Higher Education and Research


Address by Prof. RenÚ CHAMUSSY, SJ, Rector of
Saint-Joseph University, Beirut
on the occasion of the Conference on
"Universities as actors of intercultural dialogue in wider society"
(Moscow, 2-3 June 2009

"How can the leadership of the universities promote intercultural dialogue?"

This question raised by the Council of Europe is not one of immediacy. It in fact emerges from a highly specific context, and here it is being put to the Rector of a university deeply rooted in a country and a region where not everything is as perfect as it is at the heart of Europe.

Thanks to the Council of Europe's White Paper ("Living Together As Equals in Dignity"), we are all aware of what the term "intercultural dialogue" means in this instance: "a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups with different ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds and heritage, on the basis of mutual understanding and respect". The text goes on to detail a whole set of fine achievements in terms of integration, co-operation, participation, equality and dignity. The fundamental facts change, however, if one just travels a few thousand kilometres to a place like Lebanon, where one finds oneself in areas inhabited by communities no longer in a minority vis-Ó-vis one another, but equivalents, or almost.

Thus there are new parameters in play giving rise to desires for power, to the realities of violence and to commitments - described by some people as compromises with outsiders - which lead to changes. In this context, while intercultural dialogue still remains "a process that comprises an […] exchange of views", it can rapidly turn sour. Tension rises on campus between supporters of a very apprehensive Christianity and representatives of a highly politically committed Shiism.

It is not our task here to talk about what happens on campuses, something you have already done at a previous colloquy. Clearly, however, at the most difficult times, it is the intensification of passions that causes the greatest problems. It is impossible to get intercultural dialogue off the ground when the differences to be accepted are simultaneously ethnic, religious and political. It is undeniably power that is at stake. It is no longer just a matter of words: human beings in the richness of their lives feel that the innermost aspect of their existence is under attack, under threat.

We shall, as I said, not return to the subject of past experience on some of our campuses where the hatred between different communities derived from political antagonisms and external pressures raised the stakes to a very high level. But we shall say that these tensions taught us a lesson, showing us that we need to step up our work with a view to true promotion of intercultural and inter-faith dialogue.

The first step we took was at grassroots level, but it is as valid for our students as it is for the people we meet in the streets. We introduced a professional mediation centre, which in two years trained mediators to intervene in specific areas of conflict resolution, where they act in a discreet and highly personalised way which is nonetheless effective and able to restore a gentle process of discussion between opponents of all kinds.

The second act which we considered essential was to make sure that our university could be regarded as a torchbearer of openness. This meant doing several things. Firstly, we had to continue to be part of the mobility tendency widespread amongst university students and staff. We took in students from South and North alike, from Asia and from Africa, although Lebanon’s occasional upsurges of violence meant that we could not make all our dreams come true.

We also wanted to increase our commitment in other parts of the globe through practical involvement in the Arab (in the Gulf, for instance), and then also in the Euro-Mediterranean world, not forgetting our "windows" on such different cultural worlds as China, Japan and the United States. All this openness made clear our determination, from the starting point of our own personal experience in Lebanon, to try to decipher other ways of experiencing the world and to get a feel for its culture. Openness to individuals within the university, institutional openness: we showed Lebanese universities, and Lebanon as a whole, what needs to be done in order to live and to engage in dialogue with others.

It was right and proper for benefit to be derived from these mediation efforts and this openness on all fronts through strictly academic approaches to everyone, inside or outside the university, who wished to investigate such intercultural dialogue. For the past few years, we have had an Institute of Islamo-Christian Studies, which is part of a Faculty of Religious Sciences very much focused on comparing religions and cultures. And finally, there are two chairs: a UNESCO Chair in Comparative Studies of Religions and Interfaith Dialogue and a Louis D - Institut de France Chair in Intercultural Anthropology. The first centres on research projects and meetings, while the second not only offers lectures by the holder of the chair, but also enables many different audiences to hear about new world views from China, Africa and elsewhere. Also noteworthy are the Centre for Documentation and Research on Christian Arabs, providing lectures and issuing publications which enable those who so desire to obtain a clearer view of all that has, across the centuries, bound together or divided the members of all the different religions of a single cultural area. We wish to spotlight this academic dimension of our commitment to intercultural dialogue. It really seems to us that this is where a method can be found to take a different view of other people. A way out of cultural warfare can be found, through analysis of the cultural facts which hallmark our different visions.

I still wish to emphasise one final dimension which we consider vital, and on which we work hard at our university. We appeal to the members of our university community to leave academia behind for a while and get involved in socially useful voluntary work in many of Lebanon’s poorer areas. The students concerned volunteer, working either with the backing of institutions or on their own. It all started at the time of the July 2006 war, when large numbers of refugees arrived in Beirut; these victims were provided with support and then taken back to their shattered homes. People living in poverty in other regions were also visited, and our volunteers rubbed shoulders with all these other people of different cultures and different religions. We called this "Operation 7th Day". Intercultural dialogue? Too complex a concept in this instance: we should speak instead of a process of "mingling", without much continuity but with a great deal of fraternity.

I have described the approaches of a university which finds itself at the heart of a culturally very complex world. Difficulty is something that we personally experience as open-minded academics working to overcome tensions, integrate ourselves better into this world and avoid getting lost in misleading squabbles which could pave the way to further violence. Finally, we are giving thought to the crucial phenomenon of multiculturalism, which needs to be explored first and foremost in terms of its specific characteristics, in the light of the different "weightings" to be given to each cultural community. Strictly cultural and ethnic, as well as religious, aspects are bound to clash within this multiculturalism. Each group has its own history and survives as a specific group, whatever its dominant feature may be. Multiculturalism leaves its mark on people's innermost thoughts, causing a reaction if their deepest feelings are wounded. As the individual's heart is always susceptible in a multicultural society, upsurges of sometimes completely irrational violence occur.

It is the university's duty, of course, to put a stop to any violence that occurs at any level. But another task is to teach ordinary people how to live with their differences. It can play a vital role in this respect. Of course we must be under no illusions: it is not easy to live in a multicultural society. Even less easy where the advantages or disadvantages of one community or another weigh heavily. There is inevitably a more magnanimous attitude to a small social group which keeps a low profile, but where communities are of a similar, or at least a large, size, things can very quickly go wrong, unless some truly fundamental work can be done.