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Why there’s no such thing as a civilisation

The West is obsessed with the idea that it is under threat, but that fear springs from a misunderstanding of how modern human societies work.

The “clash of civilisations” thesis seems to be enjoying a renaissance. Many pundits, politicians and ordinary citizens believe that the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, the Brexit mayhem and the instability of the European Union all result from a clash between “Western Civilisation” and “Islamic Civilisation”. Western attempts to impose democracy and human rights on Muslim nations resulted in a violent Islamic backlash; and a wave of Muslim immigration coupled with Islamic terrorist attacks caused European voters to abandon multicultural dreams in favour of xenophobic local identities.

According to this thesis, humankind has always been divided into diverse civilisations whose members view the world in irreconcilable ways. These incompatible world views make conflicts between civilisations inevitable. Just as in nature different species fight for survival according to the remorseless laws of natural selection, so throughout history civilisations have repeatedly clashed and only the fittest have survived to tell the tale. Those who overlook this grim fact – be they liberal politicians or head-in-the-clouds engineers – do so at their peril.

The “clash of civilisations” thesis has far-reaching political implications. Its supporters contend that any attempt to reconcile “the West” with “the Muslim world” is doomed to failure. Muslim countries will never adopt Western values, and Western countries could never successfully absorb Muslim minorities.

Accordingly, the US should not admit immigrants from Syria or Iraq, and the European Union should renounce its multicultural fallacy in favour of an unabashed Western identity. In the long run, only one civilisation can survive the unforgiving tests of natural selection, and if the bureaucrats in Brussels refuse to save the West from the Islamic peril, then Britain, Denmark or France had better go it alone.

Though widely held, this thesis is misleading. Islamic fundamentalism may indeed pose a radical challenge, but the “civilisation” it challenges is a global civilisation rather than a uniquely Western phenomenon. Not for nothing has the Islamic State managed to unite Iran and the United States against it. And even Islamic fundamentalists, for all their medieval fantasies, are grounded in contemporary global culture far more than in seventh-century Arabia. They are catering to the fears and hopes of alienated modern youth rather than to those of medieval peasants and merchants. As Pankaj Mishra and Christopher de Bellaigue have convincingly argued, radical Islamists have been influenced by Marx and Foucault as much as by Muhammad, and they inherit the legacy of 19th-century European anarchists as much as of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. It is therefore more accurate to see even the Islamic State as an errant offshoot of the global culture we all share, rather than as a branch of some mysterious alien tree.

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the “clash of civilisations” thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power by building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes.

Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla-like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organising themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterised chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.

You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of 20th-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organised themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally, democratic reunited Germany.

Of course the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you do come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago?

The (unratified) preamble of the European Constitution begins by stating that it draws inspiration “from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law”. This may easily give one the impression that European civilisation is defined by the values of human rights, democracy, equality and freedom. Countless speeches and documents draw a direct line from ancient Athenian democracy to the present-day EU, celebrating 2,500 years of European freedom and democracy.

This is reminiscent of the proverbial blind man who takes hold of an elephant’s tail and concludes that an elephant is a kind of brush. Yes, democratic ideas have been part of European culture for centuries, but they were never the whole. For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a half-hearted experiment that survived for barely 200 years in a small corner of the Balkans.

If European civilisation for the past 25 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?

In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into a single yarn.

Even an individual may knit revolutionary personal changes into a coherent and powerful life story: “I am that person who was once a socialist, but then became a capitalist; I was born in France, and now live in the US; I was married, and then got divorced; I had cancer, and then got well again.” Similarly a human group such as the Germans may come to define itself by the very changes it underwent: “Once we were Nazis, but we have learned our lesson, and now we are peaceful democrats.” You don’t need to look for some unique German essence that manifested itself first in Wilhelm II, then in Hitler, and finally in Merkel. These radical transformations are precisely what define German identity. To be German in 2018 means to grapple with the difficult legacy of Nazism while upholding liberal and democratic values. Who knows what it will mean in 2050.


An ultra-Orthodox paper edited Hillary Clinton out of this image of US officials

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People often refuse to see these changes, especially when it comes to core political and religious values. We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves. Consider, for example, Jewish attitudes towards women. Nowadays ultra-Orthodox Jews ban images of women from the public sphere. Billboards and advertisements aimed at ultra-Orthodox Jews usually depict only men and boys – never women and girls.

In 2011, a scandal erupted when the ultra-Orthodox New York paper Di Tzeitung published a photo of American officials watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound but digitally erased all women from the photo, including the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The paper explained it was forced to do so by Jewish “laws of modesty”. A similar scandal erupted when the HaMevaser paper in Israel expunged Angela Merkel from a photo of a demonstration against the Charlie Hebdo massacre, lest her image arouse any lustful thoughts in the minds of devout readers. The publisher of another Israeli ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Hamodia, defended this policy by explaining that “we are backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition”.

Nowhere is the ban on seeing women stricter than in the synagogue. In Orthodox synagogues women are carefully segregated from the men, and must confine themselves to a restricted zone where they are hidden behind a curtain, so that no men will accidentally see the shape of a woman as he says his prayers or reads scriptures.

Yet if all this is backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition and immutable divine laws, how to explain the fact that when archaeologists excavated ancient synagogues in Israel from the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, they found no sign of gender segregation, and instead uncovered beautiful floor mosaics and wall paintings depicting women, some of them rather scantily dressed? The rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and Talmud regularly prayed and studied in these synagogues, but present-day Orthodox Jews would consider them blasphemous desecrations of ancient traditions.

