Civilization: A Document of Barbarism

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Aziz Ali Dad[1]

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”Walter Benjamin

The word “civilization” always evokes ideas of sublimity, progress, refinement, civility and humanism. It is used as a criterion for distinguishing human beings fromthe animal kingdom. However, the word is not as sublime and humane as it appears, for it has a seamy side that tends to be overlooked in the narcissist representation of civilization innationalist and academic discourse. Like other things in the world, the idea of civilization is also not immune from human tendency to degenerate sublime ideals into despicable things. Historically, the very word of civilization is evenemployed to differentiate one group of human beings from other cultural groups. The inherent narcissism in the idea of civilization allowspeople to deem other people that are not a part of their own group as animals or sub-human. Hence, the age-old practice of comparing civilized nations with barbarians. For instance, in ancient Greece,Greek citizens did not include slaves and other nations in the definition of humans; Romans called non-Romans Barbarians; for Arabs non-Arabs were ajam (silent, mute or non-Arab);civilized Persia viewed Turan, the uncouth nomads from the North, as a perpetual threat to their civilization; Hindus feared crossing the sea because it would contaminate their spirituality and identity;and civilization in ancient China came into being in the process of differentiating the barbarian foreigner from civilized China.

No doubt the societies that call themselves civilized excelled in different fields of life and contributed to the progress of humanity, but the march of civilization was made by trampling over those who were dubbed uncivilized. Walter Benjamin exquisitely unravels the inherent barbarity of civilization in his paper: “Thesis on the Philosophy of History” in these words, “Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.” He succinctly sums up the whole story of development of civilization by declaring, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[i]

Through a long march of history mankind has now become capable of controlling nature with the help of scientific knowledge. In addition, the world has developed an elaborate and complex system to manage economy, state and society. These characteristics are the hallmarks of modern civilization. Despite phenomenal progress in science and technology, the tendency of employing civilization in the service of empire has grown stronger in the period of early and late modernity. Throughout the colonial period the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) of the Western colonial powers provided moral justification for the conquest and exploitation of other societies. Owing to the changed political climate and shifts in international politics in the last fin de siècle, the term of civilization has attained new cogency and occupiedcentre stage in political theory.

In ideological debate and war between socialism and capitalism during the cold war, culture did not appear much on the radar screen of international politics. It does not mean that cultural debates did not take placeor the ideological war was not expressed through cultural means. What it means is that culture was subservient to the ideological warand did not influence ideology. It was ideology which was driving history and influencing state policies and decisions. In the case of socialism, some communist states even attempted to destroy the cultures of their respective countries to create an alternate world and society from the rubble of the past. Mao Zee Tong’s the Great Cultural Revolution illustrates this case very well.

With the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR),the capitalist block announced its triumph against the socialist system. The whole economic, social and political edifice of the West in the post WW II period was built and legitimized on the basis of “red fear”. Disappearance of the “red fear” robed the capitalist/liberal world of an enemy which lent legitimacy to the whole structure of state, economy and society and provided moral justification for Western policies and postures towards “Others” during the cold war. Within this ideological context the political pundits and prophets from universities and think tanks conjured the idea of  a‘Clash of Civilization’.

On the heels of the disintegration of USSR, Bernard Lewis propounded the basic idea of the clash between the Muslim and “Western” world in his paper ‘Roots of Muslim Rage’. In the paper Lewis argued, “Today much of the Muslim world is again seized by an intense – and violent – resentment of the West. Suddenly, America had become the archenemy, the incarnation of evil, the diabolic opponent of all that is good, and specifically, for Muslims, of Islam. Why?”[ii]His article set the tone for debate regarding the interface between Islam and the West. His theory was later elaborated by Samuel P. Huntington in his influential article ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. Huntington declared, “the next world war, if there is one, will be war between civilizations. Among the existing civilization there is strong likelihood of clash between Western and Islamic civilization because conflict along the fault line between them has been going on for 1300 years.”[iii]

