Dr. Widad Akrawi: Bridging the Gaps Between Cultures

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Dr. Widad Akrawi is the most prominent Danish-Kurdish human rights and peace advocate. She is the only Scandinavian citizen ever awarded the International Pfeffer Peace Prize and the only citizen of a Western country to receive the “Special Prize” for bridging the gap between cultures. 

Dr. Akrawi is an international health expert and co-founder of Defend International, an NGO that promotes peace and democracy through cultural relations and diplomacy. In 2008, Dr. Akrawi was hand-picked to be part of the prestigious UN Group of Governmental Experts to examine the feasibility, scope and draft parameters of an Arms Trade Treaty. For more information, visit:http://widad.org

She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about the global arms control treaty and how to encourage constructive dialogue and overcome mutual suspicion between cultures. 


Clarion Project: The global arms-control treaty, which you helped pioneer, has just entered into force. How does the treaty work? How effective do you think this treaty will be in limiting the passage of small arms to groups such as ISIS?

Dr Widad Akrawi: The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW), preventing them from being used for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or terrorism. It puts forward guidelines aimed at contributing to global peace and security by improving the regulation of the global trade in SALW. Seeing the potential of saving lives and protecting livelihoods, we dedicated a major share of our time and efforts to insert rules in the ATT; we called them the “Golden Rules.” For example, whenever a proposed arms transfer poses a substantial risk of being used in serious violations of international human rights, humanitarian law, or war crimes, those transfers must be stopped.

I believe that the ATT will be very effective in reducing human suffering and limiting the passage of arms to groups like ISIS. But, of course, that will depend on how effective we will be in implementing the mechanisms of monitoring compliance and ensuring accountability. 

Clarion Project: Much of your work deals in bridging the gaps between cultures. Many people find that it is hard to even begin that process. How would you advise they go about it?

Akrawi: Certainly, bridging the gaps between cultures is one of the most challenging tasks we face today, given the increased tensions between countries and the existing and emerging threats to international peace and security. For those interested in this task, they can focus on promoting humanitarian values and cultural aspects of art and human relations. It is possible to create something that could become a common ground for dialogue and reconciliation. The two elements that largely determine the outcome are respect for human rights and willingness to exchange ideas on how to find solutions to common problems. Although reconciliation sometimes remains an admirable but elusive goal, the establishment of a platform for dialogue is the first step towards facilitating community engagement and building relationships across thinking styles and subcultures. 


Clarion: Many Westerners who oppose Islamism find it difficult to engage productively even with Muslims who are human rights activists because of this ingrained cultural suspicion, which comes from both sides. How can spaces for constructive dialogue be created in a way that is inviting for Muslims?

Akrawi: Generalization is the biggest challenge that must be dealt with if we are to create spaces for constructive dialogue where muslims feel they are welcomed. This is equally true with regards to Westerners! Not all Westerners are against muslims, and not all terrorist attacks in the West are linked to Islamic jihadists. To put it differently, individuals are responsible for their own deeds. If one member of a family is radicalised, we cannot generalize and say that all members of that family are Islamic jihadists. Both sides should avoid generalization and respect each others’ beliefs and cultures. If they overcome the emotional and mental hurdles associated with their thinking, the dark clouds of deep cultural suspicion may fade with time.

Clarion: Remaining steadfast against Islamism is vital if we are to have a free world. Yet many in Europe and America believe that in order to have peaceful relations with Muslim societies, Islamists must be engaged with and appeased. How can this notion be challenged?

Akrawi: This notion can be challenged by looking realistically at certain facts. Radicalized muslims living in Western countries are likely to constitute a serious threat to national security. Those who blindly defend Islamism need to realize that a realistic approach to a complex problem is more needed than unquestionable support. The free world cannot afford to accept any form of extremism, whether it is fascism, racism or religious extremism. We do know that the activities of several homegrown extremist groups or organization are prohibited in the West. Why should we allow radicalized muslims to operate  freely in the West? 

Another important point to note is that mosques and the so-called “minority ethnic schools” or “teaching centers” should be carefully monitored, properly controlled and periodically evaluated. If suspicious activities are detected, reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that such religious and educational institutions will play a multifunctional role in how muslims adapt to their host countries instead of misleading them into a path of destruction and hate. 


Clarion: How can Muslims be engaged by Westerners while remaining steadfast against Islamism?

Akrawi: If Westerners take the points mentioned before into account, they will be able to engage in constructive dialogue with muslims while providing security to all citizens, irrespective of religious or ethnic background. As soon as the extremist groups are prevented from operating freely, Westerners will know that radicalized muslims will no longer be a threat to their society, and trust will be built up over time. 

From experience, it is likely that some opponents will argue that prohibiting Islamic-Jihadist groups will result in increased radicalization. However, evidence indicates that now, with the groups operating freely without proper monitoring and control, radicalization is already taking place and increasing rapidly. We should address it before it is too late. 


Clarion: What, in your opinion, has been the hardest thing about attempting to build bridges between cultures?

Akrawi: The hardest thing in my opinion is to help both sides develop a sense of respect for each others’ religions and cultures. This is important because it is part of nurturing mutual respect and building trust. Having said this, it is also quite obvious that such processes are often complicated with uncertain outcomes, but the results can be worthwhile.

In this vein, we should remember that people think and behave differently based on their cultural and religious practices. Furthermore, it takes time to make them realize that individuals, through their own actions, are ultimately responsible for the security and safety of their communities. Openness may influence their behaviour, helping them to engage in various types of dialogue and joint activities. Essentially, the aim is to turn their sensibilities (often regarded as barriers) into unique possibilities. The idea is not to look at the task at hand as a challenge! Instead, embrace it as an opportunity! With a clear vision, good planning and commitment to key long-term objectives, you might have a chance to revitalize trust and embark on what might turn out to be one of the most enjoyable tasks in life. 

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