It certainly looked impressive. Presidents, Prime Ministers and foreign secretaries, trailed by their entourages, bustled through the lobby of Madrid's Municipal Convention Center this week. Religious leaders wearing turbans, yarmulkes, head scarves, and the huge ornate crosses of the Ethiopian Patriarch lined the escalators. Media luminaries from NBC's Tom Brokaw to al-Jazeera's Ghida Fahkry-Khane held forth on pressing issues. But an unspoken question hung over the first Alliance of Civilizations Annual Forum: could such a gathering lead to real change?
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, proposed the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005 as an alternative to the "clash of civilizations" mind-set, which was first described by political scientist Samuel Huntington and has characterized much post-9/11 thinking about the relationships between Islam and the West. The United Nations agreed to sponsor the program, which it considered, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his remarks to the Forum on Tuesday, "an important way to counter extremism and heal the divisions that threaten our world."
The gathering certainly was not short on inspiring talk. Former Irish President Mary Robinson urged attendees to "open ourselves to new ways of thinking," and "to find a way to communicate that is humble." And Jordan's Queen Noor insisted that "there is a fundamental, common humanity that towers above our differences." But there was skepticism about whether the worthy pronouncement could usher in concrete change. Forum participant Mohammed El-Fifi, a spokesman for the Islamic Cultural Center, Spain's largest mosque, summed up a widely held concern: "Talk is talk. Can they transform all this talk into action? That's the question."
The Alliance sought to address such doubts by launching a number of initiatives. Noor unveiled a $100 million media fund whose purpose is "to support the production and distribution of films that entertain as well as enlighten films that will enhance the connections that already exist between different societies, but are seldom noted on screen and in popular culture." And Qatar princess Sheika Moza bint Nasser-el-Missned announced a multimilli-dollar investment in Silatech, a global initiative designed to help youth around the world find meaningful employment.
One of the most intriguing innovations was the launch of a "Rapid Response Media Mechanism," which would enable the Alliance to generate accurate, responsible reports in times of international crisis. "Anytime something happens, the jihadis have the capability of getting their side online within a few hours," said David Michaelis, director of current affairs for the San Francisco-based LinkTV, and a Forum participant. "We have to be able to answer, to get a moderate point of view up, just as quickly." Hameed Haroon, CEO of the Pakistani media group, Dawn Publications, came out of the media workshop bursting with ideas. "It needs to be like a superblog, a super-Google," he says. "A place that unites a survival guide for reporters going into conflict zones, with expertise from universities around the world, and reports from local journalists who are actually working on the fault lines."
Indeed, many participants were cautiously optimistic that the Alliance could have an impact with such initiatives. Michaelis, for one, was encouraged by what he heard about the media mechanism. "The people from the U.N. were very open, they got the message," he says. "They understand that it can't be the usual suspects, the same major media corporations. It can work, as long as it has diverse voices and isn't censored in any way."
Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Organization's Center for Muslim Studies, says she was encouraged by the many Forum experts' view of religion as a neutral tool, rather than a force inherently good or evil. "People here understand that blaming religion for conflict is like blaming the gun for shooting someone," she says. Mogahed also hailed the initiatives launched by Noor and Sheikha Moza. But she couldn't help wondering about something that might undermine the Alliance's high-minded efforts. "I haven't seen a single American policy-maker here," she says. "Their lack of engagement, their absence, is a gaping hole."