Abstract This paper discusses a case of conflict management in the WSF 2004. The reasons for the explosion of the conflict are briefly discussed and linked to the lack of clear and consistent proactive practices of inclusion in the organisational process of the WSF. The discussion focuses on the attempts to negotiate the conflict generated by the claims voiced by Ahmed (a member of the Indian Muslim community), who deprecates the exclusion from the organisational process of the WSF of which he feels he and his community are victim. The paper shows how such conflicts could be prevented by designing carefully at the outset consistent strategies of outreach and by performing regular practices of inclusion. The core of the argument focuses on the strategies of conflict management in the case of the incident described. The shortcomings of those practices are exposed and discussed. The research shows how the main deficiencies of the conflict management strategies discussed are due to contingent improvisation and to the lack of consistent and thoroughly discussed guidelines in conflict management and communicative strategies in moments of crisis.

Bio note

Giuseppe Caruso is a PhD researcher at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. His thesis is on “Power Dynamics and Patterns of Domination in the World Social Forum”. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in the last two WSFs in Porto Alegre and in Mumbai, where he worked as a volunteer in the WSF office from October 2003 until January 2004.

E-mail : g.caruso@inwind.it



The WSF 2004 was held in Mumbai, India. It was the first to be organised outside Brazil but the WSF Indian Organising Committee (IOC) faced the challenges related to this new endeavour with reassuring and inspiring overall maturity. The lessons learnt in India will constitute key endowments for the global WSF process. These lessons are multiple and especially built on the knowledge and experience of the local social movements, mass organisations and NGOs that contributed to make the WSF process a more flexible and a fully global one. Moreover, the natural course of growth and development of the WSF process itself has provided important conditions for clear, documented and consistent improvements towards the direction of a more globalised, democratic, fully transparent and participatory process to design another possible world.

However, some important limitations have also been exposed during the WSF 2004 process, sometimes rather virulently. Most of them focused on the asymmetry between the values and practices of the WSF process. Although some of the expressions of this gap have been observed with reference to the Brazilian WSF as well (Albert, 2003; Sen, 2003a, 2003b; Teivainen, 2004; Waterman, 2004), I shall focus here on the case of the WSF India process.

The WSF is still a young process, yet it is already showing inspiring potentialities that indicate possible further development of the process in different, sometimes contrasting, directions. It is not my task here to explore those possibilities systematically. Instead, I shall look for observable trends showing a consistent process of learning and negotiation that confirms that the WSF has the instruments to experiment with viable and credible organisational and strategic alternatives and thus contribute to radical global change.

In particular, I want to discuss here the learning process experienced by the IOC with reference to practices of inclusion and techniques of conflict management. This learning process was built on a series of incidents that exposed weaknesses in the WSF IOC’s organisational and communication strategies. In this paper, I discuss one such case in which the conflict was triggered by a clear shortcoming demonstrated by the WSF, namely, the lack of proactive practices to include Muslim and other marginalised communities. This specific case involves one member of the Muslim community (called here fictitiously Ahmed) voicing his disappointment at what he calls the consistency of the WSF practices with the systemic economic, political and social exclusion of which Muslim, Adivasis (indigenous people), and Dalits (untouchables), are victims in the context of Indian society and, on the side of the WSF, three members of the IOC who tried, in a rather uncoordinated manner, to negotiate the conflict with Ahmed. While the stress in this paper is on exclusion of the Muslim community, this exemplary case illustrates a wider phenomenon that involves many of the most marginalised communities of the Indian social fabric.

Moreover, while the key topic discussed in this paper refers to practices of conflict management, in a broader sense this is directly related with the main identity of the WSF process, which, both in its Charter of Principles and in the development of its political discourse, is insistently defined as an “open space”. While this definition might not be the most appropriate, the openness of the WSF space is challenged, in terms of its own principles, by events like the one discussed here and by the organisational practices of conflict negotiation created within the framework of the WSF and between it and the “outside” (against which the “openness” of the WSF as a space has to be measured).

The paper has the following structure. In the first section, I present a case study showing how Ahmed’s charge that Muslim and other marginalised communities were excluded caused a crisis in the IOC. The conflict was dealt with by three members of the IOC, generating reactions and effects that will be thoroughly analysed. The three intertwining negotiations of the conflict generated by Ahmed’s letter will be described as three landmarks in the possible range of communicative acts in situations of conflict: incommensurability (the absolute absence of a shared ground on which to base successful communication), empathic recognition, and mediation (or hegemonic commensuration, as suggested here).

The following section will discuss the nature of incommensurable communications and the causes of such incommensurability. The next section will discuss briefly the possibility of developing conscious strategies of commensuration with specific reference to the case analysed here and to the successful negotiation carried out by one of the members of the IOC, which ensured a common ground of conversation between Ahmed and the IOC.

In the next section, the case study will be thoroughly analysed and the origins, development, and consequences of the conflict discussed. The discussion will highlight the main findings of the article. In particular, it will suggest that: 1. conflicts spring from superficial assessment of the issues at stake and of the nature and specificities of the context in which the organisational action takes place; 2. once conflicts have erupted, their management calls for extreme lucidity and consistent guidelines that need to be discussed in advance and cannot be improvised on a contingency basis.

