Are Western and Islamic societies getting closer or drifting away from each other? In an age of globalization, one would expect the loosening of rigid cultural borders and civilizational boundaries. Yet the fact is that the perceptual gap created by political and ideological differences between Islamic and Western societies is getting deeper and making it more difficult to carry out an intelligent and constructive conversation.
The 1990s witnessed the clash of two Western visions of the global order. In his much-commented essay, Samuel Huntington defined the dynamics of the global system in terms of cultural and civilizational clash. He envisioned the major civilizations of the world as homogenous and self-reliant units and argued that they are bound to clash. He singled out Islamic and Western civilizations as the main two opponents that will shape the future of the global system. In a rather strange way, he presented the Chinese and Islamic civilizations as forming an alliance against the West. He ominously warned that if this Sino-Islamic alliance dominates the world, it will be the end of the Western (i.e. “human”) civilization.
This doomsday scenario was countered by Fukuyama’s “end of history” prophecy whereby humanity’s quest for the best political order is assumed to have reached its terminal point with the liberal western democratic order. Different societies will react to this order in different ways but eventually they have no choice but to adapt to it. Fukuyama identified the Muslim world as the most stubborn world civilization resisting the temptations and dictates of the global liberal order.
Huntington saw each civilization as marching in its own distinct path as divergent and potentially clashing units. Fukuyama predicted a gradual and global convergence of all cultures and civilizations of the world towards the liberal democratic order. Contentious divergence underlined Huntington’s thesis, and his rightwing Straussian interpreters advocated a sort of ‘survival of the fittest’ strategy for American policy makers. It cost the US dearly in the Afghan and Iraq wars. The Obama administration has distanced itself from such adventures but left, according to the critics, a strategic vacuum.
Convergence was the subtext of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and allowed a plurality of cultures only within the matrix of a homogenous and singular world order. In its essence, Fukuyama was reiterating the central thesis of the Enlightenment modernism which held that there is and will be only one truth, one world culture and one world system. His Hegelian reading of the global order in the 21st century sought to subsume the different cultural traditions of the world under one presiding order.
The 1990s had the aura of both divergence and convergence, depending on what you wanted the future to be. A different picture has emerged since then. Neither violent clash nor wholesale convergence defines the shifting dynamics of the present world order today. Instead, a deepening network of interdependence and multilateralism is taking over regional and global issues.
Contrary to Huntington, civilizations are not homogenous ‘actors’ and certainly not monolithic and rigid units. Civilizational identities and loyalties do maintain their significance.
At certain levels, people identify themselves as European, Chinese or African. This should be embraced and celebrated as a source of enrichment for humanity. Civilizational identities and cultural traditions should not be belittled or marginalized in the name of global (read “secular-liberal”) values.
In this age of rapid globalization and cross-pollination, civilizational identities, we should note, play themselves out in dispersed and multifaceted ways. They can create alliances or lead to clash and confrontation. As we saw recently in the policy differences over Syria and Ukraine, countries bundled together under the same civilizational block such as “West” or “Islamic” can hold opposite positions and form political alliances with those from different civilizational regions.
Both paradigms of divergence and convergence are hegemonic in essence and should be rejected. Instead, the reality of different civilizational identities should be acknowledged within a larger context of interdependent pluralism. Globalization has discredited notions of a world order regulated from a single political center and cultural vantage point.
As Ibn Khaldun argued in the 14th century, urban cultures and civilizations are open to outside influences but they also have the potential to influence others. Civilizations survive when they preserve their core values, which help their members maintain their “group solidarity” (‘asabiyyah) in the face of internal threats and external challenges. Before Ibn Khaldun, it was al-Farabi who described civilization not only as cultural unity but also as the deliberate and cosmopolitan mixing of different cultures and traditions.
The great civilizations of history from the Roman to the Islamic have been built on the interplay of a variety of cultural, ethnic, religious, scientific and aesthetic traditions. The Andalusian experience of “convivencia” (living together) was based on the shared value of “common good” beyond religious and cultural boundaries.
The Enlightenment modernity sought to reduce human history to a single, Euro-centric worldview. Globalization has brought back the pre-modern modalities of cultural interaction and made possible new modes of cosmopolitan interaction. Islamic and Western societies need to recover this cosmopolitan spirit. It may allow them to have an intelligent conversation about not only current affairs and global politics but also and more importantly about what makes us all humans.
This article first appeared in Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper.