Being understood – a basic human right
Being understood – a basic human right
Sunday, February 3,2008 16:06
By Jamal Al-Tahat

During a session at the first conference for the UN"s Alliance of Civilisations held in Madrid on 15-16 January 2008, I presented a new dimension of human rights, namely the right of human beings to be understood. The conference was an initiative of the Spanish Prime Minister and represents an attempt to explore possible tracks for addressing the crisis in the relationship between Arabs and the West.

The spirit of the conference fundamentally rejected the concept of a clash of civilisations. Instead, it laid the foundation for a new alliance dedicated to protecting and safeguarding common human values. The all-too-real problem of mutual ignorance between cultures and civilisations inevitably surfaced at the conference. Western media has been criticised incessantly for decades for the manner in which it stereotypes Arabs – a criticism highlighted in an interjection by Jordan"s Queen Nour – but this criticism has always stopped short of proposing a method for change. On the other hand, no serious intellectual standpoint has so far crystallised to oppose ignorance and stereotyping of the West in Arab media; Arab culture has stereotyping dynamics that are no less aggressive and subjective than those present in western media. Javier Solana, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Secretary-General of the European Union, asserted in a speech at one of the sessions that ideological struggles are about the relation between power and interests.

Based on this convincing concept, one may say that intentional and carefully produced ignorance in contemporary cultures is an industry featuring various styles, models and trademarks, such as stereotyping in the West or inadequate and misleading textbooks in the Arab world. This industry"s tools are utilised by extremists, warmongers and conflict peddlers at a great cost to society and global security.Western stereotyping of Arabs and deficient academic resources in Arab schools both manufacture ignorance and spread it to a wide audience. But even if we succeed in eliminating stereotyping in western media and successfully reform Arabic curricula, warmongers would manage to find alternative tools to promote ignorance. For this reason, those with good intentions must reconcile themselves to the need for a permanent effort to oppose all forms of misinformation – not just for the sake of the immediate future, but also for the future of humanity. Just as the scientific method was developed as a perpetual tool to combat ignorance in the field of science, we are now in need of permanent moral levers to tackle misconception and mistrust vis-à-vis other cultures.

By establishing the right to be understood as a new dimension of human rights, we grant moral legitimacy to those attempting to accommodate another culture within, and through, their own. In both the Arab world and the West, well-intentioned individuals who seek to counter the trend of mutual ignorance and stereotyping would automatically be somewhat protected by the elevated status of their work once this basic human right is established.By activating the concept of cognitive mutuality by expanding our conception of human rights, we stipulate not only the right for a culture to be understood, but also a responsibility on that culture to understand those of others". This is an initiative capable of transforming any justification for animosity – due to the existence of ignorance and stereotyping – into an open invitation to understand the other.Arabs resent and criticise their stereotyping in western cultures, but are oblivious to the stereotyping of the West that takes place within their own culture. Conversely, westerners have identified some of the problems with Arab school textbooks and demand that these problems be solved, yet they choose to ignore the damage done by their media on an ongoing basis.

An invitation to consecrate the right to be understood as a basic human right needs to first be extended to the international community by Arab intellectuals. As things stand, Arabs are victims of corrupt regimes and oppressive dictatorships supported by the West, but the Arab world is also a threat to world security due to the presence in many Arab countries of too many extremists willing to use violence. For this invitation to be extended by Arab intellectuals has an important moral and symbolic value: it would show that Arabs are not only victims and terrorists, but also full-fledged partners in trying to resolve the world"s problems. Such an invitation also puts an end to the monopoly by oppressive and corrupt regimes, as well as extremists, who claim to speak on behalf of Arab societies.The right of human beings to be understood is too universal to be the preoccupation of Arab activists alone and must eventually be shared by individuals from other cultures. It represents a coalition combating the industry of mutual ignorance between cultures but also carries with it other dividends, including commercial, security and political ones.