In the concluding section, some suggestions will be advanced on possible strategies to avoid these specific conflicts and to deal with them when their explosion is not foreseeable or preventable.

The facts

On November 26 2003, the WSF office in Mumbai receives a message from Bangalore voicing the grievances of a Muslim citizen of the Indian Silicon Valley at the exclusive way in which the WSF process is conducted. In a passionate letter, copied to a wide range of addresses related to the WSF, Ahmed reports his concerns about the way the WSF is organised and run. The letter, given the tone and the questions it raises, is immediately forwarded to the main working lists of the WSF India process. The quick round of emails generates several reactions. Those letters constitute the material of the present paper.

Ahmed’s letter contains a detailed list of the issues raised by the exclusion of minorities from the WSF. The letter is concise and sharp. In it, the author stresses the importance of a process taking place in India that challenges the present social and political system, in which squads of fascists roam, knocking on Muslims’ doors to kill them. With this reference to the current bloody communal conflicts in India, Ahmed sets the scenario in which the WSF will take place and the hopes he and his community place in a progressive movement that could help negotiate this hateful communal conflict.

This said, Ahmed wonders why the WSF, although stressing the necessity for positive negotiations of conflicts among different communities and cultural groups, has not only not included Muslim activists and organisations in its organisational structures, but, de facto, through the non-inclusive politics played by its organisers, actively excluded them. No attempt, reports Ahmed, has been made to contact the Muslim activists, and to get closer to a vibrant reality of resistance to the exacerbation of communal politics. Resistance is strong in the Muslim community, and could have constituted an invaluable contribution to the WSF process. Moreover, no programmes are included in the wealth of events organised at the WSF that deal with communal conflicts, pogroms and human rights related issues and social justice with special reference to the Muslim community.

Do the organisers of the WSF realise, he asks, the consequences of the exclusion of the Muslims from the WSF process? To stress the magnitude of the mistake and injustice, Ahmed briefly summarises the main features of the global context for the Muslim people. Muslims, he says, are among the most affected by imperialism, which is clearly expressed in the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian conflict. The imperialism that is fought with passion by the people of the WSF, and constitutes the core of its activities, also affects Indian Muslims, who deserve to share the attention that the world and the WSF are dedicating to the resounding questions of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. It is inexplicable, Ahmed writes, that the Muslims of the very country where the WSF will take place should be left out of the organisational process.

Ahmed warns that excluded people may resort to any means to make themselves heard. The powerful reference to the “misguided ones” brings to our eyes not only the tragedies of 9/11 (and, unknown to him at that point, “3/11” – the train bombings in Madrid on March 11 2004) but also the frequent assaults by terrorists in India and elsewhere. And while the threats and acts of these “misguided ones” are condemned from all sides, and while the reasons are so thoroughly debated by the WSF organisers, how can it be possible that those same people deny the Muslim minority a crucial space to voice its concerns and demand its rights? Are the organisers – asks the letter implicitly but clearly – not acting in the same way as the imperialists they are fighting against? Are they not actively denying access to a democratic space where Muslims could voice their grievances?

The letter closes with ironic wishes of success and prayers: Ahmed, with sorrow, reminds the reader that these prayers will be muttered in the ghetto of exclusion and will never be heeded or even heard by the organisers of the WSF. The sad note of the closing is counterbalanced, however, by a strong, perhaps the strongest possible, attack on the WSF organisers. Ahmed reminds the WSF organisers that while Muslims remain in the ghettoes, “preys for the fascist predators”, they will be able to run successful international events that will bring them prestige: they should not forget, however, that they are earning this prestige on the back of the sufferings of the people they are contributing to keep in the darkness of the ghetto while “bargaining their rights at their the organisers’ own conditions”.

The three responses to Ahmed’s letter, all written by members of the IOC, express three approaches to the questions raised that define three very different possibilities for negotiating conflicts in an open institutional setup. Each reaction also raises important questions about the IOC’s strategies to negotiate differences. The articulation of the different strategies expressed by the members of the IOC acts as an unintended but concerted effort to convince Ahmed of the plurality of sensibilities within the WSF and, perhaps, of the prevalence of more sympathetic positions towards his cause. A more in-depth analysis of the shortcomings of this improvised approach will be provided later in this paper.

Maria’s response

The first to answer Ahmed’s email is Maria (the name is fictitious) who, in a very short note, invites Ahmed to a meeting of the Voice of the Minorities (VOTM) group that she leads. Maria misunderstands the actual meaning of Ahmed’s email and decides that what motivates him to write is the desire to take part in the organisation of the WSF. She must have thought that Ahmed’s weighty accusations were not serious enough to engage in a debate. She points out, however, that the “WSF is an open process” where everyone can just step in.

