Preventing a clash of civilizations?

The clash of civilizations – an unsettling reality which has intensified since Islamic fundamentalists staged the September 11 attacks on the USA in a challenge to Western supremacy, prompting a string of terrorist attacks – served as the focus of a debate at the Goethe Institute in Athens last Friday, in which Greek and German social scientists and philosophers presented their diagnoses, and their tentative solutions. All agreed that this very real, and escalating, conflict can only be diffused through dialogue but also acknowledged that the prerequisites for meaningful dialogue do not yet exist and that the initial challenge for mankind is the creation of a «transcultural code.» The discussion was dominated by Bassam Tibi, professor of international relations at the University of Goettingen in Germany – a Syrian-born Harvard University fellow, practicing Muslim, and internationally renowned expert on transcultural studies – who presented a compelling analysis of the seeds, and the fertilizers, of the current «East-West conflict» while projecting a somewhat incongruous optimism. Author of «Preventing the Clash of Civilizations» – an optimistic response to Samuel Huntington’s bleak vision of World War III in his 1996 book «The Clash of Civilizations» – Tibi envisions the eventual creation of a «transcultural international morality» which will allow the world’s civilizations and their various cultural groups to live together. But he conceded that this is a dream, stressing that there is no universal system of human values and that a fundamental incongruity of perceptions almost precludes dialogue before it has begun. «Peace means very different things for Islam and for the Western world,» Tibi noted. «For Islamists, peace is the globalization of Islamic models; in the West, it is generally understood as an absence of war.» Similarly, it is difficult for Islamists to regard tolerance as respect for other religions «as it is generally interpreted in the West» because their unshakeable conviction is that non-Islamists are destined for a second-rate fate, he said. «Globalization applies only to structures, not to values,» Tibi continued, stressing that «structural globalization and cultural fragmentation exist side by side in our modern world.» The unifying practices of globalization have little interaction with the deeply rooted cultural codes of the various people of the world and so fail to unite them, Tibi maintained. This is why we may speak of Western universalism but not of one Western civilization. Alternatively, we can speak of one Islamic civilization, as political Islam attracts a strong allegiance – especially among disenfranchised cultural groups in nations to which they feel little loyalty, according to Tibi. The binding power of political Islam – a combination of politics and religion, by definition – has no equivalent in the West, where religion and politics have been separated, he noted. (As a parenthesis, he commented that representatives of the new Turkish government have the same deep Islamic roots, whether they publicly admit to them or not.) Tibi accepted that Islamic fundamentalism is the source of what he calls «the new world disorder» – «an Islamic revolution against the West, an attempt to ‘de-Westernize’ – to destroy Western models and impose Islam.» (He drew a distinction between Orthodox Islam, which has been influenced by Greek philosophy, and Islamic fundamentalism, which emerged during this century «in the Bin Laden tradition of the Muslim brothers from Cairo.») But this Islamic fundamentalism cannot be examined, and criticized, in isolation, the panel agreed. The West also needs to consider that its current order may not be the final answer. If aspects of globalization and the nation-state system provide fertile ground for fundamentalism, they need to be changed. Otherwise fundamentalist Islamists will continue to use the technologies of war and communication, which the West itself created, to challenge Western universalism with their own universalist claim using acts of terrorism, Tibi observes. And the teachings of the Koran are not an «alternative» to be cleaved to only by those who choose to be Muslim. They are a replacement for the West’s entire system of individualism, commerce and diversity. Constantinos Papageorgiou, philosophy of law professor at Athens University, said the September 11 attacks urged a revision of values but stressed the «irreconciliability of the West and Islam.» «Asking an Islamist to regard their faith as one in a spectrum of different beliefs is like demanding multilingualism from someone who has only ever been exposed to one language,» he maintained. But, faced with such absolutism, how can there be dialogue? According to Cosmas Psychopaidis, professor of economic history and philosophy of social sciences at Athens University, introspection and reassessment is necessary before dialogue is an option. He stressed the need for a commitment to re-evaluating values. The current crisis of values in society, the «new uncertainty» (the end of Keynesian «good» and «bad» models for society) means we need to re-evaluate; not to create a new hierarchy of values, but rather to use the concept of values as a starting point for re-evaluation. But this calls for a coordination we do not know how to orchestrate, Psychopaidis maintained. The biggest problem is that of «translatability» between the schemes or models of different religions and civilizations, he noted, stressing that this generally depends on the power of one side to impose its views on the other. According to Thanos Lipovac, a political scientist, the solution may be «the imposition of tolerance» – a paradox, but one that exists in both religion and politics, he notes. «Unless we can find a motive to make people move beyond words to action, this may be necessary,» he added, without elaborating. Ilias Katsoulis, professor of political sociology at Panteion University, shifted the focus to a conflict closer to home – that of a resurgent Orthodoxy in Greece and «the West» (as represented by globalization, US imperialism etc.). Greek society currently has a very defensive character, he noted. This is partly due to the threat to its national interests it feels due to its proximity to Turkey and to a mass influx of immigrants over the past decade which has created a basis for Orthodox bias, Katsoulis noted. But a large section of the Greek population was alienated by the «new PASOK» and the fast pace of changes it undertook to secure its position in the international hierarchy, said Katsoulis. These people have since turned to the Orthodox Church, which has armed itself with their insecurity in its confrontation with the West, he added. But Greeks should follow developments without fear, Katsoulis stressed, adding that «civilizations are demythologized as they get closer. The concentration provokes unease, but it is an opportunity for dialogue, and solutions.» Overall, this was the common conclusion of the debate. The ongoing process of globalization is making the world a smaller place where we feel our differences with greater force. Dialogue has become a necessity – it may be the only way of avoiding Huntington’s dark vision. So there is no time to lose in establishing a common language. But there was no consensus on how this can be done. And it was here that the discussion ended – on a note of hope rather than optimism.

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