Monday, 21 December 2015

Clash of Civilizations, or War of World-views? - Part 1

(From the archives - April 9th, 2006. Another 3,500+-word, three-part monster. And very appropriate right now, too.)

Part 1

"This is not a clash between civilizations, but a clash about civilization.”

These are recent words of Tony Blair, current tyrant of a medium-sized group of islands called Britain. I live in those islands. I often wish I didn't; but circumstances do not, in the short term at least, favour my moving somewhere better to live and work.

Now, I have no respect for Blair. Blair is the leader of a gang, that passes itself off as a government. That gang does many bad things to people in the islands called Britain, which no government should ever do. Not to mention what it has done in Iraq.

Yet in this matter I find myself, at least partly, in agreement with Blair's words. And against the received wisdom we are frequently fed, namely, that there is today a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

I'll re-state that thesis as it comes over from its supporters. There is a civilization called "Islam.” And there is a civilization called "the West.” There is an irreconcilable conflict between the two. And we, as inhabitants of the West, have a duty to support Western political leaders like Blair and George W. Bush in their fight against Islam and its terrorists.

So, what is this "Islam"? Well, it's a religion. It was begun back in the 7th century by the prophet Mohammed and his followers. For its first two centuries or so, it was a religion of its times – nasty and warlike. First by conquest, later by a mix of conquest and trade, It spread to many parts of the world. Today, from western Africa, Turkey and Somalia, to Pakistan and lands south of Russia, in Bangladesh and from Malaysia to Indonesia, Islam is the majority religion. But Islam's adherents – Muslims – also live in numbers in other parts of the world.

As well as being a religion, Islam is a system of law. A rather conservative one, by Western standards. Indeed, most Muslim governments have departed from the strict interpretation of this system, and adopted at least some Western ideas into their codes of law.

What are the political regimes in Muslim countries like? They vary, but to the Western way of thinking, many of them are not very nice. They include monarchies, military regimes and theocracies.

What, on the other hand, is "the West"? Most people think of the West as a loose association of countries with a particular political flavour, namely, some form or other of democracy. Yet the presence, or pretence, of democracy does not imply Western-ness. Europe west of the former Iron Curtain, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand – it is not controversial to call these societies Western. And there are parts of the world – Russia, China, Japan, India – which most will agree are neither Islamic nor Western. But if we try to define the West as a geographical entity, its borders prove elusive. Are the former African colonies Western? What about South American countries? Is Israel part of the West? Are the former communist countries in Eastern Europe Western?

When we speak of Western values, though, we are on much firmer ground. These are values, which have evolved in Western Europe and societies derived from it over many centuries. Their roots go back to ancient Greece and Rome, as well as to even earlier currents of thought. These Western values have, at times and in places, produced successful societies, societies more dynamic and better to live in than the historical norm. Like Islam, they have been carried, by trade and conquest, to a large part of the world. And they continue to evolve even today.

So, just what are these Western values? They are many. I will list some of them.

To the ancient Greeks, we owe the concept of the rule of law. We also owe to them the ideal of democracy, that individuals should have a voice in the running of the societies they live in. And a sense that there is an order in the world, which we should try to understand.

To the Romans, we owe the development of law and of property rights. To mediaeval times, we owe the ideas of crime as an act outside the bounds of human society; of the mens rea, the guilty mind, which must accompany it; and of the punishment fitting the offence. To mediaeval times we owe also the jury system and the beginnings of rules of evidence.

From the Renaissance sprang several of the important values, which have become Western. A dynamism, a seeking for innovation and discovery. A sense of looking both forward to the future, and back to learn from the past. The ideas of the dignity of Man, and of our mastery over our surroundings. A spirit of free enquiry and criticism.

The 17th century gave us the desire for rational explanations of things, and the scientific method of finding such explanations. It gave us a sense of Man as a creative being. And it brought to the fore the idea that we human beings have rights, which governments must not trample on.

The Enlightenment gave us a sense of the natural goodness of human beings. It gave us a sense that right and wrong are above the arbitrary decrees of rulers. It saw society as being for the benefit of the individual, not the individual for the benefit of society. It set out the idea that government must be for the benefit of the governed.

The Enlightenment also gave us a new optimism and desire for progress. And it celebrated our ability to reason, and our capacity to attain knowledge and understanding.

Enlightenment ideas reached a peak in the US Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The idea that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech and of the press. Freedom of peaceful association. Freedom from arbitrary search and seizure. No double jeopardy or self-incrimination. No taking of property for public use, without compensation. Speedy and public trial of accusations, by an impartial jury. No cruel, unreasonable or excessive punishments.

The Industrial Revolution, next, gave us a new spurt of technological progress and more confidence in our ability to master nature. Contrary to what socialists will tell you, it produced a wider distribution of wealth. And it gave a sense that the individual's rewards deserve to be in proportion to his or her contribution.

Other Western values have found expression in more recent times, although some of them may earlier have been thought implicit and not needing to be stated. The dignity of the human individual. To be treated as a person before the law. No arbitrary arrest or detention. No torture. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Freedom of movement and residence. Freedom of opinion and expression. Freedom of speech, in whatever media. No interference with privacy or correspondence.

I will give you, lastly, two very important Western values. The first is non-aggression – otherwise said, peacefulness unless attacked. If you doubt that non-aggression is a Western value, think back and remember how smugly the media used to tell us, before Bush and Blair did their droppings in Afghanistan and Iraq, that democracies don't start wars.

The second value is tolerance – tolerance of differences between individuals. You can see the rise of this tolerance in the progress, which has been made against racism in the last half century. And in the lessening of prejudice against homosexuals.

What do these Western values have in common? They represent a way of thinking, which places the individual at the centre of things. Many Western values take the form of much-needed safeguards for us human beings against bad government. But the Western way of thinking is also peaceful, tolerant, dynamic and honest. It values objective facts, objective measurements, rational deductions, rational judgements, objective justice. And it desires prosperity and happiness for all who behave well enough to deserve them.

Contrast, if you will, the opposite way of thinking, which I will call subjection thinking. For the subjection thinker, the human individual is not important. Subjection thinkers find dishonesty, corruption, intolerance, violent aggression, mis-treatment and oppression of people to be all OK. They like to exaggerate problems, such as terrorism, or to make them up, like runaway global warming (or is it cooling?) supposedly caused by human activities. They submerge facts and reason in a sea of lies, propaganda and mental manipulation. And all they can offer us is stagnation, poverty, never-ending conflicts and troubles, fear, uncertainty and despair.

There is indeed a clash about civilization going on today. But it isn't the one the pundits would have you believe. It isn't Islam versus the West, or even governments versus terrorists. For what we are experiencing today is a war of world-views. That war pits Western, individual, civilized values against the uncivilized non-values of the subjection thinkers. And… right now, we and our Western values aren't winning the war.

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