Clash of Civilizations or Clash of Values? The Rhetoric of War and Peace.

Ethical pluralism is focused on individual preferences in modern pluralistic societies.  It does not dictate what is ethical or what is not.  It only creates a space for rational dialogue on the diversity of values aimed at reaching a consensus within the limits of reason.  Ethical pluralism is practised in West for controversial moral issues like abortion, gay rights and Euthanasia.  Although laws are legislated in these cases in some western countries,  in many cases they do not constrain those who oppose them to live by them.  It is believed that ethical pluralsim creates more tolerance and more freedoms for the individual.  The essence of ethical pluralism is that moral codes cannot be forced, they emerge by consensus through a rational discourse and dialogue on values.  

Within western societies, theorizing ethical diversity and pluralism requires a commitment to dialogue within the limits of reason in order to reach a consensus on values.  I am referring here to the Habermasian theory of ethics for modern democratic societies, which Habermas calls ‘Discourse ethics’.  These pillars of ethical pluralism are denied by the West when advancing its own set of values in non western societies. 

As such, western moral values, having emerged by consensus, cannot be forced on other cultures and societies who did not participate in the rational discourse leading to a consensus on these values.  In most non-western societies, values are anchored, not in individual preferences, but in community norms, elders’ wisdoms and local laws, which ancient Greeks used to call ‘nomos’.   Moreover, in most non-western societies, core values are transmitted between generations, not discussed in the public sphere, where they tend to play a cohesive social role in which the individual self identifies more with the community than with the ego.

There is a tension in the West’s approach to values which allows the individual a greater space of liberty within western societies but denies this liberty to individuals in other societies attached to their traditions and the norms of their communities.  In fact, there is a faulty assumption in West that the individual Self in non-western societies is modeled on the western Self, despite historical and cultural differences.  This tension has become palpable with the advent of the globalization of markets, cultures and ideas.  The West stands as the promoter of one set of values, its own, over others.   In many cultures, this tension is being tackled differently, either by total assimilation, peaceful but active resistance, distrust and retreat, or violent resentful extremism directed against the West in the case of Sunni Islam. Colonialism was built on the assumption that the colonized were different in humanity while globalization is built on the assumption that 'there is no such thing as society' (as Margaret Thatcher famously said) whereby only individuals detached from their historical and cultural roots exist as consumers having an infinite set of preferences determined by the markets.

Ethical pluralism, although unequally practised by West, is not part of the relations the West establishes with other societies, where it is assumed that only individuals exist and that they must consume the product of the ethical consensus built by other individuals in West.   What we have witnessed so far since 911 is the forcing and enforcing of western values through military campaigns, invasions and occupations preceded and followed by violent backlashes from extremist fundamentalists.  Post 911, international relations have become a domain of confrontations thought to be confrontations of civilizations and values.

Many Muslims today live in communities, societies and countries which emphasize traditional values and the supremacy of the community over the individual.   However, Muslims are not the only ones who live in traditions which are antagonists to western values, but they are currently the main culture and religion to react and to be targeted by this confrontation of values and it is mainly Sunni Muslims who are engaged in this confrontation.

A broken dialogue on values.

This is the reason why a dialogue on values is urgently needed between the West and Muslims.  Some in the West as well as in Muslim countries do not believe in the of dialogue on values, firmly standing on both sides of the values divide, committed to wars.  But others, and they aren’t many, believe in this dialogue. President Obama articulated his desire for dialogue with Muslims in his Cairo’s discourse early during his first mandate.  But due to many factors, including America’s previous war commitments and voices of confrontation inside his own administration, Obama wasn’t able to act on his Cairo’s discourse. We will never know if Obama was sincere about this dialogue.  But what we know is that he did not blindly follow those who wanted a confrontation to the end with Iran. Recently Ayatollah Khamenei wrote on his twitter account that Obama wrote him a second letter in 2009 full of affirmative accounts about Iran.  Khamenei said he had the intention to reply to the letter but after Obama supported the protests against the government in Iran in 2009 he refrained from doing so.  Obama acted against the voices of confrontation with Iran, but not before the failure of the 2009 colour revolution for regime change.  He finally succeeded in reaching a deal with Iran that, if its implementation is unhindered by more confrontation, should naturally open a dialogue on values between Muslims and the West.

