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Why there's no 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West

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There is just one civilisation in the world, writes Yuval Noah Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and the West and Islam are joint participants in it.

Recent events seem to breathe fresh life into the “clash of civilisations” thesis. 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.

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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.

Civilisation goes global

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 against it Iran and the United States. 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.

Orthodox Jews follow strict, but recent, modesty rules. Photo/Getty Images

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 1000 years ago, or 5000 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 2500 years of European freedom and democracy.

Blind man’s bluff

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 conquistadors, 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 learnt 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.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: has a new take on Islam. Photo/Getty Images

Rewriting history

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 Brooklyn, New York City, 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 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 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 a third ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Hamodia, defended this policy by explaining, “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. The 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, it quotes many venerable texts, but it exercises a lot of discretion in choosing which texts to quote and which to ignore, and in how to interpret them. Indeed, its 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 University. 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.

Germans and gorillas

There is an even deeper difference distinguishing human groups from animal species. Species often split, but they never merge. About 7 million years ago, chimpanzees and gorillas had common ancestors. This single ancestral species split into two populations that eventually went their separate evolutionary ways. Once this happened, there was no going back. Since individuals belonging to different species cannot produce fertile offspring together, species can never merge. Gorillas cannot merge with chimpanzees, giraffes cannot merge with elephants and dogs cannot merge with cats.

Human tribes, in contrast, tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Modern Germans were created from the merger of Saxons, Prussians, Swabians and Bavarians, who not so long ago wasted little love on one another. Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked (having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human. The French were created from the merger of Franks, Normans, Bretons, Gascons and Provençals. Meanwhile, across the Channel, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were gradually welded together (willingly or not) to form Britons. In the not-too-distant future, Germans, French and Britons might yet merge into Europeans.

Mergers don’t always last, as people in London, Edinburgh and Brussels are keenly aware these days. Brexit may well initiate the simultaneous unravelling of both the UK and the EU. But in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. Ten thousand years ago humankind was divided into countless isolated tribes. With each passing millennium, these fused into larger and larger groups, creating fewer and fewer distinct civilisations. In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation. Political, ethnic, cultural and economic divisions endure, but they do not undermine the fundamental unity.

21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY by Yuval Noah Harari

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.