The latest spate of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Bangladesh and the unfortunate, indiscriminate killings in Paris have highlighted how misinterpretation of culture, rituals and religious beliefs are affecting peace and stability all over the world. It has also drawn attention to the politicisation of faith and its consequent repercussions.
There does not appear to be any exact single definition of culture because it keeps on changing and evolving. Culture has however been described by sociologists as the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a point of time. It is also used to denote the complex networks of practices, accumulated knowledge and ideas that are transmitted through social interaction and exist in specific human groups, or cultures, using the plural form. Of them, some aspects of human behaviour, such as language, social practices (kinship, gender, cooking, shelter, clothing and marriage), art, music, dance, ritual and religion are said to be cultural universals, found in all human societies. Cultural groups may share race, ethnicity, or nationality but they also arise from cleavages of generation, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, ability and disability, political and religious affiliation, language, and gender, etc.
The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture (intangible cultural heritage of a society) refer to principles of social organisation (including practices of political organisation and social institutions), mythology, philosophy, literature (both written and oral) and science.
Cultures are internally affected not only by forces encouraging change but also by forces resisting change. These forces are related to both social structures and natural events, and are involved in the perpetuation of cultural ideas and practices within current structures, which themselves are subject to change. Social conflict and the development of technologies, it may be noted, can produce changes within a society by altering social dynamics, promoting new cultural models and spurring or enabling generative action. These social shifts in the long run may accompany ideological shifts and other types of cultural change.
In this context, it may be noted that cultures are externally affected via contact between societies, which may also produce-or inhibit-social shifts and changes in cultural practices. Culture has accordingly become an important concept across many branches of sociology, including resolutely scientific fields like social stratification and social network analysis.
The eight countries in the South Asian region - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh - contain nearly one-fifth of the world's population and each country contains separate footprints that include Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Christian and Sanskrit connotations. These countries also have a composite representation of different religious beliefs - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. That influences their perception of what is the culture that applies for different resident communities. This has also impacted on the growth of rituals within their evolving cultural scenario. This equation has affected the growth and diversity of languages spoken in this region.
Symbolic significance has contributed to this complex multi-dimensional scenario and resulted in differing conventions and social norms. This in turn has created differences of approach in resolving contentious issues linked to important questions like gender empowerment and accessing to rights and opportunities.
The topic of culture and conflict has been the subject of fierce debate among scholars and the public alike over the last two decades. It has led to several empirical studies aimed at determining cause of the intensity of cultural conflicts and the factors which have been used as instruments to foster cultural dialogue for peaceful co-existence.
The more complex and differentiated the society the more numerous are potential groupings. Each of these groups is a potential container for culture and thus any multifaceted society is likely to be made up of various subcultures that consist of individuals who by virtue of overlapping and multiple group memberships are themselves multicultural. Such a multi-cultural society could be described as a society characterised by cultural pluralism-as in the cases of the United States. Ideal multi-culturalism from this point of view celebrates cultural variety arising out of linguistic and religious diversity, race, ethnicity and immigration.
Cultural conflicts with religious connotations result when different cultural values and beliefs clash. Cultural conflicts intensify when those differences become reflected in politics, particularly on a macro level. This happens because culture is a powerful and often unconscious influence on our perceptions and our behavior. From this point of view, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, should be viewed as not just about land - it is also about identity. Some of this has now rubbed on to the ISIS paradigm. It may also be noted that as cultural issues have entered into political strife, violence has also increased. It is this factor that prompts me to say that time has come for us to foster cultural dialogue for peaceful coexistence in a globalised world.
In Bangladesh, a country of nearly 160 million, there has been a tectonic shift in the perception of culture since the War of Liberation which resulted in the independence of the country in 1971. It led to divisions within certain sections of society about the need to practice secularism (equal treatment of all religions) and tolerance with care and commitment.
Consequently, cultural pluralism has now become the multifaceted bridge through which difficulties are being overcome in Bangladesh. Bengali poets and songwriters use the inspiration drawn from the vast rivers to create Bhatiyali, Baul and Bhawaiya music. This includes the Gombhiras that discuss social issues and also the Agamoni-Bijoya that celebrates the return of Parvati to her home in Bengal. Spirituality and mysticism has added to the cultural diversity and is also helping to find common denominators among regional variations. A pro-active approach is helping to bridge misunderstanding by encouraging tolerance and respect for cultural differences even in the workplace.
At the same time authorities concerned in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia, within a broader framework, are trying to move ahead in resolving the dynamics of conflict emanating from cultural differences through the use of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy may be referred to as a type of public diplomacy and soft power that includes the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding. Such a dynamics from that point of view can, and does play, an important role in achieving national security aims. Consequently, it allows a country or countries in a region to reduce chances of conflict emanating out of cultural differences. It also helps to create a foundation of trust and eventually assists in the growth of people-to-people contact. Another unique and important element of cultural diplomacy is its ability to reach the youth, non-elites and other audiences outside of the traditional circuit. Such a form of diplomacy plants the seeds of ideals, ideas, arguments and perceptions that help to promote peace dividends.
Overall, cultural diplomacy can be termed as an exercise of soft power aimed at overcoming cultural differences that might be resulting in misunderstanding and growth of tension. Measures are now being taken by Bangladesh and some other countries in South Asia. Public agencies as well as private cultural entrepreneurs (who believe in strengthening peace through cultural dimensions) are using literary festivals, films, dance, music, painting and sculpture exhibitions to showcase numerous objects of culture and educational exchange programs. As in the USA, France, UK and Germany, efforts are also underway to establish libraries abroad and use translation of popular and national works to encourage inter-cultural dialogue and promote and explain ideas and social policies. These tools are receiving a wider audience through CSR partnership with the electronic media and civil society.
This process is reducing the impact of differences in cultures becoming catalyst for conflict. Instead, it is promoting awareness that differences can be the source of pleasure, bonding and enjoyment.
No discussion on culture being in conflict and the way forward would be complete without referring within our current paradigm to culture as we understand it in South Asia. This region has proven to be a melting pot of multi-cultures owing to the wide and intensive growth of the digital media. This factor, particularly the use of social media, has its good points and positives. However, there is also the other side where irresponsible use of this medium permits a situation to deteriorate and exacerbate negative response at a faster pace. To avoid unnecessary harm, in addition to better cyber security mechanisms, there should also be meaningful efforts to inculcate not only greater responsibility while enjoying freedom of expression but also in abiding by ethical standards and pluralism.
It would be fitting to conclude by quoting London mayor-hopeful Sadiq Khan's comment reflected recently in 'The Financial Times'. He has warned that radicalisation that emanated from conflict in the perception of culture is "cancer eating at the heart of society". A British MP, he has urged the Muslim community in Britain and Europe to become involved (in tackling growing radicalism), not because it was somehow responsible for terrorist attacks but because it was uniquely placed to tackle the problem. Similarly, common people in Bangladesh, as responsible citizens, also need to be more effective in dealing with extremism in a more pro-active manner.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.