In two further letters in response to Ahmed’s retorts, she expands on the goals and the vision of VOTM. Its main concern is justice and members meet regularly to strategise together on the actions to be taken to give the voice they deserve to the voiceless. Their approach is a “positive” approach that wants to avoid discussing the injustices perpetrated to all Indian communities, but reflects on what every community can contribute to improve the state of things. Here is where the incommensurability of the VOTM project with Ahmed’s views is clearly manifest. Ahmed is condemning injustice and massacres perpetrated against not all communities but specifically the Muslim community. Maria’s argument is not sustainable in this context. Her positive approach avoids confrontation where confrontation is, in fact, needed to expose systemic domination. No acceptance of things as they are will ever help to move to a condition where all communities respect each other and live, as she says, “in peace, harmony, justice and equality”: this is Ahmed’s position. A fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the two positions is manifest.

In failing to acknowledge the fundamental issues raised by Ahmed, Maria widens the incomprehension, and in fact the radical incommensurability, between them. The conversation between Maria and Ahmed exemplifies a clear case of failed communication. What happened is due to incommensurability between the languages of the two actors; the resulting impossibility to translating one into the other precludes negotiation of their conflicting positions. The symbolic and cultural languages of Ahmed and Maria move in parallel universes without coming to active negotiation.

Mamta’s response

The letter sent to Ahmed by Mamta (the name is fictitious), another member of the IOC, has an effect opposite to Maria’s emails. In response to her email, addressed to Maria and copied to the IOC, Ahmed responds on December 11 with these few words: “In times of plague, the plague of fascism, voices like yours make me feel proud of my country. Such voices indeed are the soul of our Rainbow Country, let us preserve the rainbow”.

In her letter Mamta adds several crucial points to the debate. She first opposes the “rational” approach to injustice proposed by Maria and expresses full solidarity with Ahmed’s cry against exclusion. She maintains that defining reactions such as Ahmed’s as “emotional” (as Maria has done in one of her emails) is a way just to “brush aside the whole issue”, simply relegating to the realm of the irrational one of the crucial ills of politics in India. The depoliticised approach suggested by Maria seems to regard humans as robots, and Mamta strongly opposes this vision. She then adds a few remarks on the terrible mistake of not understanding that when the private aspect of religion turns into ideology it needs to be dealt with in a political way. Exclusion must be addressed politically with special sensitivity to and understanding of its social and political roots. Her suggestion is that there needs to be “a conscious space for excluded communities within WSF” or else “we” (the organisers of the WSF, but also we, the excluded) will become entangled in contradiction. The crucial questions of human rights and injustice raised by Ahmed need a strong answer whenever and by whatever means possible. The call to all the excluded is a call to all the actors of the WSF organising committees never to forget that in India they are also excluded, albeit at many different levels; that is precisely why they are organising the WSF.

Mamta fully acknowledges the political issues raised by Ahmed and joins him in his denunciation of the insufficient action taken by the WSF to include minority communities. Mamta’s cultural language expresses a vision that is fully commensurable (at least at this stage) with that of Ahmed’s. Moreover, it is clear here that the “condition of commensurability” (the common ground that allows for successful communication) is the political approach to injustice and exclusion (an approach that exposes the power dynamics between communities and individuals that create injustice and exclusion). Maria’s language, on the other hand, moves away from a political approach towards a positive, ecumenical and universalistic approach according to which it is time for all of the people of the world to join hands to create a better and juster world. Her apparently proactive stand, however, does not provoke the expected reaction. Mamta instead completely embraces and expands Ahmed’s position using the same language. The reaction provoked in Ahmed is enthusiasm, which expresses completely successful communication. At the same time, it could be argued that, in reality, this is a matter of prior consensus rather than coordinated effort. This exchange of emails includes one other intervention by a member of the IOC.

Deepa’s response

The debate between Ahmed and Maria risks becoming very embarrassing for the WSF. Deepa (the name is fictitious) foresees the dangers and decides to write to the IOC. She makes clear that Maria’s position in the debate with Ahmed is too personal and does not reflect the positions of the WSF and that she, instead, as many others in the IOC, strongly feels that communalism cannot be dealt with “from an interfaith standpoint”.

In the same letter Deepa mentions that transparency is needed in dealing with this issue and in debating with Ahmed. Maria’s private practice (she is not forwarding her correspondence with Ahmed to the IOC mailing list) cannot be accepted in such a context. Faithful to her principles of transparency, she attaches a letter to Ahmed intended to express a broader approach to the questions discussed.

In her letter, Deepa points out that Ahmed’s guess at the social composition of the IOC (see below) is wrong, at least in her case: she is not a Brahmin. She acknowledges immediately that emotions are relevant and indeed central for political actions; without emotions, knowledge and commitment, nothing is really possible. Having said that, she repeats the usual mantra: the WSF is an open space and Ahmed is very welcome to join it and contribute by his work to its mobilisation effort. She adds something very important that is not present in Maria’s argument: that the idea of “open space” is a new concept in Indian politics. In this sense, errors and naivety are to be expected as from any new political project. However, the mobilising committee of the WSF, to which she belongs, recognises the limited presence of Muslims in the process and is making special efforts to contact more organisations and to invite them to join the process.