The apocalyptic vision of theseacademic clairvoyants got further rectification with the terrorist attacks in the United States on 9/11. Though the terrorist attacks raised important questions, the search for answers was influenced more by the drive towards power than emphatic/meaningful understanding (Verstehen). Here essentialisedknowledge about the ‘Others’ is employed and even manufactured by the knowledge to serve power. As a corollary, the answers we get are stereotypical, power laden, binary, essentialist,staid,and uni-dimensional. In the post 9/11 period, analysts on both side of the debate reread the whole history in the light of the present and cherry pickedonlythose aspects of history which highlight the historical roots of rage and clash, whence the modern conflict emerged.

Proponents of the clash of civilizations still view the world through polarized lenses. This is the reason thesewriters marshal historical and civilizational allusions to further widen the wedge between the West and Islam, in particular, and the Rest in general. They tend to attribute the reason for the clash to essential differences of institutions, associated ideas, and behaviors. These differences distinguish the West from the Rest.[iv]This simplified view may be instrumental in achieving parochial and short-term goals, however, intellectually it remains unsatisfactory, as it tends to invest in a monomaniac mindset at the expense of the benefits of exploring complexities and commonalities. It is convenient for a power to provide a simplified version of a complex issue for the consumption of the massesby hiding reality in the hope of creating consent.

Today Islam is inextricably intertwined with politics, economy, institutions, lifestyle and systems of modernity. That is why its expressions and aspirations are represented in the language and mediums of modernity. The tendency of viewing Islam through an essentialist outlook results in overlooking the modern roots of Islamism. Unfortunately, the essentialist tendency resurrects texts from the past to justify the current positions/opposition of the West vis-à-vis Islam. A case in point is the publication of Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne’s,book “Mahomet et Charlemagne” in 1938. Famously known as the “Pirenne thesis” the writer claims, “It was only with the Arab conquests of the eastern and southern Mediterranean in theseventh century A.D. that this Mediterranean-wide economy was disrupted. Islam marks a breach in the continuum of ancient civilization incomparably deeper than that of the Germanic Invasions.”[v]Unlike Pirenne, Mohammed Arkoun viewsthe Mediterranean area as a place where the West and Islam converge to create a new cultural and intellectual space. “Pirenne defends the thesis,” writes Arkoun, “that Islam as the new emerging historical force in the seventh century imposed an end to the Paxromana opposing irreversibly the South-East to the North-West of Mediterranean area. The thesis received a strong ‘confirmation’ in the Western imaginary since 9/11/01 that the book has been recently re-edited as if nothing contrary to the thesis has been published since 1938.”[vi]Marriam Cooks sees eye to eye with Arkoun’s view. “Meditteranean thinking is always,” Cooks writes,“multiple and open, always engaged in exchange, negotiation, and dialogue between what Mohammed Arkoun calls “influences” and “residues”.”[vii]

Contrary to the dominant narrative that ascribes essential differences of outlook as a source of conflict between Islam and the West, the conflictbetween the West and Islam is not a result of incommensurability between the two civilizations, rather it stems from proximity and interface – both geographical and cultural – with each other for nearly one and a half millennium. It is this closeness and historical affinityand not incommensurability that creates fears among extremistson both sides. The fear is not that one will overpower the other, rather it is fear of permeation and the creation of hybrid identities and threshold communities, and melting of the old selves into a new whole. Given the long history of interface between the West and Islam, albeit a chequered history of conflicts and violence, there is a strong likelihood of rapprochement or fusion of horizons between the two civilizations. Rejecting the essential perspective about Islam and the West, Roxanne L. Euben writes,“…cross cultural comparison may ultimately undermine the very opposition between “Islam” and “the West”. Such oppositions can be useful heuristic devices with which to grasp and order unwieldy terrain, yet in a postcolonial world grown smaller and more interdependent through globalization, the lines between “us” and “them have dramatically shifted and become more permeable.”[viii]

