On a recent lecture tour of the Arab Muslim world, a celebrity from the American Muslim lecture circuit claimed that "civilization" was like a "caravan" and that different peoples have led the caravan. At present the caravan of civilization is led by the West, and especially by the Americans, and he insisted that Muslims have two choices: they can join the caravan and play their proper role in it, or they can remain as they are now, like "dogs barking on the sidelines." The crass, vulgar imagery aside, there are several problems with his thesis.
First of all, there is not, never has been, and never will be a single "caravan" of civilization; for most of human history there have been multiple civilizations existing simultaneously, and these civilizations rise and fall through the ages. The idea of a single civilization ascending through the ages and leading the others is a central dogma of 19th-century European colonialism, and has remained in much of Western thought, especially in its contemporary American form. Instead, the West has co-opted what it wants from other civilizations and destroyed what it does not want, constructing a self-serving image of leadership in a unipolar, unilinear world order.
More importantly, the idea of what constitutes "civilization" is heavily contested. Some argue that civilization is defined by urbanization, along with the presence of a political system and a professional military. Others add that the qualifications of civilization include a literary tradition and some sort of organized religion or advanced philosophical system. Still others feel that to be considered a civilization, there would need to be other selected features like central banking, currency and a free market. But as often as not civilization is defined in opposition to "barbarism" and "savagery", which have also been loosely defined as the absence of the civilizing attributes cited above, in perfectly circular reasoning.
Today the discourse on civilization is hopelessly convoluted. Thus, during the Cold War, "civilization" became anything that communism was not, and nowadays a new definition sees Islam as civilization’s defining opposite. Thinking this way, creating definitions from imagined opposites, is a legacy of Euro-American white supremacy, itself rooted in the Judaic idea of a "chosen people" and militantly infused with the missionary zeal of Christianity.
Other peoples either have no word for civilization, or they have several words with different shades of meaning, all of which in English could be rendered as "civilization." For instance, in Arabic one can use hadarah, tamaddun or ‘umran to mean "civilization". Hadarah refers more or less to the cultural, moral and ethical heritage, tamaddun usually refers to material aspects such as urbanization, and ‘umran refers to people’s settling and habitation in a particular time and place. By using these different meanings to understand "civilization", one can develop a more nuanced definition. In other words, it would be possible to speak of an advanced sense oftamaddun — as in having, for example, large cities and high technology— while also finding a weak sense of hadarah — as in having, for example, a lack of real ethical and moral development.
Without paying attention to what is meant by civilization one runs the risk of speaking as a colonizer, ignoring the outlooks and ideas of different cultures in the way their languages frame reality. So one could end up praising a "civilization" noted for its urban accomplishments, political structure and organized military whose people are living a hedonistic lifestyle ruled by homosexual Satanists. By tossing around the word "civilization" without attention to its significance in different conceptual systems, one is imposing a single definition.
Perhaps some will brush all this off as "semantics" or "word games." But it is through words that people construct their sense of reality, and different peoples have different verbal constructs that are often mutually exclusive despite a veneer of similarity. For the sake of argument, however, it may be instructive to suspend this discussion for a moment and accept provisionally the Western experience of civilization as somehow normative. So, proceeding from the Muslim celebrity-speaker’s discussion on the "caravan of civilization" being led by the West (and especially by America), it may be useful to take a look at the legacy of this civilization today. If the West is now leading the "caravan of civilization," which Muslims are being told to join and support, it is first necessary to look at its roadmap.
The 20th century is instructive in this project. Most supporters would argue that it is the crowning achievement of civilization, in terms of science and other forms of human development. However, one does not have to look far for the sad reality. The 20th century was marked by several totally destructive wars, all fought in the name of "civilization." The first world war destroyed much of Europe and claimed the lives of some 20 million people. So horrific was the frenzy of death and destruction, including the use of chemical weapons, that some proponents of civilization lamented that it had ended, or that the "the decline of the West" was imminent. The West had barely recovered from its "Great War" when it plunged itself again into an even more destructive war, once again devastating Europe and this time costing more than 60 million human lives. The second world war had the added achievement of the American atomic-bomb attack on Japan, levelling two of its non-combatant cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
For 50 years thereafter the world had to live in terror while the US and the USSR squared off. That did not happen, yet the ‘cold war’ claimed millions of lives in the ‘third world’; the American war in Southeast Asia alone killed nearly four million people. One could easily number 100 million people killed in the 20th century by the wars fought in the name of Western civilization. But perhaps it is not fair to judge a civilization only by the wars it has fought and the people it has killed. Surely there are other achievements of Western civilization apart from its warfare.
