The Clash of Intolerances by Ramin Jahanbegloo

Reviewed by Carolyn Cooper

Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian-Canadian political philosopher whose life exemplifies the harmonious integration of many cultures—Iranian, Indian, European (particularly French), and North American. His philosophy of tolerance and nonviolence, which he has developed over the years, has been tested and strengthened by his personal experience. In 2006, while en route from Teheran to Brussels to attend an international conference, he was arrested by the Iranian authorities on the grounds of spying for the West and he was held in Evin prison for four months before his release.

In January 2008, I heard Jahanbegloo talk at the University of Toronto on cross-cultural dialogue, the main theme of his book The Clash of Intolerances, reviewed here.

Since 9/11, we have seen how easily tensions become inflamed and positions harden when information is transferred from one cultural context to another, and we know that such transfers will intensify as technology tightens its net around all the peoples of the world. Is the world condemned to conflict between cultures, as Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations” suggests? Jahanbegloo theorizes that it is the clash of intolerances rather than cultures that we need to beware of and develop adequate defenses against.

In his book, the author invites us to think of human civilization rather than the civilization or culture of this or that particular human group. Recalling the work of Gandhi, Jahanbegloo speaks of civilization as the great undertaking “which shows to us the path of being human.” He also describes it as the process through which human beings seek meaning and learn to live with each other without violence. As he develops a vision of the possible evolution of human civilization, he presents a number of closely related themes—diversity, respect, common human values, responsibility, dialogue and empathy—and discusses the work of many thinkers and writers from various cultures in these and related areas.

Given the multiplicity of cultures that we human beings have developed over the course of our history, it is clear that a civilization of the kind described in the book will have to be founded upon profound respect for what lies beyond one’s own experience. Respect is far different from tolerance. Tolerance implies the capacity to put up with something disagreeable. Respect, on the other hand, implies humility and recognition that whatever good I embrace is only a partial good. I understand only one part of the total picture, and I remain open to discovering and appreciating common human values.

The search for common human values rather than the search for an all-encompassing truth would, therefore, be at the core of a global civilization, and intercultural dialogue would provide the means for such a search. From this perspective, diversity would present no threat. In fact, it would be accepted that each culture develops and evolves through contact with other cultures. The members of a culture would feel responsibility not only for their own culture, but also for other cultures.

Jahanbegloo points to Spain under Muslim rule and the experience of Córdoba in particular as an example of an open society. For centuries during the Middle Ages, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony and scholars from the three faiths contributed to a flowering of knowledge and culture in science, mathematics, philosophy and medicine, to the benefit not only of Spain but also of Europe

Today, the world is caught in the horrors of intolerance. A profound intercultural dialogue is urgently needed. For this to be possible, Jahanbegloo believes, we have to develop a culture of nonviolence and be willing, as individuals, to practice nonviolence. We also have to understand that contact between worldviews can open up new perspectives for our own culture. Intercultural dialogue aims at awakening empathy for the other, not necessarily reaching agreement, because empathy creates the sense of shared experience. He emphasizes, however, that empathy for another culture and intercultural dialogue do not mean unquestioning acceptance of everything within a culture. They do not mean tolerance of or indifference toward violent practices within a culture. The author refers to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abdul Ghaffar Khan as recent examples of people who achieved the level of self-discipline and open mindedness necessary to engage in this kind of dialogue.

As we know well when we undertake to cultivate an open attitude and to refrain from violent reactions and feelings against those with views contrary to our own, this is no easy task. Even after we grasp the necessity of dialogue and feel impelled to develop the skills to carry it out, it takes ongoing effort and mindfulness to know ourselves, incorporate nonviolent practices into our patterns of thinking and feeling and keep our minds open.

This book makes me realize that the tasks of promoting intercultural dialogue and building a truly human civilization cannot be left entirely to leaders in government, industry or religion. My own sense of responsibility and my own commitment to evolve spiritually are fundamental to the whole process. As Jahanbegloo says, “Responsibility moves the individual to respond to the call of the world and to create a future which would otherwise not happen.” (p. 118)