Since the Second World War and the establishment of the world architecture that is now seriously threatened, the question of dialogue between geopolitical and cultural blocs has been a major preoccupation of all those who did not want to relive the horrors of war. Even if each side had its own idea and interpretation of the nature and scope of this dialogue.
Unfortunately, despite the declarations and efforts of the UN, the great mass mobilisations and the advocacy of the "Peace Studies", the war never left this world. It had just moved to other skies and remained confined for some time in certain regions: the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. With the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia and now in Ukraine, the ugly spectre of war has returned to haunt Europe too. War is blind and causes the same disaster everywhere, regardless of the colour of our skin, our eyes or our religious symbols. It provokes the same acts of barbarism and inhumanity. There are no civilised wars with surgical strikes and humanitarian armies. Let us never forget that despite the end of the Cold War, the perfection, production and lucrative sales of arms have continued to increase, to the point that many countries (and perhaps even private militias) now possess weapons of such power that they can blow up the entire planet several times over.
The soft, anaesthetising consensus that had taken hold in the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall on the issues of human rights, democracy and peace did not last long. It was a lure that lulled many consciences and allowed the market to recruit divisions for other kinds of war. The ravages of capitalism, now left to its own devices with the complicity or resignation of the political powers that were supposed to regulate it, and the forced globalisation that it imposed, on the one hand, and the military interventions and desperate reactions of the populations besieged in the name of progress and democracy, on the other hand, have all taken their toll on the ideals of peace, mutual understanding and rapprochement.
The symbolic date of this turning point for was for many observers 11 September 2001 with the terrible attacks in New York, in the heart of the financial capital of the world's hyperpower at the time. It was after these tragic events that the lazy explanation of the world's problems by the "clash of civilisations" popularised by Samuel Huntington ended up dominating the political and media debate and contaminating people's minds.
We do not witness, of course, a war of civilisations, because civilisations generally dialogue with each other despite conflicts, adapt or perish. It is above all a "clash of fears" or a "clash of ignorance" a “clash of hegemonic dreams” which feed each other, invent enemies and create their antagonisms. Here too, it is a decoy to distract attention from the underground war that capitalism is waging against humanity, nature and life on earth.
Words, concepts and reasoning that are fraught with consequences are now used by the media, politicians, community and religious leaders to explain the deterioration of the living conditions of their populations, to exploit their frustrations and fears for their own benefit and to channel their rage towards scapegoats that are easy to attack. Every country or people has its own irreducible enemies, its own existential threats.
Ignoring or denying the advances made in thinking about cultural diversity, interculturality or transculturality, people began to talk now about cultures and civilisations as international actors, as isolated, distinct and autonomous entities with a specific and atemporal personality that would be threatened by cultural, demographic or religious invasions.
This new search for the distinctive features of cultures or civilisations has led to the essentialisation of cultural differences and to crude generalisations justifying the most outdated and, above all, the most dangerous prejudices and stereotypes. In the name of cultural particularism or homogeneity, we indulge in groupings and assignments that confine individuals to fixed affiliations and static and exclusive identities that can become murderous identities, as Amin Maalouf has so well analysed.
Faced with the rise of fundamentalism on all sides (religious, secular and techno-scientific), conjectural interpretations of religion and culture have now taken on a disproportionate role in the analysis of international relations and the fate of peoples. The vocabulary of religious wars of the past is taken up again: Barbarians versus Civilised, Jihad versus Crusades, Reconquista versus Dar el Harb, Yellow Peril versus Bastion of Enlightenment.
The 'culturalization' of socio-political and economic problems and existential distress leads us to draw a new racial and cultural hierarchy of humanity and a new ethnocentric vision of human rights and universal principles. A kind of Nazification of the mind is growing like a cancer, with the return of the dream of racial and cultural purity, whose disastrous consequences are being commemorated every month. We are entering a new period of philosophical, ethical and moral darkness at a time when human beings have never produced so much knowledge and so many ways of knowing and recognising themselves.
The only shared culture that has imposed itself as the only horizon for humanity and that seems to be the subject of a global consensus is that of consumerism and entertainment, which believes it celebrates cultural diversity through the reductive clichés conveyed by the media (classic or electronic) on fashion, music or gastronomy etc.
Faced with this worrying international context, the question we face today is almost existential: what chances are left for dialogue, mutual understanding and respect, international solidarity in this world? What levers can we still activate to raise awareness and prevent the worst from happening with the weapons of total destruction that we possess? How can we stop the madness of those who, in order to prevent the end of a certain world, prefer to provoke the end of the world?