Deepa further writes that communalism, as well as globalisation, is a key focus of the WSF. On both foci, the organisations participating in the WSF will try to build some kind of unity, assuming that to be possible. He can, therefore, expect something good out of the WSF. She invites him to have a look at the programme (then forthcoming on the website) and to subscribe to the newsletter to stay in regular touch with the WSF.

Although composed in a much more secular manner, Deepa’s letter does not directly address Ahmed’s concerns. However, her words point powerfully to the main causes of the failed communication between Ahmed and Maria. First, exclusion does actually create pain and passionate emotions. These emotions are the key motivations to act for change. Secondly, the WSF process does have shortcomings due to its newness as a global political process.

In her letter, Deepa stresses the openness of the WSF and indicates the practical way in which Ahmed can join in: she provides the contact of the person who is in charge of the mobilisation in Ahmed’s state. She invites Ahmed to contact him and to contribute to the mobilisation efforts for the WSF. She mentions the website of the WSF India as a source of up-to-date information on the organisational process and to the regular newsletter published by the staff of the Mumbai office.

Her tone is authoritative, both in denying that Maria represents the approach of the “whole” WSF and in showing Ahmed how to achieve full inclusion in the WSF process. However, she makes no mention to the politics of exclusion of the Muslim community. Indeed, her strong denial that she is a Brahmin is only a superficial response to Ahmed’s denunciation of the elitism and exclusiveness of the IOC. After all, she might not be a Brahmin herself, but the majority of the members of the IOC might still be upper caste, as Ahmed claimed in his letters.

Deepa’s reference to the openness of the WSF process, along with her clear recognition of its limitations due to the difficulties in fine-tuning a political device so new in the Indian context, her provision of clear and detailed information on the daily operations of the IOC and the WSF India process (accessible, as she reminds Ahmed, through the website and the newsletter), and her acceptance of the main stands of Ahmed’s J’accuse (giving it full legitimacy in the political debate of the WSF), create the basis of commensurability that is required for communication. It is based not necessarily on agreement between the parties involved in the communication but rather on a minimum shared set of conventions that define rules for communication and its content. Deepa’s stance is not only crucial in the case discussed here. More generally, it describes the necessary conditions of a successful conflict management strategy and, in a broader sense, the conditions of openness of the WSF as a global political environment founded on celebration of the differences that constitute it.

Ahmed’s return

Ahmed replies to all the letters he has received: in doing so consolidates his position. One key email is sent by Ahmed to me as part of an exchange in response to his first email, which I have also received in the email account I manage while working in the WSF office. The letter he sends me is relevant here because it raises questions that will be discussed further by the other interlocutors.

In particular, Deepa’s remark on her caste status (as reported above) is given in response to this letter. For some reason (possibly displeasure at her lapidary answer to his email), Ahmed does not reply directly to Maria but forwards her his email to me. The didactic tone of his email to me (a foreigner who might not be aware of the complexities of the Indian social and political fabric) enables him to draft an email the ultimate recipient of which is clearly Maria.

In the same precise manner as in his first letter, Ahmed proposes his analysis of the reasons of Muslims’ exclusion from social, political and economic life in India. He sets down on virtual paper the dynamics of “the process of exclusion” of the Muslim community in India, which he argues leads to the “systemic exclusion” of Muslims in general. He argues that the WSF is part of the same systemic process excluding Muslims from public life. He is not discussing here a “calculated exclusion” that can be easily exposed and fought. He is arguing that Muslims are “systematically” excluded from education, employment in government and in the private sector, and all sectors of Indian public life. The opportunity for a constructive encounter between the realities of exclusion of the Muslim “ghettoes” and the WSF organisers has been missed not “deliberately” but because the “managers” of the WSF and the excluded have never met. They do not know each other simply because, as an outcome of systemic exclusion, they live in separate social places. The WSF organisers have never proactively tried to cross the bridge in search of those Muslims beaten up, raped and burned by the Hindutva activists. This irresponsible behaviour runs the risk of further justifying the expressions of hatred voiced by “some uneducated religious leaders”. If even progressive activists advocating a more just and equal society marginalise the Muslim people, what other resource is left to keep them from the arms of the “uneducated religious leaders”?

To further prove his point he invites me to conduct a sociological study of the organisers of the WSF. He gives the statistical percentage of the caste system in India and “bets” that the majority of the organisers (if not all them) belong to the 15% of Brahmins and other upper castes. All aspects of Indian social life are controlled by the tiny privileged minority belonging to the upper castes, which enacts “caste apartheid” based on the “philosophy of exclusion”.

To close the letter, he refers to the tragic death of my fellow countryman Carlo Giuliani, who died as a “martyr” opposing the overwhelming forces of the Italian police – brandishing a fire extinguisher and receiving, in return, a bullet in the head. He praises a “martyr” who, like others, sacrificed his life when all other opportunities to claim his rights were negated.