So how about its great inventions? Automobile fumes are choking the atmosphere of major cities worldwide, and car accidents have become the greatest cause of catastrophic injury in many countries. Television has turned people into fat zombies, fragmented families and spread uniform images of hedonism and violence globally. Computers provide an illusion of knowledgeability, while really being merely a processing and storage technology that denies the validity, value, relevance and usefulness of non-digital bodies of knowledge, understanding, insight and feeling. Biotechnology threatens to release little-understood life forms into less-understood ecosystems, not to mention atrocities such as the greed-motivated patenting of cells and seeds.
Maybe the West is best at economics, some may suggest. Neo-liberalism is supposed to be the crowning achievement of Western economic thought, but to the ‘third world’, and increasingly in the West and Japan, it is looking like a disaster or, as some put it, a "doomsday machine". Deregulated global corporations are constantly on the prowl for cheaper resources and labor in order to make even greater profits at the expense of local cultures and sustainable systems. Meanwhile, American-style consumerism is endangering environments and ecosystems as the world begins to mimic the Americans’ voracious appetite for luxuries, comfort and conveniences, which if pursued in countries such as China and India would require two additional earths to sustain. That brings to mind space-exploration, with rockets blasting off in search of interplanetary gold mines and garbage dumps, while millennarianists pin their hopes on extraterrestrial domiciles once they have destroyed the earth. The billions of dollars spent on such fantasies seem criminal in the face of increasing global poverty.
How about culture, ethics and politics? Mindless pop music, violent movies, sex as entertainment, consumerism run wild, women reduced to dolls for the pleasure of male ogling ...it seems that, if modern Western culture is any indication, then civilization is in recession. What of the great classics, one might wonder. Certainly composers like Mozart cannot be denied the civilizing powers of their music, although we must bear in mind that Nazi torture-doctors were also avid fans of Mozart and other great masters of the West. Ethics? The Treaty of Versailles (1919) was supposed to bring world peace, but actually it prepared the stage for a century of world war and global strife, causing some historians to name it the turning-point at which the West gave up all ethics in favor of greed, treachery, revenge and other decidedly "non-civilized" behaviors. Democracy? Bush stole the American presidential elections of 2000 while the electorate was asleep. Human rights? America’s uncritical support for Israel disposes of that claim.
After the WTC-Pentagon attacks on September 11, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, proudly proclaimed that Western civilization was superior to Islam. But where is its superiority? What are its achievements? It is a ‘civilization’ of mass-murders (the Aborigines of Tasmania and the Plains Indians of North America, for instance, and today the Palestinians and the Muslims of the Balkans) and rape. Perhaps that is the great achievement of Western civilization: its persistent denial of its horrific past, living in historical amnesia of its own atrocities, while proclaiming to the world that it and it alone is the crowning achievement of humanity, the end and crest of human development. Surely that must be the single greatest accomplishment of Western civilization: its success in fooling the world into believing that it alone deserves to rule.
When Samuel Huntington hypothesized a "clash of civilizations" in his infamous policy article (1993), he at least recognized other civilizations beside the West. But what Huntington meant by "civilization" does not take into consideration the kinds of historical and ethical problems discussed above; for Huntington and other policy pundits, "civilizations" are spheres of influence and what they are really talking about is power and allegiance, not abstract principles or real world achievements. Now, with the American "war on terrorism" being fought in the name of "civilization", it seems that part of Huntington’s prescription has come true. But the war, like the West, is a sham, and when Muslim speakers extol the virtues of a "caravan of civilization" they are either suffering from amnesia, along with the West they venerate, or they are part of a post-cold war plan to intimidate and cajole the rest of the world into the American sphere of influence. Perhaps a more realistic depiction of what is really going on in the world today has been nicely captured by the Palestinian poet Ma’een Bisaysou, who once wrote that "Muslims are like a beautiful prancing gazelle being hunted down by loudly barking dogs".