It took centuries for Europe to coalesce into the European Union, but not long before its establishment, Europe plunged into wars which were unprecedented in terms of human lose and scale. In spite of their sanguinary history, European nations succeeded to bury the hatchet and form the EU because their history of social and cultural interface was so long that it ultimately paved the way for cooperation and banished factors that caused confrontation. It is important to highlight that the World Wars in the last century were triggered by a wave of extremist nationalism sweeping across the world. In their frenzy of nationalism, nations saw “others” as absolute enemies. In reality, the enemy was just a mirror image of the self. Despite all the bloodshed, some commentators go to the extent of declaringthe World Wars as the last great civil wars of the West, experiences of which paved the way for the emergence of the new Europe we witness now.

Given the history between Islam and the West, both cannot be considered alien to each other.Historically, Muslims have remained part of the European geography, collective memory and imagination. Since the first contact of Europe with Islam was military, a militant view dominated the imagination. Gradually, the militant view gave way to intellectual and cultural exchange between the two sides. Though Muslims were driven from the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and most of Eastern Europe, except Bosnia and Albania,it’s literary, architectural, philosophical, and administrativeinfluences remained part and parcel of European history. Euben rejects the idea that pits Islam against the West. She thinks that, “such oppositions make less sense in light of the mutual debt between Europe and Islam dating back centuries.”[ix]The current confrontation between the West and Islamistscan be viewed as a great convulsion for readjustment within the common space of a global village. In the process of readjustment, memories and desires make both actors sometimes foes and other times friends. In the long run these desires and memories would enable both civilizations to achieve acommon “objective correlative” for empathetic understanding and “communicative actions.”

Within the specific context of Muslim societies, the interface between memory and desire has largely determined their perception, movement and involvement in modernity. Speaking about Middle Easterners, R. Stephen Humphreys writes that they “feel themselves trapped between deeply felt and ardently sought aspirations for freedom, prosperity, dignity, and cultural authenticity, on the one side, and the twice-bitter memories that suffocate these aspirations, on the other.”[x]Contemporary Muslim societies lack the required resources of modernity to fulfill their aspirations. The West has a palpable presence within Muslim societies in the shape of material and intellectual modernity. Muslims have adopted the formerbecause of its capacity to satisfy immediate material desires, but the internalizing of the latter is inhibited by bitter memories of the past. And the antagonistic and binary view of an immanent clash between two wholes – civilizations – is a desire of those who evoke memory to forestall the possibility of dialogue.

Today the intellectual scene of the world is dominated by the hawks who do not tolerate any dissent. Being at the helm of affairs related to foreign policy, the academia cum intelligentsia in the West has built the whole edifice of their narrative on the foundation of fear. Although the face or name of fear changes, its core remains constant. In red, green, yellow, the fear remained constant despite a change in adjectives or colours of fear.  Dr. Tariq Ramadan is of the view that “the worst thing that could happen in a dialogue between civilizations is a lack of self-understanding and the fantasy construct of a closed and ghettoized ‘civilizational identity’ based upon fear and scarred by historical traumas and wounds.”[xi]

In fact, the “Other” in Islam and the West is a reflection of each other.Since Enlightenment, the meta-narrative of apollonian reason transcended geographical boundaries and became universal. The deification of reason in the modern order of things has turned the very project of enlightenment into a tyranny of reason.[xii]Oswald Spengler criticized the type of man created by modern civilization. Commenting on Spengler’s views on the West vis-à-vis other civilizations, J.C. Nyiri writes, “…the Western Spirit is, since the beginning of “modern time”, in a process of decay, and that it isRussianism that today represents “Spring” in contrast to the “Winter” of the “Faustian” (Western) nations and their culture which by now has degenerated into “civilization”.”[xiii]There must be a reason why the West terms the change sweeping across Arab countries as spring.

