The Editorials of E. Desiderius

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Arab Values, Democracy, and Huntington

Before 9/11, before the War on Terror, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, before the daily kidnappings and suicide bombings, and before the cartoon riots, a Harvard professor named Samuel Huntington wrote an article for Foreign Affairs called “The Clash of Civilizations?” later expanded into a book, which argued that the post-Cold War world was no longer going to be an ideological battleground, but a cultural one. At the core of this notion was the concept of socio-historical cultures or civilizations that transcended nation-states to unify blocks of countries that shared similar cultural values and similar cultural experiences. Huntington identified several clear and distinct civilizations, such as Western Civilization, Islamic, Sinic, Japanese, African, and others whose origins and boundaries were not so clear like Orthodox (Russia and other Slavic countries) and Latin America.

The new fault lines for conflict were not ideology opposition, but fault lines between civilizations. After 9/11, it seemed as if Huntington’s thesis was right. By now, we can be almost certain. The cartoon protest revealed something disturbing to Westerners: it was the first time their values had been so broadly and soundly rejected, by, in Huntington’s terms, an entire civilization of people. The moderate voices in the conflict were those saying “Freedom of speech is good…but not too much freedom of speech.” The radicals offered financial and material rewards for the heads of the European cartoonists. The liberals were nowhere to be seen, with the exception of a courageous Jordanian who dared to ask which was the worst moral sin, a suicide bomber, or some foolish, insensitive cartoons?

America has tried a foreign policy of democratization, with disastrous results. As a projection of Western values, the Bush Administration believed that they could mold the fundamentalist radical Afghani society into a Western-style Democracy in a few short years, only to be enraged when they began executing Christians. And they foolishly believed that Iraqi sectarian strife would simply evaporate and a functional pluralistic republican society would emerge in just a few months. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but Huntington was not writing in hindsight. His decade-old theorem was crystal-clear foresight, and he was dead right. He claimed that the Western belief that her values such as democracy and freedom were universal ideas, rather than specific Western inventions based on specific Western experiences, would lead the West into headlong confrontation.

Thus, this is why China’s economic abandonment of Communism did not lead to a political abandonment of quasi-dictatorship, as in the Orthodox (closely related to the Western Civilization, according to Huntington) post-Cold War countries. China’s Sinic civilization did not experience the flourishing of individualism and the rise of secular humanism, and intellectual doubt like the European Renaissance, Reformation, and the Age of Reason, but rather was weaned on the stricter Confusion beliefs in order and paternalism.

And one cannot expect Arab societies, birthed out of a tribal system and raised on a stern religion which demands unquestioning obedience to a higher power, to embrace the same values as Europeans, who experienced a vastly different cultural landscape for the last 2 millennia. Yes, Christianity demanded the same sort of obedience, but there was Descartes who doubted, Galileo and Darwin who examined scientifically, Locke who dreamed of a new political order, Martin Luther who broke the monopoly on theological power of Catholicism, and generations of other thinkers, politicians, scientists and religious figures who led us the slow march towards our modern society and values. It is a hard prospect for progressive, optimistic liberal-minded individuals raised in the West to accept: that our values are not universal, but the product of our history, our literature and our socialization.

It was incomprehensible to German, French and Dutch editors how there could be massive protests against simple cartoons. “Yes, we have the right to caricature God,” quipped one indignant French paper. But Westerners have been lampooning God without consequence for three hundred years. Voltaire, anyone? Westerners are now reacting in indignation to the jailing and possible execution of a Christian. But Westerners have had the freedom to choose and challenge religion since Martin Luther’s hammer nailed his 95 theses up. Arab societies do not have this fundamental experience: they never experienced such a sharp and dramatic challenge to the authority of their clergy and their religious beliefs, and they never experienced the centuries of development of the individualism that was born from the Renaissance, the skepticism that was nurtured by the scientific revolution, and the freedom that was the result of the American, French and subsequent revolutions that destroyed hierarchical rule.

Understanding needs to come from both sides, of course. Our foreign policy is recklessly trying to project our values around the world. Arab values are indeed incompatible with liberal democracy, as we know it. That does not mean that autocratic and brutal dictators need rule their nations. But Arab societies must understand that our long European struggle with the power of the church, the limited power of government, rights of man, the individuality of all humans and the nurturing of secularism and doubt must be able to be peacefully practiced within our borders, without the torching of our foreign embassies, without the destruction of our buildings and without the tragic murdering of our citizens. Meanwhile, we need to accept that China may not politically reform and blossom into a functional democracy, and perhaps neither will Russia; that Afghani democracy may do things that appall us, and that Iraq’s sectarian differences may be too great to reconcile in just one society. We need to accept that our values cannot simply and easily be dumped onto a vastly different society, and that our own concepts of right and wrong are products of our socialization. This is not cultural relativism, this is cultural realism. There may yet be a truly universal right and a truly universal wrong, but human beings cannot claim to be so perfect and so wise to know them. After all, almost every human being that ever undertaken any endeavor of any kind has done so with the belief that they are right.

We face two choices as a global community: understanding of the civilizational and cultural forces at work, or destroying each other in petty misunderstandings.

-E. Desiderius

Relevent Articles:
The Washington Post - The World at War

Posted by George Gordon | Saturday, March 25, 2006 | E-mail this post

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