His detailed email on the systematic exclusion of his community fails to generate any improvement in the conversation pattern with Maria, who again reacts hastily, inviting him to join the VOTM group and not to be too emotional about the questions he raises. Ahmed, at this point, lets his emotions flow on the virtual page. Justice is the focus of his argument. What he is claiming is spaces not for Muslims as such but for Muslims as human beings – for Muslims as citizens denied their basic rights. And he is perfectly lucid in his emotion. He claims the right to those emotions that move to action, the same emotions that supposedly move the organisers of the WSF to fight for another world.

He moves on to criticise directly the way in which the WSF has tried to reach out to the different constituencies of Indian society. He is not part of an organisation, he is not claiming the right for himself to participate in the WSF organisation, and he is not ready to accept an invitation as a consolation for a practice of exclusion. Why would he help in reaching out the Muslim community? Why is he asked to become a member now only because he is voicing his clear discomfort at the practices of the WSF? Shouldn’t they be the first to want inclusion of those most affected by the injustice of Indian society? Is Maria really thinking of addressing the exclusion of entire communities (and here he mentions, along with the Muslims, the Adivasis, the Dalits, showing how the issue he is exposing has wider repercussions than those related only to the Muslim community) by inviting him to the VOTM group meeting?

He argues that although the WSF claims to be an open space, it is simply reproducing the dynamics of exclusion of Indian society. He understands that he can go at any time to the meeting to which Maria is insistently inviting him, but he also knows that he will be excluded in this partial inclusion. As he can see from the sentiments of the person with whom he is corresponding, there is no real understanding and, above all, there is no real action to abolish the separation that generates exclusion.

Ahmed replies to Deepa as well. He claims that the facts he reports justify his reactions to Maria’s insensitive emails. The facts are that the WSF claims to work for another possible world and yet fails to include. He believes that this in itself would be enough to justify his resentment. He is not stupid, he says: he would have never addressed the members of a Rotary Club in the same way, but he does not want to be quiet when a great event organised to claim minority rights in fact denies minorities the right to be included and to participate actively. He voices a strong critique, due to the hijacking of the space for dissent by a group of professional “careerists”.

Ahmed replies also to Deepa’s claim not to be a Brahmin. From his knowledge of Indian names, he suggests that although not a Brahmin, Deepa might nonetheless be upper caste due to her surname. In this letter, he voices his real concern: “WSF has been shaped as a mechanism to deflect the radical attacks on the globalisation project. The legacy of Seattle’s successful resistance has already been lost.”. And to conclude, he confirms that he is not accusing Deepa of being part of this “tricky game”. He is actually sure that she will be one of those who will take part in the WSF with the strong commitment and resolution to “resist imperialism”. However, he advises her to be careful not to fall prey to those who “would play to pawn resistance and to coopt dissenting sections”. Here, although agreement has not been reached, the conversation has allowed a non-confrontational exchange of opinions. The goal of the WSF (to create a favourable environment for successful communication) has been fully realised.

The Indian Organising Committee

Everyone involved in the WSF process from its early stages knows of the existence of crucial issues regarding the negotiation of differences, notably in the mobilisation for the WSF India, and of the important consequences of existing shortcomings. During the evaluation meeting in Mumbai on February 28-29, after the Mumbai forum, the IOC members discuss the radical separation between certain realities of the Indian social and political landscape. In the same meeting, detailed references are made to the issues highlighted by the case study discussed here. Without direct reference to Ahmed’s letters, questions are addressed of inclusion / exclusion, openness / closure, and, even more interestingly, negotiation of the personal, social and political differences of the groups and the individuals involved in the WSF process (of which the Deepa-Maria? interaction is just one example). The most interesting reflections on these questions are briefly presented in the following paragraphs. They introduce the following section of the paper in which I discuss radical differences and the strategies to negotiate them within the WSF.

During the same meeting, one of the IOC members voices in the following terms clear awareness of the problems faced in dealing with differences during the organisation of the WSF: “the WSF process has suppressed differences, not created dynamics and space. It was not reconciliation but suppression of differences that made us able to organise the WSF.”. The suppression of differences does not merely imply a lack of willingness or ability to deal with the Muslim community. It also refers to the fact that these dynamics operate within the same functional groups of the IOC creating “a lot of exclusions”, as maintained by a member of the Program Committee. Moreover, this situation has been magnified by the stress of organising such an event and has consequently pushed “many valuable people” away from the WSF organising groups.

The position taken by the IOC on these questions can be summarised as follows. There is a clear recognition of the problem of radical differences and their difficult negotiations. However, although some thought the IOC should be the place to reflect on these issues, the majority took a position against starting a discussion that could create more fractures than reconciliations. In other words, dealing with the issue within the operative body of the WSF can only cause fractures wide enough to impede any further organisational commitment. Besides, as someone said, the WSF job has been done and it has been done successfully: “almost all the differences” managed to work together and only in few cases did fractures occur; this, however, is unavoidable in processes as large as the WSF.

