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Chapter 6: Civilization (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Chapter 6: Civilization

The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis has been revived by recent events in the world. The Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, Brexit, and the uncertainty surrounding the EU are all indicators that the clash between the West and Islamic civilization is irreconcilable. The attempt to impose western ideals such as democracy on Muslim nations resulted in a violent backlash, and the European voter, instead of embracing multiculturism, is motivated by the basic need to protect his society from terrorism.

This thesis stipulates that mankind has always been divided irreconcilably. Conflict is inevitable. Throughout history, civilizations have repeatedly clashed, and like the ruthless laws of natural selection – only the fittest came out on top. This is a grim fact that is hard to overlook.

But the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis is even more bleak, some of its supporters believe that attempts at reconciliation are doomed to failure. Muslim nations will not accept Western Values, and Western countries will never absorb Muslim minorities.

While there are many proponents of this thesis, it is misleading. The civilization that is being challenged by the Islamic State is not western civilization, it is the global civilization. Iran and the United States were united against the Islamic State for this reason.

Further, the analogy between natural selection and history that underlies the ‘clash of civilizations’ idea is false. Human beings do not engage in conflict the same way natural selection occurs. Animals have fixed identities that endure for thousands of generations. Chimps have their own social arrangements and cannot adopt a gorilla’s social arrangement. Human beings, on the other hand, are much more malleable, adopting very different political and social systems, even within the same geographical space.

You might have the impression that European civilization is defined by the values of human rights, democracy, equality, and freedom. And since countless speeches make a bold link between Athenian democracy and present-day Europe, this is far from the whole story. The Athenian experiment in democracy lasted for barely 200 years in a small area in the Balkans.

If European civilisation for the past twenty-five centuries has been defined by democracy and human rights, what are we to make of Sparta and Julius Caesar, of the Crusaders and the conquistadores, of the Inquisition and the slave trade, of Louis XIV and Napoleon, of Hitler and Stalin? Were they all intruders from some foreign civilisation?

Any civilization is whatever its members make of it. Only our profound storytelling skills allow us to cement our identities to ancient roots. The Islamic State boasts that it reverted to the original and pure version of Islam, but the truth is that their interpretation of Islam is new. In the spirit of Foucault, they exercise discretion in choosing which texts to ignore, and which ones to quote. This do-it-yourself method is very modern. Interpretation of texts used to be monopolized by the learned ulama (reputable scholars).

This isn’t to say that the Islamic State has been anti-Islamic. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it, like any other creed or religion.

War can generate the strongest human bonds. While economic globalization may have declined after the start of the world war, military globalization peaked. War spreads ideas, technologies, and people faster than commerce; this was the case between the U.S and Europe in during the world wars. War also creates mutual interest between nations.

People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.

Today, we live in a global civilization when it comes to the political paradigm that most nations have chosen to adopt. The same discourse of human rights, state sovereignty, and international law is used when warring nations compete for public opinion; as is the case between the Russians and Ukrainians, Kurds and Turks, and Israelis and Palestinians.

The world may be peppered with various types of ‘failed states’, but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package.

The Islamic state rejected this global package, and this was the cause of its downfall. Any entity can establish sovereign rule over a small territory, but anyone who challenges the principles of global politics will not last very long. This is more apparent when it comes to money. There have been thousands of economic models in the past, but today, the entire world converges to a single economic system.

When the Islamic State conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq, it murdered tens of thousands of people, demolished archaeological sites, toppled statues, and systematically destroyed the symbols of previous regimes and of Western cultural influence. But when its fighters entered the local banks and found there stashes of American dollars covered with the faces of American presidents and with slogans in English praising American political and religious ideals – they did not burn these symbols of American imperialism. For the dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides

People often try to base their identity on the common traits they share with the rest of the group, but instead, they should outline the common conflicts. In the 17th century, Europe was plagued by religious conflict. A European in 1618 obsessed about the small doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. Anyone who didn’t care about these things during that time could have been from India, but certainly not Europe.

The conflict between Germany and Britain in 1940 further illustrates how the struggle between Hitler and Churchill defined what it meant to be European at that time. The people you fight most are your own family. Identity is more defined by conflicts than it is by agreements.

In their conflicts and dilemmas, twenty-first-century Europeans are different from their ancestors in 1618 and 1940, but are increasingly similar to their Chinese and Indian trade partners.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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