Islam may complement the West and help in filling an existential hole within.The West tried to tackle an engulfing nihilism by resorting to instrumental reasoning, and presenting progress as the sole criteria to judge one’s self and others. Instead of curing this malaise, instrumental reasoning has only aggravated human condition. Reinstatement of emotions and feelings in the modern order of things will prove conducive in rehabilitating the holistic man who has lost the meaning of life in the culture of unbelief. Belief ought not to be equated with religion. One can have a faith or belief without religion.  For instance, in the end of eighteen and first half of the nineteenth century the romantics revolted against enlightenment and scientific rationality. Though they lost trust in religion and modern science, they had strong faith in intuition and emotions.

On the other hand, Muslims fear that without the anchor of continuity, they will not survive the tempest of change triggered by modernity. Nothing can escape the process of change. Like the Christians and Jews, the Muslims have to undergo disenchantment. What is needed is to engage with and internalize what we fear in others. Enlightenment should not be the property of one particular group of people. A heterogeneous whole,as opposed to a homogeneous whole riddled with existential holes within, needs to be worked on. Only by subjecting immutable dimensions of our self to change, can we bring about a genuine change within and alter our perception about “Others”.

A question arises: Where does one find that place for inter-civilizational dialogue, which is not bound by ideology, profit, fear and national interest? First, for that to happen there is need to create knowledge which is informed by emphatic/meaningful understanding not by instrumental reasoning. Meaningfulunderstanding emerges when one is able to empathize with othersand feel their agonies and aspirations. This cannot be possible in the modern arrangement of knowledge production because it is driven by instrumental reasoning. An empathetic view can be achieved through interaction at a personal level and unraveling of how individuals feel and interact with the world without resorting to stereotypes. In the world of mass media and sophisticated technology of control and propaganda, the individual experience is pushed aside. The only wayto access into the inner recesses of the individual is through cultural exchange and personal contact.

Second, there is need to give more space to dissenters and “heretics”, than to paying heed to omniscient conformers and omnipotent proponents of power. In the postcolonial period such voices emergedin Muslim societies, but gradually they were either silenced and expelled, or withered away for several reasons. As a result, societies did not get fresh ideas and were compelled to regurgitate what had already been bequeathed by the past and orthodoxy. In the post 9/11 era there is another great exodus of dissenting voices and mindsthat try to reinterpret religion. Now the intellectual landscape in Muslim societies has been turned into awasteland. Lack of freedom of thought, speech, and act in Muslim societies is divesting them of minds and pushes them towards the precipice of nihilism.The only intellectual output Muslim societies are able to do is produce today are edicts of ‘heretics’ against those who endeavor to introduce rationality and openness in closed societies, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. With the flight of dissenting and new voices from the traditional Muslim lands, the traditional definition of holy has also disappeared into oblivion. In such an atmosphere open societiesprovidenew abode from where a new Islam will emerge.

The biggest loss the Muslims incurred in their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula was not the loss of political power, but the opportunity of gaining from the Renaissance and Enlightenment movements. Cohabitationinthe same space and cultural milieu under the same power can result in a formation of a similar worldview. Today Muslims live in sizeable numbers in Europe and the United States. Most of the persecuted and dissenting intellectuals find refuge in these lands where they have freedom of thought, speech and action. The political and economic environ, and cultural ethos of the West are different from the lands that have been traditionally associated with Islam. Islam in the West is burgeoning. The emerging narrative of Islamemerging from the West has provided fresh perspectives to Muslim societies. Without the intellectual contribution of TahaHussain, Dr. Fazul-ur-Rahman, Dr. Hameed-ud-Din, Professor Mohammed Arkoun, Seyyed Hussein Nasr, AmnaWadud, Abdul KarimSoroush, Tariq Ramadan, MuhammedFethullahGülen,TalalAsad, etc. to modern Islamic thought, the intellectual landscape of Muslim thought would have been very poor.