Moreover, as clearly stated by two influential members of the Programme group, we have to realise that radical differences exist. By fair play, we have to avoid bringing the conflicts generated by those differences into the IOC group, in order to preclude bigger conflicts. We have to accept, they insist, that “there is no solution to some kinds of differences, and we have to learn to live with them”. Another IOC member vaguely proposes to find some system of conflict management. But time is too short to follow up this suggestion, which is left for future occasions.

A member of the Venue and Logistics group makes a much more concrete proposal: the problem at stake is not only personal but political, he says. We must realise that such problems have profound organisational implications. Differences are part of our process: the Charter of Principles clearly states that the WSF promotes differences. Our current task must be to design specific “norms of functioning that help address these problems” (the difficult negotiations of differences in cases like the one discussed in this paper). However, discussion of these issues and of a new institutional set-up to help solve them is postponed to future gatherings.

Important questions directly related to the issues raised by Ahmed are examined during the evaluation of the work of the Mobilisation committee. The mobilisation of the Indian minorities has been very weak, someone says: the mobilisation process failed to reach Muslim organisations, organisations of the physically challenged, of children, human rights activists and many other important constituencies. This was due, as everyone accepted, not to specific mistakes by the mobilisation committee, but to factors relating to the structural peculiarities of the Indian context that need thorough assessment.

On this point, further considerations are presented during the same meeting by other members of the IOC. It is true that few Muslims from India have joined the WSF as an organised minority, but they have participated as individuals and members of political groups, states a member of the WSF Trust. The question of the mobilisation of religious minorities strongly conflicts, it is suggested, with the Charter of Principles, according to which the WSF is a non-confessional space. This statement, however, creates major ambiguities – paradoxically, a Catholic priest and a Catholic nun are present at the same IOC meeting – and is not explored further.

In the same discussion, someone notices that the Program Committee ensured that there were 3 Muslim speakers in the opening session of the WSF. This should give a clear message about the WSF stand on communal issues, especially considering that this key event has been the most widely covered by the national and international press. However, it can be noted here that this argument does not fully satisfy Ahmed’s accusation, since the Muslims who were given this platform were not from India and were discussing Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, not communal politics in India. Furthermore, according to Ahmed’s strong charge in one of his letters, this was done so as not to upset the Shiv Sena lords of Mumbai.

It is also mentioned during the meeting that, indeed, Muslim intellectuals and activists from Mumbai were not present at the WSF. Their absence was so consistent that it could not remain unobserved. One final remark, in a conversation that suggests that IOC members, after tabling the topic for further discussion, are impatient to move on, is made by one of the members of the Mobilisation committee who surprisingly states, with frustration, that “for much that we tried the Muslims did not want to be mobilised”.

Having discussed in this section some of the features of the learning process that took place within the WSF India process, I shall return to the main focus of the present paper.

On communication

What can be observed in the communication between Maria, Ahmed, Mamta and Deepa, is a collection of communicational patterns that range from incommensurability between Ahmed’s and Maria’s positions and understandings of reality to empathic agreement between Mamta and Ahmed. The middle position is occupied by Deepa, who operates a difficult mediation that establishes successful communication with Ahmed. Although she does not reach the point of “converting” him to her positions, she nonetheless manages to keep the conversation open. Discussion of Deepa’s recomposition of the incommensurability between Ahmed and the WSF introduces the discussion on the practices of commensuration relevant to the context of the WSF, the most important political environment at present that openly focuses on open, non-confrontational, negotiation of differences as its main contribution to shaping another world. I will argue in what follows that, although the WSF envisages such very important goals, no consistent guidelines have so far been spelt out for conflict resolution in cases like the one discussed here, where the non-confrontational negotiation of different positions fails to establish shared ground for successful communication, leaving this crucial activity to contingency, improvisation and individual sensibility. Although generically considered a pluralistic and democratic approach, this too often creates, as denounced by Ahmed and as reported during the IOC meeting discussed above, fractures that cannot be recomposed.

I define incommensurability here as the lack in two or more entities of a common basis on which to make a comparison. The necessity to make comparisons in communicative acts derives from the need to “translate” the utterances of the other into meanings that make sense to the listener and on that basis to formulate, as a response, a statement in a code that can be somehow processed by the interlocutor. This is a necessary condition for information exchange between interlocutors.

It is not here the place here to discuss the complexity of this mechanism, which operates in each of our daily conversations. Suffice it to say here that it is commonly accepted that, although some meaning is lost in every human communication, it is still possible to ground communication on a shared set of conventions that enable exchange of information between two or more actors. The conventions are established at the level of the language used (English, Italian, Japanese, etc.) and of the cultural code of the interlocutors. In the case we are discussing here, it is manifest that sharing the conventions of the English language does not necessarily allow for successful communication, especially between Ahmed and Maria. The cultural codes enacted by the dramatis personæ of the case study are based on principles and values that do not admit common operation. According to the definition of incommensurability introduced above, the codes used by Ahmed and Maria do not seem to share any common value on which to establish a comparison.

