Friday, April 13, 2012

The Alliance of Civilizations

Spain has long maintained a relationship with Arab countries, through its proximity to North Africa, its many centuries under ‘Moorish’ dominion and, more recently, Franco’s reliance on Moroccan forces during the early years of the Spanish Civil War. Saddam Hussein’s shotgun, famously fired in provocation against the West from his terrace just before the first Gulf War, was given to him by Franco during Saddam’s state visit to Spain in 1974 (along with a medal, the Gran Cruz de la Real Orden de Isabel la Católica). Saddam replied by presenting Spain with two full tankers during the oil crisis of the same year. This cosiness with the Arab world stumbled with José María Aznar’s very visible alliance with Bush and Blair following the summit meeting in the Azores in 2003.

Following on from the changes in Spain’s relations with Arab countries, socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero proposed the Alliance of Civilizations at the 59th General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. It was co-sponsored by the Turks. The initiative sought to galvanize international action against extremism through the forging of international, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation with an emphasis on defusing tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. By July of that year, the Spanish government had approved a million euros spending money to the new agency, earmarked another twenty million for a headquarters in Barcelona and, above all, Zapatero’s initiative was playing well to the galleries back home in Spain. Spain had taken a shot at becoming the moral leader of the world, although it was sadly obvious that Zapatero was punching outside of his class.

One can almost imagine a flying saucer landing in a field somewhere. ‘Take me to the chairman of the Alliance of Civilizations’ says a small green individual holding a ray gun.

The historian Henry Kaman was one of the critics of the Alliance. In 2004 he wrote: ‘Presumably the intention is not to export the decadent western cultural concepts such as democracy, women's rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or sexual tolerance. If Zapatero does not intend to delve into these issues, does he then seek to further develop concepts such as dictatorship, control of the press and the denial of sexual freedoms?’.

By the end of 2006, a report from the ‘high level group’ chosen by the United Nations to outline recommendations and practical solutions on how the Western and Islamic societies could solve mutual misconceptions and misunderstandings was issued. According to the report, ‘politics, not religion, is at the heart of growing Muslim-Western divide’.

In 2011, Spain’s contribution to the Alliance was down to 800,000 euros and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Gonzalo de Benito, notes that this year’s payout will be even smaller ‘since there is no alternative’ but ‘will still be a significant amount’.

A Spanish right wing outlet called Periodista Digital recently stated: ‘It appears that the personal adventure in which Zapatero obsessively immersed himself will now disappear after many millions wasted, much time lost and countless absurd and senseless projects that went nowhere and which no one will remember’.

One gets the feeling that Spain may enjoy the reflected glory of being the originator of such a fine plan, yet now finds that there are other more important fish to fry.

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