On the Iranian side, the deal reached between Iran and the West silenced the voices of confrontation and opened possibilities to initiate a dialogue between Muslims and the West.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was first to open this dialogue on the values of Islam with his two letters to western youth (January 2015 letter and November 2015 letter).  Khamenei’s initiatives came in a context of a renewed wave of Sunni terrorism by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), more barbaric and more sectarian than the terrorism witnessed since 911, and threatening this time the Near East, the Levant and Europe.

While the nuclear deal was being worked out between the West and Iran during the year 2015, many terrorist attacks by Sunni Muslim extremists hit Muslim countries, especially Iraq and Syria, as well as Europe.  Most notable were the attacks in France claimed by ISIS that attracted wide and sustained attention in western media.  ISIS is virulently anti-Iran and anti-Shia.  It promotes a return to the  Sunni Caliphate.  The first attacks were on January 7th at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish surpermarket in Paris and its suburb and killed seventeen and wounded others.  Khamenei’s first letter was published merely two weeks after these attacks.  It spoke of a different kind of Islam, attempting to educate western youth on Islam and the real sources of knowledge on Islam, away from the terrible and negative image that was being presented to the West by ISIS.  The letter was deliberately addressed to youth.  Khamenei argued that dialogue with western leaders was futile because these leaders not only promoted the kind of Muslim extremism embodied by ISIS but also did not appear to be willing to learn about the true religion of Islam and Muslims beyond the terrorists clichés. The second series of attacks in France in 2015 happened on Novembre 13 at the Bataclan concert venue and a café in Paris and killed hundred and thirty people and wounded many.  Ayatollah Khamenei’s second letter to western youth was published two weeks later on November 29.  In it, Ayatollah Khamenei chides the West for its double standards towards the victims of terrorism and for the imposition of western culture by force uniformly on Muslim societies.

Although the lives lost to terrorism in France weren’t more precious than other lives taken by blind terrorism elsewhere, the attacks were alarming, not only because they touched the heart of Europe, its cultural symbols and its youth, but because they threatened to create a greater wedge between European and Muslim populations inside and outside Europe, in neighbouring countries around the Meditterranean basin, and beyond in the Asian and African continents where the majority of Muslims live.  While American neocons, who so much wished for the clash of civilizations after 911, could observe the increasing wedge between Muslims and non Muslims far from their own shores separated and shielded from this clash by two oceans, Europe is increasingly becoming the theatre of the clash.   

A clash of values is not a clash of civilizations

What is the nature of the clash between Sunni extremism and the West?  It is important to make a distinction here between the clash of civllizations and the clash of values.  While the clash of civilizations includes also a clash of values, it is about more than values.  It is confrontational in essence because civilizations aim for self preservation and fight against their annihilation.  The term ‘civilization’ means not only values but a geopolitical, economic and military space.  The clash of values can be resolved through dialogue.  Values tend to evolve slowly and by consensus according to each society’s needs.   They can intersect between two civilizations and they can be passed on peacefully between civilizations. Many civilizations’ values evolve from the inside, but also from contacts with other civlizations.  In the ancient times, these contacts were mostly established through wars.  The citizens of ancient Greece considered non Greeks as barbarians and non humans because ancient Greece was a ‘closed’ civilization.  This perception changed during the Hellenistic period after contacts were made by Alexander the great with other civilizations through conquest and wars. 

The term ‘clash of civilizations’ is greatly misleading.  It implies a confrontation.  It is both a testimony to the neocons’ warring agenda as well as to their backward thinking.  Wars aren’t needed today to establish contacts with other civilizations.  Today’s means of communication are many, multi-level, fast and easy.