The exchange between Ahmed and Maria is a conversation between deaf speakers. The positions are maintained rigidly throughout, no attempt is made by either of the speakers charitably to understand the other’s reasons in their own terms and to modify his or her code accordingly. Ahmed cannot conceive that the organisers of an event to design a better world should not involve the members of the minorities that suffer most in the world as it is. Maria cannot conceive that someone who complains of exclusion should reject repeated invitations to participate in the organisational process. Communication fails.

How incommensurability can be made commensurable

Philosophers of language have long studied the nature of incommensurability in communication. Quine (1969), for instance, discussed the impossibility of translating a theory thought in English into the Arunta language. In this sense English and Arunta are incommensurable. Davidson (1984) takes note of the radical difference that separates cultures and individuals and suggests that communication can occur between radically different subjects if informed by the principle of charity. According to this principle, the actors engaging in a conversation should constantly adjust their meanings to those of their interlocutors acknowledging some consistent principle of rationality that informs their linguistic acts. This practice gives rise to a charitable negotiation of meanings that leads to successful communication (although not necessarily to full understanding of the other’s reasons). The opposite of the charitable linguistic approach would be represented by the purely pragmatic and performative linguistic act (about which Austin, 1975, wrote memorable pages) of information dissemination observable inter alia in international relations (propaganda) and political campaigning.

Influential work by Gramsci on hegemony and by Foucault on power has shown how we can successfully move from the semantico-logical level discussed by Davidson to the social level in order to include political reasons in the dissemination and communication of meanings. A recursive process of reinforcement involving both linguistic and social levels will enable us to better understand how social interactions, and therefore power, determine linguistic and cultural meanings, thus establishing standards for commensurability (inclusion) and incommensurability (exclusion). It is legitimate, on these grounds, to suggest that the universalising project of the WSF is based on a none-too-consciously implemented hegemonic programme of global commensuration as expressed by Deepa’s conflict management strategy.

In a globalised world (including an alternatively globalised world), commensuration must be universal to allow all individuals on the planet to engage successfully in communication. Attempts at universal commensuration have been repeated across the ages, usually at the point of the sword by empires such as the Roman, the Aztec, the Third Reich, etc. Other attempts to commensurate different local values with general universal theories were made by theorists such as Marx and Weber, to mention just two of the most influential Western names. Marx’s analysis of the processes of commodification and Weber’s analysis of bureaucratisation help us to understand the mechanisms of the hegemonic practices that purport to set standards for universal commensuration. Gramsci and Foucault, on the other hand, have provided us with powerful instruments to understand dynamics of commensuration not based on the use of force and untainted by “cultural imperialism”, “ethnocentrism” and the like.

In the case discussed in this paper, we observe one possible expression of the hegemonic practices at play within the WSF along with their modus operandi, as Deepa exercises the hegemonic power to commensurate that has been developed by the WSF. In her correspondence with Maria and Ahmed, she sets the terms on which a specific kind of communication can take place both within the WSF and between members of the WSF and “outsiders”. The terms include the open space “mantra”, acceptance of the existence of radical differences, the inadequacy of the interfaith approach to communalism, acknowledgment of the role of emotion so long as it is combined with commitment in action for social change, and the need to offer “outsiders” a view that reflects the positions of the IOC as a whole.

The rules of “legal” communication within WSF are not “natural”. They are imposed by deliberate operations to commensurate incommensurables and create standards for conflict negotiation. Deepa’s strategy, which uses non-repressive force of a sort, is based on the principle of “radical translation” enhanced by the power attached to her status. She establishes communication principles that are very loose, yet inflexible and non-negotiable, and suggests that all who subscribe to them would, subject to the principle of “charity”, be able to overcome incommensurability and interact successfully within the framework of the WSF. The “universal” commensuration needed for another world to be possible can take place through adherence to the standards set up by the WSF Charter of Principles, and adjusted according to contextual legal interpretations, as shown in the case discussed here.

De facto, albeit unconsciously, the WSF sets standards for commensuration of the radical differences it wants to promote. A more conscious hegemonic (or, better, counter-hegemonic) project, in order to avoid the risk of designing the “open space” as a chaotic place where mystification reigns and the law of the jungle prevails – disguised by a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement”, as Sen describes it –, should perhaps answer some or all of the following questions. What motivates people to get involved in commensuration projects, and in particular why do they get involved in the WSF? What is the hegemonic form of commensuration enacted by the WSF? What are its political and practical effects? What are the tensions between the rationality that informs the hegemonic project of commensuration and the multiple and varied “different” rationalities that are made commensurable? How does such commensuration operate in practice in the daily work of the WSF machinery? What power dynamics inform this process of commensuration? And, finally, which consolidated patterns of domination, embodied in the actors involved, need to be exposed and overcome for the hegemonic commensuration to be consensually agreed?

