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Spring 2004

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Civilizations and their discontents

A “clash of civilizations” is how some describe the tensions born of globalization: religious fundamentalism battles secularism, and tribal values battle cosmopolitan consumerism. But are these fair generalizations? Are these conflicts inescapable?

A group of well-known thinkers spent a weekend in February talking over these issues—from 9/11, Islamic extremism, and the concept of a “just” war, to foreign aid and ways to reconcile “universal” human rights with national sovreignty. Some of the top names in ethics, law, and political thought convened for a thirteen-hour marathon hosted by the Skidmore-based journal Salmagundi, which called the event “Jihad, Modernity, McWorld: Public Intellectuals Debate ‘The Clash of Civilizations.’” The Boston Globe called it “a high-powered bull session” with “no shortage of big, serious ideas.” Here are a few excerpts, not quite verbatim. —SR

Benjamin Barber: The American public tends to make too few distinctions about Islam. For example, not all Muslims are Arabs (consider varous African countries, Indonesia, even France), Islam does not equal despotism (look at Turkey, Bangladesh, the US), Muslims aren’t all fundamentalists, and fundamentalists aren’t all terrorists.

Guity Nashat: There is something of a reformation happening now in Islam, at least in the Middle East. The rethinking of the role of Islam in society has given greater voice to average men and women, who may be more observant in their religious practices than their governments have liked. In the past, and in some cases today, the governments in Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt have tried to suppress religious zeal—and these corrupt, oppressive regimes have been supported by powers like France, the US, and Russia.

Breyten Breytenbach:
I’ve lived in an Islamic country, Senegal, and I see no traces of fanatical, radical Islam. And when I was growing up in South Africa, I recall the Muslims as very gentle and open. They’re very pious and active in mosques, but they’re not “mobilized.” Perhaps it’s a matter of the underlying culture onto which Islam was grafted: the conquering Islam of the Middle East vs. the Islam of those to the south who were converted and conquered.

Martha Nussbaum: In Bangladash, which has a strong government commitment to education, you see no significant support for Islamic fundamentalism. By contrast, in Pakistan, where you find tremendous support for fundamentalism, the governments have done nothing to foster education. If the US had done more, through NGOs, to support decent education there, it perhaps could have deprived the fundamentalist leaders of such a large army of recruits.

Akeel Bilgrami:
In Muslim societies, democratic elections would show that fundamentalism is a minority. But what fills us all with anxiety is that ordinary Muslims don’t openly criticize the fundamentalists in their midst. Why don’t they? The diagnosis goes back for centuries, to the mentalities created by colonial rule. Bombing the hell out of them, or imposing embargoes, gets their backs up; to be critical, they feel, would be letting their team down against a dominant outside force.

Nashat: When Iranians saw the Shah as subservient to America’s wishes, they felt humiliated and dominated, so even secular Iranians rallied behind the charismatic national figure of Ayatollah Khomeini. If the US again tries to tell other countries how to conduct their internal affairs, their religious leaders will become even more entrenched.

Peter Singer: People who’ve been humiliated make dangerous enemies. We should have learned that lesson from the end of World War I, when undoubtedly the humiliation of Germany bred the rise of Nazism.

Vladimir Tismaneanu: The US administration does not understand the important role of ideas and ideologies in terrorism, from nineteenth-century Russia to 9/11. People who can’t have a good modus vivendi have to find a good modus moriendi—it’s a cult of death.

Barber: The administration’s fatal flaw is its inability to understand the connection between long-term democratization and education. When US forces entered Baghdad last year, why didn’t they park a tank in front of every school, library, and museum—to symbolize America’s commitment to the rehabilitation of civic institutions—instead of only at the weapons depots and the foreign ministry? Why not turn Saddam’s palaces into teacher training colleges for Iraqis, instead of using them for R&R for US troops? Perhaps these decisions are not just a failure of imagination but an intentional representation of the real interests of the American government.

Orlando Patterson: I find the notion of “just war” rather medieval. But there is a simple distinction between what is permissable domestically vs. internationally. Internally there are many occasions in which violence is justified—certainly slave revolts, the American civil war… But when we draw a line at the international use of violence, we privilege the nation-state as sacred. Personally I’d have no problem with invading Haiti right now, or Rwanda during its genocide.

Breytenbach: We must not—cannot—dignify collective killing for any reason. There is no central principle by which a war can be justified.

Nussbaum: Instead of measuring the “development” of a country by traditional criteria such as growth in the average GNP per capita, I think a better method proposes that all societies agree on some basic opportunities and human rights to be provided to citizens. This would require significant redistribution of resources from the wealthy nations to the poor. In this model of a world order, key liberties should be held to, but welfare should be conceived of broadly so that many cultures would be able to agree on the basic principles; norms would be recommended, but not imposed, and outlined only generally, leaving it up to each society to implement them as it sees fit. There would be very few “violations” that would allow intervention for enforcement.

Carolyn Forché: Economic plutocracies are well organized and have disproportionate power, and they wouldn’t accept a world order that required redistribution of wealth.

Singer: People with a strong religious mindset know that they’ve got the truth and everything else is just wrong. To them, certain “universal rights” would mean allowing people to live in sin and defy God, and that will never be acceptable.

James Miller: A feature of secularization is its constant skirmishing with people who reject open society. The liberal view of autonomy values a wide range of choices, but that’s a historically late development in human culture. Some people’s view of a good life is to live in a closed society.

Barber: A “rights approach” is intrusive and imperialist-looking to those it’s pushed on. A “democratic approach” seems much wiser. Democracy is about empowerment, whereas a rights approach says, “Here is what you ought and ought not to do.” We should empower local democracies and allow people to make their own mistakes. (Slavery was one of our worst mistakes, but the British, who had outlawed it, didn’t come in and take back our liberty.)

Nashat: Muslims will cringe at the idea of accepting ethical or moral terms that are defined by Western standards, especially when it comes to secularism. Some “universal” ideals could eventually be accepted, like capitalism, but religious objections won’t wither away.

Robert Boyers: Not everyone wants to be tolerant. Suppose what we’re confronting is a prevailing murderous sentiment? We’re reminded to let each society “make its own mistakes,” but I can’t see how this squares with a larger view of universal rights or international responsibilities—for instance, during the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Nussbaum: A public culture to sustain this ideal of a world order would need free exchange of ideas and liberal education. Perhaps it would also need arts and culture that inspire the emotions, harnessing them in service of ideals of equality and fellowship—what John Stuart Mill called a “religion of humanity.”

Miller: It’s too didactic to imagine art or culture that would promote a “religion of humanity.” Culture comes from the bottom up, from individuals expressing themselves. If you can participate in the sympathetic imagination of someone different from yourself, that’s an extraordinary engine for creating a more liberal, tolerant society.


© 2004 Skidmore College