“Towards ‘the Dignity of Difference’:
Neither ‘the Clash of Civilizations’ nor ‘the End of History’”

University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
October 2-4, 2009 	

The conference is a first step in the development of a longer-term project aimed at challenging two dominant western-centric discourses – Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Fukuyama’s End of History theses. Both discourses have contributed to exacerbating conflicts and expanding the divisions between the West and the Rest. Huntington’s discourse underlines civilizational clashes and Fukuyama’s discourse assumes that Western neo-liberal model has become universally accepted. The first becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the second condones Western neo-liberal model on non-western societies. Our project offers an alternative theoretical perspective and practical guide for foreign policy makers based on respecting The Dignity of Difference, promoting A Dialogue among Civilizations, and revealing the capacity of otherness in our pluri-identity societies.  

There are a number of excellent critiques of The Clash of Civilizations and The End of History theses. This project, however, is an attempt to, first, go beyond the critique of the above two dominant theories by offering an alternative perspective. We challenge the dominant tendency of seeing the future as a globalizing merger of all civilizations into one by searching out the compatibility among different values through dialogue among coexisting civilizations in a plural world. Secondly, we attempt to link our alternative perspective to different foreign policy prescriptions than the ones that led to Global War on Terror, democracy promotion and the imposition of Western neo-liberal models on non-western societies. Last but not least, we attempt to problematize the civilizationist discourse by examining the limits of Dialogue among Civilizations and the capacity for otherness in our pluri-identity societies. 

Our aim through this conference is to raise critical questions concerning the complexity of the current relations between the West and non-western societies, searching out the multiple root causes of extremism, re-conceptualizing our understanding of extremist violence, and revealing flaws in the current counter-terrorist policy measures, which may make The Clash of Civilizations a self-fulfilling prophesy. Our ultimate hope in organizing this conference and publishing two-volumes is to flesh out what The Dignity of Difference means in actual foreign policy terms, and how A Dialogue among Civilizations may produce a more nuanced public policy response to problems of extremism and terrorism.   

The confusion caused by The Clash of Civilizations and The End of History theories have distorted the terms of the discourse on the real nature of the predicament the world is facing. These theories have also affected the counter-terror policy response. For example, the so-called Global War on Terror has been depicted in simplistic terms: with the West, the defender of democracy, being pitted against foreign terrorists, enemies of freedom. The Global War on Terror strategy includes regime change and democracy promotion as well as eliminating terrorists. However, the policy outcome of this strategy has either led to ethno-sectarian conflicts or to the strengthening of extremism. The War on Terror has no end-strategy and the “freedom agenda” has failed. This leads us to assume that the Global War on Terror is un-winnable; that the neo-liberal model cannot be impose and neither The End of History nor The Clash of Civilizations theory can capture the complexity of contemporary global conflicts. 

Therefore, in this project we are proposing the exploration of an alternative theory and policy response that would be part of peaceful global counter-agenda. This alternative should not be based on mere wishful thinking but on professional training and sound expertise. This conference and its proceeding two-volumes are crucial steps to re-conceptualize as well as operationalize such an alternative discourse.  

A number of scholars have produced significant bodies of work dealing with the issue of Islam and the West, the West and the Rest, and the problem of extremism and terrorism. What has been notably absent in many of these works is an interdisciplinary multilayered approach that problematizes specific ethno-centric policy responses to extremism. We have adopted an interdisciplinary and multilayered approach. Broadly defined, this approach problematizes such concepts as extremism and terrorism. It does not reduce the causes of extremisms into a single factor of culture/civilization but examines a whole range of political, social, cultural and economic factors at individual, national, regional and global levels. 

These are large gaps to fill, and the proposed conference and edited volumes are only the start of what we hope will become a significant contribution to a perspective that respect pluralism, celebrates dignity of difference and promotes civilizational dialogue.
Dr. Mojtaba Mahdavi 
Assistant Professor 
Department of Political Science – University of Alberta 
Dr. Andy Knight
Professor, Department Chair, and IDRC Governor 
Department of Political Science – University of Alberta 
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