By Liam Carroll
"Our next challenge, as a species, is to learn how to negotiate between and transcend our cultures." – Dr M Tyrell, anthropologist.
"What we say goes" declared George Bush senior in the aftermath of the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the collapse of the Soviet Union, way back in 1991. Some of America's enemies, however, declared their opposition to the proposal through attacks against US embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, and ultimately against the US homeland itself in September 2001.
Those attacks were seen by some as a vindication of a theory put forward by political scientist Samuel Huntington, who had predicted 'a clash of civilisations' between what he saw as 'the West' and 'Islam'. His theory was based on the notion that both 'civilisations' believed themselves to be superior cultures that would never compromise their principles, and would thus be destined to 'clash' in what Huntington called 'the remaking of world order'.
George Bush junior, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, continued the theme of bold global leadership with the declaration that "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists". The theme owed something to the fact that the US had a remarkably powerful military and presumed that if people were to forced to choose sides, they would choose the side of the US.
The reality of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rising insurgency in Pakistan, and the testing of a nuclear warhead in North Korea, have left those notions of bold global leadership in tatters, and have instead left Huntington's grim prediction emerging as a frightening possibility.
In the light of this unhappy state of affairs it is indeed refreshing to see the new presidency of Barack Hussein Obama attempting to cast out Huntington's essential belief that 'the West' and 'Islam' are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible cultures. The US president is himself in some ways a direct contradiction to Huntington's notion, as his Kenyan father was born a Muslim and the American president bears the common Islamic name of Hussein.
Recently, on the occasion of the Iranian festival of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of spring and the first day of the Persian new year, President Obama took the opportunity to extend a message of goodwill to the Iranian people with an interesting emphasis on Nowruz as an 'ancient ritual' and a 'moment of renewal'.
These are key words to all cultures because 'renewal', as embodied in the spring, is a reminder of the cyclical nature of the seasons and the earth which has been appreciated by all known civilizations since ancient times. Indeed the Nowruz spring festival, the most significant holiday in the Iranian calendar predates Islam; a clear indicator (amongst many others) that 'civilisation', even as we know it today, is an ancient and complex product of thousands of years of human cultural maturation and not the product of a single short period in history.
Whilst the speech also runs through some standard diplomatic messages about 'rights' and 'responsibilities' he returns at the end to the trans-religious theme with a quote from the medieval Iranian poet Saadi: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence". The reference to Adam is significant because the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able and those of Abraham and other early Hebrew prophets, are all shared by the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which in their own right are based on even earlier religious forms.
By using a shared cultural language President Obama has made a welcome attempt to change the script of the Bush years, which sounded to many like a claim of world dominion. The world needs a shared narrative, not a divisive one, and we must hope that Obama's mastery of language can bring that a step closer.