UNESCO is a UN organisation concerned with education, the sciences and culture. It is a crucible in which the world's cultures melt and come closer to each other; a forum for the exchange of ideas, inspired by various civilisations and the experiences of nations and peoples.
Consequently, taking charge of this organisation should be on a rotation basis among representatives of different cultures in a way that permits — through every director's culture for a certain period — articulating the potentialities of such a culture, its civilisational facets, vision in dealing with current challenges and displaying its value system and how such a culture interacts with other cultures.
Throughout UNESCO's history the post of its director mostly went to persons who expressed the West's culture and its vision. There have been six director-generals, one of which remained for 11 years and was a French national.
A few of those who took the helm gave expression to Asian, Latin and African culture. Arab and Islamic culture remained waiting for its chance to take its deserved place. There is no more significant timing and no more dangerous a stage than the present one that is suitable to give way to Arab Islamic culture to take the helm, in order to expose the false claims of extremism, refute terrorist ideology, and spread the values of dialogue, moderation, peace, coexistence and acceptance of others.
Hence, Egypt nominated a lady who is one of its best offsprings, with a distinguished diplomatic background and active and influential political one. She also symbolises a purely Egyptian Arabo-Muslim civilisation and culture with all that means in profundity, diversity and richness. Moreover, she is a representative of the Eastern Egyptian woman searching for her rights, aspiring to participation, capable of achievement inspite of restraints, hindrances and challenges, and refuting the stereotypical image entrenched about Eastern women in moulds fabricated by the West.
The Arab nations posed a challenge to Egypt's nomination of the politician, diplomat, minister and academician Moushira Khattab. Although this situation was a significant obstacle, it is possible to deal with it, notwithstanding its negative impact on the prospects for any of the Arab candidates — Egyptian, Qatari, Iraqi and Lebanese.
It is demanded that all of them in their messages and communications insist upon the eligibility of the Arabs through their culture and civilisation to take the role of leadership and directorship of UNESCO after all the world's geographical regions have taken charge of that body except the Arab region.
Most of the cultures save the Arab Islamic culture received their due time in heading UNESCO. They should assert the importance of offering this opportunity to Arab culture, at this time in particular.
Afterwards there must be a call and consensus among Arab candidates to back the candidate most likely to win in later stages. This should be done, whether through a dialogue that the Arab League organises with the concerned countries, or via the candidates or an Egyptian initiative.
It was hoped that the Amman Arab Summit would have issued a statement expressing the Arab countries’ aspiration that the Arab region be allowed to head UNESCO. It is still possible to achieve that through the Arab League and its secretary-general.
What has made the situation more complicated is that France, the host country and with its weight in the cultural and international arena, insisted on presenting a candidate immediately before closing the door for nominations.
It is an infuriating development since France chose its culture minister who is of Moroccan origin and Jewish. It is an unnecessary mixing up of issues at a time when distrust between cultures is prevalent and it recalls contradictions between what’s Arab and what’s Western and between what’s Muslim and what’s Jewish.
We, in the international community, believe in the capacities of Arab culture for moderation in the field of thought —including Islamic thought — and all would win if a representative of that culture heads UNESCO in the coming stage.
However, France chose to impose its will and assert that it does not care much about equal opportunity or the value of supporting a first time Arabs and Muslim candidate.
France chose to treat the Arabs and Muslims with same selfish, opportunistic mentality of the past, as if it is the most intelligent and the chosen, as if it is saying in a pretending-to-be-clever manner or mockingly: Do you want an Arab candidate here? She is a female candidate of Arab origin.
The truth is that the opportunistic French standpoint angered me as it did many others for in its nomination there is condescension and insistence on granting its culture an exalted position. The nomination is also an unjustified antagonism and carelessness towards our Arab culture and its capability to positively interact with and affect the movement of global culture. Definitely, it fully realises that, even if only by custom, is the Arab region’s turn as the only culture that didn’t take the helm at UNESCO.
What angered me in the French nomination is that it recalled the contradictions and competitiveness among those believing in different religions. This matter wasn’t raised before presenting the name of the French minister, whereas our Arab candidates were most careful not to instigate religious fanaticism or religious emotions but spoke well of the culture of the other and affirmed that they speak on behalf of everybody and for everybody’s interest. I see in the French nomination an undermining of the positive relationship path with Egypt, and also an undermining of France’s stature as a bastion of noble values and the founder of the principles of liberty, justice and equality.
In all cases, we have to work on reviving values that transcend the way the other perceives and evaluates us, to continue our campaign and marshall behind us many voices. We have many friends. We carry the message of defending Arabism, its culture and our true Islam and its principles, on the top of which comes moderation, respecting the other and cooperation. We have to bear the responsibility of elevating the culture of peace in societies devastated by war and in regions where disputes destroyed values and heritage, and in which UNESCO can play — through Arab Muslim directorship — a role in cultural reconstruction.
This is the importance of an Arab Muslim candidate in this difficult time to head the organisation concerned with peoples’ cultures and to conduct dialogues between their religions and civilisations.
We wish our capable candidate all luck and insistence on elevating Arabism and Islam and serious Eastern women, inspite of Arab division and the selfish Western standpoint.
The writer is former assistant to Egypt's foreign minister.