Similar distortions of ancient traditions characterise all religions. Islamic State has boasted that it has reverted to the pure and original version of Islam, but in truth, its take on Islam is brand new. Yes, its followers quote many venerable texts, but they exercise a lot of discretion in choosing which texts to quote and which to ignore, and in how to interpret them. Indeed, their do-it-yourself attitude to interpreting the holy texts is itself very modern. Traditionally, interpretation was the monopoly of the learned ulama – scholars who studied Muslim law and theology in reputable institutions such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar. Few of the Islamic State’s leaders have had such credentials, and most respected ulama have dismissed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ilk as ignorant criminals.

That does not mean that the Islamic State has been “un-Islamic” or “anti-Islamic”, as some people argue. It is particularly ironic when Christian leaders such as Barack Obama have the temerity to tell self-professing Muslims such as al-Baghdadi what it means to be Muslim. The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.

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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. Yet 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. Though it has no intrinsic value – you cannot eat or drink a dollar bill – trust in the dollar and in the wisdom of the Federal Reserve is so firm that it is shared even by Islamic fundamentalists, Mexican drug lords and North Korean tyrants. In premodern times humans have experimented not only with diverse political systems, but also with a mind-boggling variety of economic models. Nowadays, in contrast, almost everybody believes in slightly different variations on the same capitalist theme, and we are all cogs within a single global production line.

Yet the homogeneity of contemporary humanity is most apparent when it comes to our view of the natural world and of the human body. If you fell sick a thousand years ago, it mattered a great deal where you lived. In Europe, the resident priest would probably tell you that you had made God angry, and that in order to regain your health, you should donate something to the church, make a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and pray fervently for God’s forgiveness. Alternatively, the village witch might explain that a demon had possessed you, and that she could cast the demon out using song, dance and the blood of a black cockerel.

In the Middle East, doctors brought up on classical traditions might explain that your four bodily humours were out of balance, and you should harmonise them with a proper diet and foul-smelling potions. In India, Ayurvedic experts would offer their own theories concerning the balance between the three bodily elements known as doshas, and recommend a treatment of herbs, massages and yoga postures.

Chinese physicians, Siberian shamans, African witch doctors, Amerindian medicine men – every empire, kingdom and tribe had its own traditions and experts, each espousing different views about the human body and the nature of sickness, and each offering their own cornucopia of rituals, concoctions and cures. Some of them worked surprisingly well, whereas others were little short of a death sentence. The only thing that united European, Chinese, African and American medical practices was that everywhere at least a third of children died before reaching adulthood, and average life expectancy was far below 50.

Today, if you happen to be sick, it makes much less difference where you live. In Toronto, Tokyo, Tehran or Tel Aviv, you will be taken to similar-looking hospitals, where you will meet doctors in white coats who learned the same scientific theories in the same medical colleges. They will follow identical protocols and use identical tests to reach very similar diagnoses. They will then dispense the same medicines produced by the same international drug companies.

There are still some minor cultural differences, but Canadian, Japanese, Iranian and Israeli physicians hold much the same views about the human body and human diseases. After the Islamic State captured Raqqa and Mosul, it did not tear down the local hospitals. Rather, it launched an appeal to Muslim doctors and nurses throughout the world to volunteer their services there. Presumably, even Islamist doctors and nurses believe that the body is made of cells, that diseases are caused by pathogens, and that antibiotics kill bacteria.


Today’s religion can distort ancient tradition

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And what makes up these cells and bacteria? Indeed, what makes up the entire world? A thousand years ago every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time and space.

Take, for example, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes. The whole problem is that the Iranians and North Koreans have exactly the same view of physics as the Israelis and Americans. If the Iranians and North Koreans believed that e = mc4, Israel and the US would not care an iota about their nuclear programmes. People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.

There are disagreements, no doubt, but then all civilisations have their internal disputes. Indeed, they are defined by these disputes. When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas. For example, in 1618 Europe didn’t have a single religious identity – it was defined by religious conflict. To be a European in 1618 meant to obsess about tiny doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants or between Calvinists and Lutherans, and to be willing to kill and be killed because of these differences. If a human being in 1618 did not care about these conflicts, that person was perhaps a Turk or a Hindu, but definitely not a European.

Similarly, in 1940 Britain and Germany had very different political values, yet they were both part and parcel of “European Civilisation”. Hitler wasn’t less European than Churchill. Rather, the very struggle between them defined what it meant to be European at that particular juncture in history. In contrast, a !Kung hunter-gatherer in 1940 wasn’t European because the internal European clash about race and empire would have made little sense to him.

The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements. What does it mean to be European in 2018? It doesn’t mean to have white skin, to believe in Jesus Christ, or to uphold liberty. Rather, it means to argue vehemently about immigration, about the EU, and about the limits of capitalism. It also means to obsessively ask yourself, “What defines my identity?” and to worry about an ageing population, about rampant consumerism and about global warming. In their conflicts and dilemmas, 21st-century Europeans are different from their ancestors in 1618 and 1940, but are increasingly similar to their Chinese and Indian trade partners.

Whatever changes await us in the future, they are likely to involve a fraternal struggle within a single civilisation rather than a clash between alien civilisations. The big challenges of the 21st century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans?

No doubt, we will have huge arguments and bitter conflicts over these questions. But these arguments and conflicts are unlikely to isolate us from one another. Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent. Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation. 

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari is published by Jonathan Cape on 30 August

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State