found that interactions are most common in some of the EU countries surveyed. On average, 53% of respondents in the European countries replied that, in the past 12 months, they had talked to or met someone from a SEM country. In the SEM countries, 35% of respondents had talked to, or met with someone from a European country in the same time frame.

The key qualities associated with defining the Mediterranean region are shared history, shared heritage, and shared way of life – especially cuisine. Migration, instability and conflict are also acknowledged as relevant aspects but to a much lesser degree.

Our globalised world is confronted with fundamentalist reactions of local, ethnic and religious groups who feel their identity is threatened. The opening of markets for capital, products and services and the boost in direct foreign investment is not enough.

We need more inclusive and empathetic societies to fight the lack of trust and intolerance. We need alternative narratives to tackle extremist discourses and radicalisation. That is why we have to invest more in culture. Cultural heritage and culture is the cement which binds our societies together.

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