Amb Dr. Cynthia Schneider (Former Ambassador of the US to The Netherlands)

07.11.2010 - Interview conducted by Elizabeth Hurst & Ana Lucas-Palomares

Q1. In the media the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ has become a shorthand for the divide in Muslim and Western world relations, however the reality is somewhat more complex. How can the dialogue between the two groups be improved? Can the media still assist in this, or has it become too focused on the currency of conflict?

Well we should distinguish between the types of media; the news media always gravitates towards controversy, that’s always going to be the case. But there’s an increasing stance that this so called ‘clash’, which is a discredited theory, is based on a lack of understanding and respect, which in turn reflects a lack of knowledge. The news media is recognising that more and more, and is trying to flush out this very narrow, politically driven contention of people in the other parts of the world that we get in the West.  The creative media plays as important a role as the news media. I co-founded an organisation in Los Angeles called ‘MOST’ that works with writers, producers and show-runners, people who work in making TV shows, to provide info so they can have more accurate and varied characters and themes related to Muslims and Islam because they are not always the ‘angry terrorist’.
We do that for most Americans, and for them to acknowledge they have people from other parts of the world. Sadly that is not going to come from our education system; it’s going to come from popular culture. So it’s very important to change and improve what they see in popular culture. That will make a difference; not only in the United States, but many other places as many American products are exported abroad so foreign audiences see them. Things are improving as far as the media goes, both with the news media and the creative media. However, there’s still a huge lack of knowledge in this sense.

Q2. Your work with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage aims to unite existing research on cultural diplomacy, commission new projects and create a glossary of best practices in the field. There will also be the possibility of taking a post graduate course in cultural diplomacy; what will those students be learning and how will they be able to put their knowledge into practice?

It’s more likely that students who want to study cultural diplomacy will be able to do it more readily through the course the ICD is putting together with the Dubrovnik University, because it already exists. As it stands now, the Abu Dhabi idea is just in the planning stages now. However, it would be conceived in the same way in that it is a postgraduate course that is grounded as a course in diplomacy and international relations, but with a focus on cultural diplomacy. There are different ways you can explore that. In the course I teach at Georgetown University, I focus a lot on some of the creative culture, media expression and interpersonal connections. Science diplomacy is also a part of cultural diplomacy, as is grassroots civil society activities. Any grassroots or person to person activity can fall into the broader realm of cultural diplomacy.

Q3. You seem to see a big role for civil society actors in that sense in promoting cultural understanding with diplomacy, do you think that can be something that can be expanded upon in American civil society?

Both civil society and commercial society as commercial society is hugely important. I just heard of a thing in Pakistan called ‘Coke Studio’ and it’s a music studio that’s sponsored by the Coca-Cola company. They are facilitating the coming together of traditional Pakistani musicians and new younger musicians and they’re producing a kind-of fusion music that is tremendously popular. Everybody is listening to it, there was just an interview about this on NPR, and the person being interviewed was asked what kind of music she is listening to now and she said “Oh everybody is listening to the Coke Studio music.” Commercial companies usually do this for a reason - They obviously want to sell more Coca-Cola in Pakistan. However, there are many ways they can go about doing that; they can pay for a zillion billboards, or they can do something like this. So the commercial sector is also really important and has arguably a deeper and stronger reach than civil society, which also matters a lot as well.

Q4. How can cultural differences be overcome when implementing a universal approach to peace building? Do you not see a risk in trying to work through a western ideological frame with a particular set of values and norms?

There are no universal standards; there are universal values that play out differently in different places. However, universal standards and western standards are a bad idea, for example the United States seems to have made the mistakes of thinking that the most important thing about democracy would be getting people to vote and we have seen that this is deeply flawed.
If you vote in a transparent, just, fair and incorrupt way, that’s fine. But clearly there are many places where this does not happen. For example, you have a country like Egypt who can call itself a democracy which is just a joke or Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq; they have not worked out very well.

Q5. As an expert on relations with Muslim communities and a former ambassador to the Netherlands, what are your thoughts on the divisive climate there following Theo Van Gogh’s murder as well as Geert Wilder’s populist rhetoric? Do you see a risk for peaceful initiatives?

The Netherlands is a country that is famous as a place of tolerance and it is a place of tolerance, but if you think of what that word means ‘tolerance’ it is not so great. In the 17th Century it was wonderful because in many parts of the Europe Jewish people were not killed, for example, so it’s better to be allowed to live and thrive economically as they were in Amsterdam. However, tolerance does not mean accepting, it means that I will allow you to be there and put up with you, and in my experience that describes the general feeling in the Netherlands. Of course there are exceptions to this. However, there is a general feeling among the population toward immigrants, particularly immigrants from North Africa, the bulk of the Muslim immigrants in Holland come from Morocco, and of course there is a tradition of Indonesians living in that country. Like many European countries that are not used to having large immigrant populations, Germany is the same; it is just not part of the national fibre of the country that accepts newcomers and opens up their society to them. The Dutch are incredibly generous, they are very happy to give money to North Africa, Asia and India. But we’re finding that they don’t really want those people to be living in their country.
In the beginning this happened when I was the ambassador, there was an interesting reaction. It was kind of a politically correct reaction which was “Okay, these people have moved into our country, and they have their own way of living and we’re not going to behave in a colonial way and impose our way of life and our language on these people and respect their traditions.” The result of that was kids who were Muslims missed half of the school year because they took all of the Dutch holidays and all of the Muslim holidays. Jobs require people to learn Dutch and of course they couldn’t get jobs, and the fact is you have to learn Dutch if you want to survive in their country. So they adjusted and made it a requirement for language instructions and they became stricter about benefits, such as unemployment benefits, because initially they were so generous that tonnes of people came and they didn’t have to work because they received so many benefits, word spread and more people came.

They have become much more sensible about it, but there is still a lot of racism in Holland and Geert Wilders, I knew him as a very normal person. Apart from the weird hair, he behaved like a very normal person, and then as this tide of reaction against immigrants rose in Holland, he figured out he could make a name for himself by being a racist, so that’s what he did. It’s really shameful, but what is horrifying is that he has this surprising amount of support, he made that calculation because he figured out there was popular support for it. It is interesting what is happening in Holland right now because the government is becoming integrated, both in municipal and the federal government you find mayors of cities, such as the Mayor of Rotterdam is a Muslim. It is one of the biggest cities in Holland and it has an 80 per cent Muslim population, so it’s a good idea. This is changing in the government scene which is a very good thing; however, there is no change in the private sector. This is the same for women as there are no women in Dutch business in any positions of authority. There is a handful of exceptions, but basically there are no women in positions of authority in Dutch business. The dangerous situation that is emerging in the Netherlands is there is very little economic mobility for minorities in Holland.

Anti-discrimination laws are needed to protect people as well as quotas, that’s what it took in the United States. I don’t think any European state has the anti-discrimination laws that we do in the United States. It’s in the constitution of every country just as it was in our constitution also, but that didn’t stop people from being killed, lynched and certainly being discriminated against in the workplace. It was only until the Supreme Court decided to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or gender or any other attribute that really changed things, along with quotas, which remains a very controversial thing. Society won’t change in this way without being forced to, and once you force them after twenty years or so, the change has taken place and it takes hold. But you have to force people.

Thank you for your time.