The fall of the former communist bloc countries should have led us to a more cooperative, less confrontational world, militarily speaking.  Instead, the neocons created the clash of civilizations to produce more wars and more confrontations to advance American hegemony in a unipolar world.  With 911 and its aftermath, Sunni Muslim terrorism, initially born out from the collaboration of America’s cold war ideology & Sunni Wahhabism against the former communist bloc, set the scene worldwide for a spectacular and threatening clash of values, mistaken for a clash of civilizations.  Wherever there was a clash of values, the neocons created wars resembling a clash of civilizations with their lot of humiliations, provocations and blasphemy of religious symbols,  leading to a greater clash of values, reinforcing in a loop the ‘clash of civilizations’.   

It is Europe and Asia where most people on the planet, and most Muslims live, that are set to take the full impact of this clash being prepared for decades now by the neocons. The neocons’ game in Europe is to treat Europe’s woes resulting from a clash of  values between east and west, between  north and south, with more confrontations and wars. 

This is the post 911 reality created by the neocons. A world that has every possible tool to make communication and dialogue on many issues, including values, easy and natural, yet is locked in confrontations and wars. As often, it takes two to dance.  The neocons’ project to produce a clash of civilizations is greatly helped by Sunni Muslim resentful extremism and its state sponsors.

To be aware of this post 911 reality is to make everything possible to prevent a great war in Europe and its geopolitical surroundings.   And fortunately for us, the majority of Muslims do not want this clash of civilizations which has been hurting Muslim countries and Muslims more than others.  Fortunately for us too, Iran refuses to engage in the clash of civilizations.  Amid the tensions of the post 911 world, Iran has shown the world it can make peace without losing its dignity.  I have argued elsewhere that both the nuclear deal and Khamenei’s letter to western youth form a coherent approach by Iran to treat the woes of Islam and show the West that there is an alternative to confrontation with Islam and Muslims, that there is an alternative to terrorism.

Those in the West who want a dialogue on values with Muslims to peacefully resolve differences instead of a clash of civilizations and wars can now count on Iran’s leadership.   A dialogue on values can be much more enriching than the forcing of western values on Muslim societies.  A dialogue on values doesn’t and shouldn’t end by one set of values taking on another but by finding common ground amid differences.  That’s the essence of communication and diplomacy and the respect for the dingity of others and our common humanity. 

Russia, which has worked hard to end Iran’s isolation, has a diplomacy that instinctively understands the potential of resolving the issue of the clash of civilizations that feeds today’s devastating terrorism eating at the heart of all these civilizations.  Because Russia's neighbour, Europe, is by excellence the theatre for this clash.  And because a clash of civilizations that counts on terrorism to provoke a confrontation of values  will undoubtedly lead to the end of civilizations. 

The US however, despite the nuclear deal and the recent détente with Iran, is still very much sitting on the fence, between war and peace.  Hesitations and mixed messages, as well as Obama’s end of mandate, risk annihilitating the dialogue that the Iran deal is promising, putting the initiative back in the hands of the neocons.

As I wrote in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, a dialogue on values is urgently needed to silence the voices of confrontation.  The clash of civilizations is an idea as backward as the barbaric terrorism it sets out to explain... and fight... by curtailing our civil liberties and creating an artificial wedge between civilizations otherwise destined to increase their common ground in an era of rapid communications where societies are becoming more open and more welcoming.  

The promoters of the clash of civilizations are the new enemies of the Open Society.


Naj said...

So happy to find you are actively writing. This is inspiring.

Sophia said...

Hi Naj,

Actively? No. As I just found your comment. Sorry for posting it so late. Please be in touch!

Benoit Lapierre Politologue said...

L'analyse fine des enjeux géopolitiques est une affaire de professionnel. Les relations internationales font parti des enjeux mondiaux.

Since March 29th 2006