Mandela’s lesson

2010-02-27 15:30

WHEN Nelson Mandela walked to freedom 20 years ago he

re-entered a society seemingly irreversibly split by the evil of apartheid. An

explosion of violence, to many, seemed inevitable. It is a tribute to his

extraordinary leadership and vision – and to a yearning for peace among all the

people of South Africa – that we have seen reconciliation, not revenge.

The celebration of this anniversary could not have come at a better

time. We are in grave need of being reminded of his qualities.

We live, as never before, cheek by jowl. Economic integration and

rapid communication have brought different races, cultures and ethnicities

closer together and yet it is a tragic irony that while we are more

inter-connected than ever, we are beset by growing inequalities and


This cross-fertilisation between cultures, which in the past has

proved so vital to humanity’s progress, is taking place in almost every

community. Our world has grown smaller, and this can make the divisions in

wealth, influence and opportunity all the more obvious and painful. Wherever we

look, we seem to be in danger of creating an age of distrust, fear and


Disillusioned with globalisation, we see a retreat into narrower

interpretations of community. Many, particularly in the Muslim world, see the

West as a threat to their beliefs and values, economic interests and political

aspirations. In turn, many in the West dismiss Islam as a religion of extremism

and violence despite a long history of co-operation.

Terrorist attacks, war and turmoil in the greater Middle East,

ill-considered words and disregard for sacred symbols and practices have all

inflamed tensions.

Relations between followers of the three great monotheistic faiths

are strained.

At the very time when international migration has brought

unprecedented numbers of people of different creeds or cultures to live

together, the misconceptions and stereotypes underlying the idea of a “clash of

civilisations” have become more widely shared.

We need courage to celebrate our diversity and the commitment to

tackle the gross inequalities which scar our world. We need to recognise that

every community, including a global one, has to be underpinned by shared values

which protect the weak, if it is to be secure and prosperous.

Here we are fortunate, for these values – compassion, solidarity

and respect for each other – already exist in all our great religions. These

same enduring values are also enshrined in the charter of the United Nations and

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We can use these frameworks to bridge

divides and make people feel more secure.

Globalisation will not bring peace or prosperity unless we all

share fairly in its benefits. For this the global architecture will need to be

reshaped to reflect the new multipolarity of our world.

But such actions will have limited impact if fear and suspicion

continue to be fuelled by political and other events, especially those in which

Muslims are seen to be the victims of military action by non-Muslim powers.

Unfortunately, divides do not exist only between countries,

continents or civilisations. We also find them in communities where adherence to

universal values is just as important.

We have to have the confidence to embrace diversity, to focus on

what we share, without forcing everyone into conformity. Universal values are

not about eliminating differences but about managing them for everyone’s


All this places a heavy burden on our leaders in politics, in faith

communities, in business and in civil society to speak out against prejudice and

to promote dialogue and trust. The same is true for all of us as individuals.

Universal values oblige each of us to show the same respect for

human dignity and sensitivity to people of other communities that we would

expect for ourselves.

It is easy to be tolerant of those with whom you feel comfortable

or share opinions. The challenge is to respect those with whom you disagree, or

who come from a ­different culture.

It is these qualities which we celebrate in Nelson Mandela and

which we should emulate daily.


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