Relations between civilisations, some argue, are rooted in conflict and the desire to eliminate each other. For an embodiment of this chronic inter-civilisational hostility all you have to do is reflect over the tension reigning between the Muslim world and the “west” filled with the sound of sirens, F-16s, bombs, and gunfire, and the voices of pre-emptive strikes, sacred wars and insane violence.
On the Muslim side this view finds its staunchest champions among groups like al-Qaida, who see themselves as locked in eternal religious and civilisational warfare with the infidel west.
On the opposite side of the trench stand rightwing and liberal elements, who, though strongly averse to Bin Laden’s religious metaphors, subscribe to his reading of western/Islamic relations nonetheless. The absence of harmony between the two, these claim, is grounded in their different value systems, with one based on rationality, freedom, individualism and progress, the other on fatalism, religious myth, literalism, intellectual rigidity and despotism. The two are simply irreconcilable.
Shallow stereotypes apart, there is no denying the many differences between what are conventionally referred to as Islamic and western civilisations. The same would indeed be true of Indian, Chinese, or any other great civilisation. Each has its distinctive historical experience, system of meaning and order of references, without which it cannot be described as a civilisation.
It is naïve, however, to infer from this essential fact of particularity that civilisations exist as islands swimming in isolation from each other. Far from being pure or homogenous, civilisations are amalgams of manifold intellectual traditions and historical influences. The linear reading of history that regards the present as a rupture with the past is too simplistic to account for the complexity of historical processes.
When we speak of Muslim civilisation for instance, we do not mean a monolithic separate block, but the great repository of an astonishing range of sources, Persian, Byzantine, Chinese, Indian, and other, assimilated within the Islamic symbolic order and through the medium of Arabic, its lingua franca.
And while those on the northern part of the dispute insist on positing a dichotomy between the “west” and “Islam'” the truth is that the Muslim moment is an integral part of that which was to succeed it in Europe. While it was heir to the great civilisations and high cultures of the east, Islam acted as the bridge between antiquity and modernity.
European civilisation is in this sense not only Judeo-Christian, but Judeo-Christian-Islamic, the latter incorporating the rich heritage of the east in its folds. This is still the case even if the notion of European identity was largely elaborated in opposition to the Muslim other: Saracen, and later Turk.
Islam and Muslims were part of Europe’s past. Today, they are an undeniable part of its present. As “natives” in eastern Europe, or as recent immigrant communities settled in the continent since the 1940s, they number at least 15 million and are Europe’s largest religious minority. Islam does not stop at Europe’s imaginary frontiers, at the Mediterranean to the south and Turkey to the east, but is part of its internal fabric. The Muslim factor is in many respects a European factor.
While the western proponents of clashes of civilisations regard Muslim presence in Europe as a threat to its security and a danger to its mythical pure identity, their Muslim counterparts see it as a transit through a “house of war”. On both sides, shallow, disfigured and reductionist interpretations of history and identity, past and present prevail.
If we go beyond the realm of theories to that of current affairs, how can we explain the crisis of relations between “Islam” and the “west”?
Whatever the zealots in east and west may say, the answer to the question lies neither in cultures and ways of life, nor in norms and values, but in the world of politics, with its stakes and calculations. Take the debacle with Iran consuming the attention of politicians, strategists and journalists today. Only a simpleton would believe that the country is being dragged to the UN and threatened with military attack to defend civilisation and enlightenment. The conflict has little to do with religion, or culture and much to do with geopolitics and the balance of powers in a highly sensitive region of the world. The ongoing diplomatic feuds and potential military battles are being fought neither for reason nor for freedom and progress, but for dominance, Israel, and oil.
Some might argue that powers are entitled to pursue their own interests. Though true, this is by no means an absolute proposition. Such entitlement depends largely on the legitimacy of the interests in question. We must distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate interests. Legitimate interests can only be part of a balanced relationship that recognises and meets the needs of both sides. I might have an interest in assaulting you and expropriating your property. But is my interest legitimate? I think not.
The Middle East is the crossroad of three continents and the container of the world’s biggest oil reserves. That Europe and the US should seek access to such an important part of the world is only natural. Some ask what is the problem with them pursuing their vital interests. The problem is when strategies are based on a strict calculation of individual interest, heedless of those who stand on the opposite side, their needs and aspirations. The problem is when these interests are pursued with an egotistic will to domination in rejection of the value of mutual benefit. The problem is when an entire region is viewed wholly through the prism of interest, its people either as vehicles, or as obstacles to its attainment.
Yes, there are clashes, and bloody borders. But these are not between civilisations, cultures, ways of life, or value systems, but between irreconcilable agendas, strategies and policies. In these rampant power games, “civilisation” turns into nothing but a fig leaf behind which interest hides its nakedness.
First Published in The Guardian, Tuesday 27 March 2007