How to ensure openness and inclusiveness within the WSF

I will suggest here that a twofold approach, immediate and long-term, is required to open up the WSF and make it fully inclusive and successfully counter-hegemonic. In the short term, three tasks require attention in order to reduce the incidence of situations like the one discussed here. 1. Clearer norms need to be discussed and consensually agreed by the WSF, at the level of the International Committee and of the local Organising Committees, with a view to establishing “global” procedures to ensure inclusion of the most marginalised groups and individuals, who are the WSF’s priority audience. 2. As clearly stated in the evaluation meeting reported above, certain organisational aspects need careful attention to assess the adjustments or restructuring required to facilitate the process of inclusion and of negotiation of interpersonal and socio-cultural differences. 3. Conflict management is an extremely complex process that cannot be left to contingent improvisation: detailed guidelines for conflict management need to be consensually agreed upon very early in the organisational process of the WSF.

The long-term solution should: 1. systematically expose conditions of apparent incommensurability due to power dynamics, hegemonic practices and embodied patterns of domination and exclusion; 2. reshape understanding of the complex mechanisms of intercultural communication through practical exercises in inclusive and non-confrontational communication; 3. accept the fact that sharing the same universe (the WSF) does not obliterate radical difference and does not obviate the need to establish communication on more solid grounds than the shared generic dream of another world.

The case study has shown that inclusion in the WSF cannot be simply promulgated but demands proactive practice to reach out to different groups and individuals, using many cultural codes to communicate with glocal diversities (globally influenced local realities). Successful communication is not a simple task; it involves dynamics of power and echoes “traditional” systemic dominations that need to be exposed and fought. Improvisation, good faith and enthusiasm are neither successful by themselves in generating positive communication nor a legitimate excuse when they cause communication to collapse, as in the case discussed here. The WSF has at its disposal, to mention just the most relevant resource, three decades of theoretical and practical feminist developments on these issues. It cannot afford to ignore them.


In this paper, I have discussed one exemplary case of miscommunication between a member of the WSF IOC and a member of the Muslim community, and the mediation strategies of another IOC member.

The failure of communication between Ahmed and Maria has been explained in terms of incommensurability between the messages conveyed by the two actors. Deepa’s attempted mediation has been described as an act of commensuration based on the hegemonic values expressed by the WSF, as taken up by the IOC and successfully interpreted to fit the specific case.

On the basis of the case study discussed here, it has been maintained that long- and short-term action is required on both the organisational and political levels. Crucially, it is not realistic to expect all participants in a process as extensive as the WSF to have either the same political familiarity and knowledge of its principles and values or the same ability or disposition to play fairly according to a set of unclear norms in an unclearly defined “open space”. Differences tend to become, or to be perceived as, incommensurable for a wide range of reasons, exacerbated by the stress due to commitment and the fatigue caused by such an endeavour. As in the case of Ahmed, the suppression of differences and calls to “fair play” obliterate power dynamics and social, political and economic imbalances.

One unintended outcome of having no consistent conflict management strategy is the plurality of responses to Ahmed’s letter. However, this aspect of plurality needs to be consciously assessed and not simply randomly enacted as a casual compilation of uncoordinated acts that tend, as in the case discussed here, to silence one another and, on the basis of unclearly specified norms, to deny each other’s legitimacy to speak for the WSF IOC. Although multiplicity can be seen as a positive attitude, its manifestation within the WSF has not proved democratic, transparent and fully inclusive.

Moreover, it is not fully demonstrated that such multiplicity grants all actors within the WSF organisational process the same weight in terms of access to resources and influence on decision-making. The positions and the roles held by Maria, Deepa and Mamta within the WSF India are very different and have markedly unequal weights. As stated vigorously by one member of the IOC in the meeting described here “there is the feeling sometimes that somebody is more equal than somebody else!”.

At this stage of the WSF journey, regulation seems necessary. It requires a set of well-designed guidelines agreed by consensus that help everybody, especially when passions run high, to deal with apparently irreconcilable conflicts. At the same time, the guidelines also need to deal with external issues regarding the inclusion of those who are not already in the process. As Ahmed’s case shows, the WSF organisers’ best intentions with respect to the creation of open spaces are not realised simply by stating their openness and “leaving the doors open”. Specific best practices to ensure openness (ideally up to the point where the space has no limits at all) are required at this stage of the process. Moreover, it would be appropriate to define in clearer terms the actual dimensions of the “space” where the actions of the WSF take place. My contention here is that the definition of the WSF as an inadequately demarcated “space” can lead to many misconceptions and opportunistic practices. It would be of some importance to start reflecting on the nature of the “place” that the actors involved in the WSF process are building through their actions and the relations among their actions.

I am not making a case for a rigid (perhaps hierarchical) organisational structure sustaining a similarly rigid ideological programme. On the contrary, it has been suggested that some organisational restructuring, the definition of a consistent set of regulations for outreach and inclusion, and the definition of guidelines for conflict management, would make the WSF a fully inclusive project to build a better world. In the case of unavoidable conflicts, such a strategy would avoid further deterioration due to personal rivalries and improvisation and take full advantage of the creative energy of conflict.

Regulation and institutional restructuring of the WSF process, as proposed here, could create the impression that the freedom of the actors who move in WSF-organised places is unacceptably restricted. However, as this paper has shown, the complete absence of regulation can simply recreate hateful exclusions and exacerbate conflicts when they explode.


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