When imagination and hope are lacking, it is sometimes useful to look back to past experiences for inspiration. In Africa, there is a concept that illustrates this need; it is the Sankofa, symbolised by a mythical bird that flies forward with its head turned backwards to take an egg in its beak. This concept in the Akan language of Ghana expresses the idea that in order to move forward one must look back and that learning from the past allows one to build the future.
But there is also another past that can be used to inform the present and shape the future: the history of the Silk Roads. In the last decade, we have witnessed a renewed interest in the Silk Roads throughout the world, expressed in the proliferation of projects at national, regional and global levels and in many fields of activity (arts, tourism, trade, infrastructure, etc.).
Beyond the economic and geopolitical interest pursued by these initiatives, the Silk Roads have been chosen as a reference because they introduce us to another way of interacting and trading in today's world, obsessed with maximum profit and speed, undermined by individualism and superficiality of exchanges. They teach us about the possibility of a happy or harmonious form of globalisation. These Roads appear today as a significant example of the great moments of dialogue of humanity and offer narratives of hope about the possibility of peaceful coexistence and rapprochement between peoples.
Considered to be the oldest and most extensive trade networks, the Silk Roads have played a decisive role in the cultural, political, economic, religious, scientific and artistic transformations that have taken place in the main centres of civilisation around the world. Merchants, explorers, pilgrims, artists and craftsmen, and migrants who travelled these routes carried with them religious and cultural ideas, scientific inventions, manufactured goods and products of flora and fauna. The towns, cities, fortresses, oases, caravanserais and ports along these routes were enriched by these contributions and the services offered to the traders. This is why the Silk Roads have been referred to as Routes of dialogue. The same cannot be said today of the oil, gas, diamond or strategic mineral routes which have become routes of blood and suffering.
The Silk Roads have specific features that deserve to be highlighted. First, they were preserved spaces that required a level of security, tolerance and trust to facilitate transactions and trade that took place on a human scale. They were generally peaceful sanctuaries where the skills of exchange and the intelligence of negotiation were more useful and effective than the manifestation of military force. Most of the powers that controlled the Silk Roads tried to preserve the tranquillity of these spaces because they understood that conflict and insecurity would kill the trade that made them rich. In general, it was in everyone's interest to keep these routes open, safe and secure because everyone hoped to profit from them. Secondly, unlike other trade routes, the Silk Roads were not shaped by the colonial mode of production and domination. The most powerful countries of the time did not practice colonial-style predatory relations with the populations under their authority.
Most partners, including the dominated populations, were able to make some profit from the trade that passed through their territories. It was a concrete example of a "win-win" exchange, an idea that has become an empty slogan today. Last but not least, the Silk Roads had given rise to the development of a culture of interaction, a spirit of mutual curiosity and specific intercultural communication skills, facilitated by the contacts between individuals and groups during the long periods of travel and stay in the caravanserais. This encouraged a slow process of learning about diversity and dialogue.
Today, the Silk Roads are of renewed interest in an international context marked by fierce competition and growing hostility between the current centres of power and the return of a new form of Cold War based not on ideological differences but rather on a struggle for hegemony. The invasions of Libya, Syria, Iraq and now Ukraine, as well as the potential conflict around Taiwan and in the China Sea, are accelerating new and unexpected groupings and alliances. This generalised instability, facilitated by the repeated crises of the dominant financial system and the multi-faceted decline of Western hegemony, is characterised by strong tensions and confrontations, far more complex than those of the Cold War.
We are moving towards the construction of a multipolar world that requires a new global architecture and a new system of United Nations freed from the racial order and hierarchies inherited from European conquests, slavery and colonisation. This "New World" in the making calls for new forms of dialogue between peoples and nations to avoid another global catastrophe.
In the face of new threats of confrontation, and the structural crisis of the dominant development model, the lessons learned from the historical experience of the Silk Roads could help us to rethink global trade, international relations, resource sharing, human interaction and relationships with nature. The values of equity, justice and solidarity, abandoned in favour of the frantic race for profit for a small minority of profiteers, must be reimagined in the light of what people of different regions have been able to build along the Silk Roads and other Roads of Dialogue.
In view of the current dangerous context with the risks of mutual annihilation and climate change, does humanity have any other choice than to build a new ethic of dialogue to save our humanity from self-inflicted dehumanisation?
This is a historic moment when the peoples of the world, on both sides, must speak out against the war rhetoric of their irresponsible elites who are preparing them for a Third World War, knowing that this one is bound to be nuclear.
Ali Moussa Iye
Founder Afrospectives | Political anthropologist