Sunday 10 September 2006

The Culture of Tolerance

Islam, down through the years, has thrived when it fostered a culture of tolerance, as in Moorish Spain. But in its modern form, in too many cases Islam has been captured and interpreted by spiritual leaders who do not embrace a culture of tolerance, change, or innovation, and that, Johnson notes, surely has contributed to lagging economic growth in many Muslim lands. Here we come again to the coefficient of flatness. Countries without natural resources are much more likely, through human evolution, to develop the habits of openness to new ideas, because it is the only way they can survive and advance.

The good news, though, is that not only does culture matter, but culture can change. Cultures are not wired into our human DNA. They are a product of the context - geography, education level, leadership, and historical experience - of any society. As those change, so too can culture. Japan and Germany went from highly militarized societies to highly pacifist and staunchly democratic societies in the last fifty years. Bahrain was one of the first Arab countries to discover oil. It was the first Arab country to run out of oil. And it was the first Arab country in the Arab Gulf to hold an election for parliament where women could run and vote. China during the Cultural Revolution seemed like a nation in the grip of a culture of ideological madness. China today is a synonym for pragmatism. Muslim Spain was one of the most tolerant societies in the history of the world. Muslim Saudi Arabia today is one of the most intolerant. Muslim Spain was a trading and merchant culture where people had to live by their wits and therefore learned to live well with others; Saudi Arabia today can get by just selling oil. Yet right next to Saudi Arabia sits Dubai, an Arab city-state that has used its petrodollars to build the trading, tourist, service, and computing center of the Arab Gulf. Dubai is one of the most tolerant, cosmopolitan places in the world, with, it often seems, more sushi bars and golf courses than mosques-and tourists don't even need a visa.

So yes, culture matters, but culture is nested in contexts, not genes, and as those contexts, and local leaders, change and adapt, so too can culture.

(excerpt from "The World Is Flat" by Thomas L.Friedman, US Pulitzer-winner)