All the aforementioned intellectuals were or are settled in the West. If Muslim societies fail to provide space for new voices of change, then they are condemned to remain in an eternal darkness of ignorance. Only those societies who are able to open new vistas of thinking can create open societies. In the context of the Muslim world, reinterpretation of Islam is taking place in Turkey and the Far East – Indonesia and Malaysia. After his expulsion from Pakistan, Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi took refuge in Malaysia. Within Pakistan there is an incessant persecution and killings of intellectuals. The senseless murders of intellectuals will rob the country of minds, and leave a majority of the masses at the mercy of people who use religion as an instrument to achieve their worldly political ends. Unlike Pakistan where gun totting and fatwa issuing mullahs define religion, the idea of Islam in Turkey and Far East is informed by the ideas of Professor Mohammed Arkoun, Dr. Fazul-ur-Rehman and FethullahGülen. In this century it is likely that a new interpretation of Islam would emerge from the Far East and Turkey.

Those who are declared heretics may be marginalized in Muslim societies, but they are the ones who break the dogmatic enclosures of orthodoxy. Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamdiwas expelled from the land of the pure. His interpretation of religion is more cogent than the apologetic managers of the sacred whose only service is the expulsion of rational minds by dubbing them heretics. Name any modern thing under the sun, which our clerics have notdeclared haram. A fearful mind like this cannot lead his followers in the complex age and integrated world of the twenty first century.

Liberalism in the West has also produced its own pariahs who have been pushed into the margins of state and society. In the time of hardened attitudes, congealed identities anda culture of fear of others, the scholarships and voices on the margins of both Muslim and liberal west provide a space for dialogue by upholding the ideals of cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitan virtue.[xiv]Our globe is witnessing bloodshed and planetary exploitation of resources because of greed and unbridled power. The world will become a better place only when we muster our courage to see reality beyond the pale of our narrow cultural and ideological boundaries. Moulana Rumi says: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field; I’ll meet you there.”

[1]The writer is a freelance columnist with background in philosophy and social science. Email:

[i] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Schocken Books, New York. 2007. Page 256

[ii] Lewis, Bernard. “The Roots of Muslim Rage” Atlantic Monthly 226:3. September 1990. Page 2.

[iii] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations,” in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

[iv] Ferguson, Niall. Civilisation: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power. Penguin Books, London. 2012. Page 12.

[v]“Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne Author(s): Peter Brown Reviewed work(s): Source: Daedalus, Vol. 103, No. 1, Twentieth-Century Classics Revisited (Winter, 1974), pp. 25-33. Page 26.

[vi]Arkoun, Mohammed. Islam: To Reform or to Subvert?Saqi Books, London. 2006. Page 13.

[vii] Cooke, Miriam. Mediterranean Thinking: From Netizen to Medizen. Geographical Review, Vol. 89, No. 2, Oceans Connect (Apr., 1999), pp. 290-300. Page 298.

[viii]Euben, Roxanne L. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Oxford University Press, Karachi. 2001. Page 12.

[ix]Euben, Roxanne L. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Oxford University Press, Karachi. 2001. Page 12.

[x] Humphreys, R. Stephen. Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age.University of California Press, London. 1999. Page xviii.

[xi]Ramadan, Tariq Dr. The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.Penguin books, London. 2012. Page no 190.

[xii] For the critique of instrumental reason see Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum, New York. 2000.

[xiii]Nyiri, J. C. Tradition and Individuality: Essays.Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. 1992. Page 3.

[xiv] For theoretical elaboration of cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitan virtue and ethics see Nussbaum, M. 2011. Patriotism and cosmopolitanism. In The Cosmopolitanism Reader (eds) D. Held & G. W. Brown, 155–178. Polity.

Nussbaum, M. 2008.Toward a globally sensitive patriotism. Daedalus 137, 78–93.

Turner, B. 2002. Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, 45–63.