By Uditha Devapriya –
“Who rules the world today? Bush? Or us?” — Professor Nalin de Silva
Just when you thought tensions between the US and China couldn’t get any worse, Donald Trump did the unthinkable. It’s a mistake, however, to view or rationalise the ban on Huawei, the world’s second most popular smartphone brand and probably the most widely resorted to 5G technology provider, solely in terms of an escalating trade war between two superpowers. In actual fact it’s much more, which is why to consider it as an economic clash would be meaningless; while it’s too early to call it a CIVILISATIONAL clash, it has the makings of one: the West, a liberal rules-based order, clamping down on the East, an enclosed ruler-based order.
When Samuel Huntington published his essay “The Clash of Civilisations” in the US journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993, he created a sensation. Over three years, it stirred more discussion than any other essay published in that journal since George Kennan’s “X Article” that, in July 1947, called for containment with the Soviet Union. Huntington’s essay was written after containment, succeeded by detente and rollback, had led to the collapse of the Union; it was a rebuke to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the end of Communism would be followed by the triumph of liberal democracy – the triumph, in other words, of the West over the East.
In stark contrast to Fukuyama’s persistent optimism, Huntington’s view of the post-Communist world order was, to say the least, cynical. The conflict between the communist and capitalist world (outside of which were countries that “claimed to be nonaligned” – an accusation made by the likes of John Foster Dulles that SWRD Bandaranaike would counter) would be followed by conflicts between civilisations. It would not be between developed and developing societies – it would not be a CLASS war –because the latter were not powerful enough to take on the former.
In that respect the West was more unified than the East, while the East, particularly the less developed regions, were fragmented so much that the very point which could underscore their unity – separation from the West – fermented division.
There was a rift between ideology and culture: countries united by ideology could very well be (as they very often were) divided by culture, be it Mexicans protesting against Proposal 187 (which sought to bar illegal immigrants from using public services in the US) waving MEXICAN, and not US, flags, or the systematic genocide of Bosniaks inspiring solidarity from Muslims countries in displays of crescent symbols, or Eelam flags being waved by Tamil Nadu citizens to express solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils. Cultural commonalities had brought the West together as one whole; the East had no such commonalities to brandish. The dualism was thus no longer “the West and the East.” It was “the West and the rest.”
Huntington made pronouncements on various cultures and civilisations and group philosophies. (In his essay he listed seven or eight of these groups.) He wrote about Sri Lanka and how the rise of ethno-nationalist-populist democracy had dislodged the elite from power in 1956. He wrote about and predicted China’s rise as a superpower, a phenomenon which had been ongoing even at the time of the Sino-Soviet split and Nixon’s visit. And of those pronouncements, the one which seemed to stand out the most was his take on the rise of Islamism.
The modern era began in the 15th century after the Portuguese Reconquista; until then “contacts between civilisations” had been “intermittent or nonexistent”. Thereafter global politics “assumed two dimensions.” On the one hand, there was the world of the coloniser: from Britain to the United States, spanning both sides of the Atlantic; on the other, the world of the colonised: everyone else. There were clashes between Western societies, to be sure, between religious sects on the one hand and between republican and monarchical forces on the other.
But in the end, despite such differences, the West congealed into an international order. This was symbolised by the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century and the attempts of Austrian Chancellor Metternich to forge a “Concert of Europe” after Napoleon’s defeat in the 19th. It was to be a strong cosmopolitan order, hardly liberal (the 19th century didn’t breed democrats, it bred Enlightened Despots) but certainly multicultural, at least in its elite figureheads and their families: Metternich’s son spoke French and German as well as Latin and Greek, and once bested Louis Napoléon at a French dictation test organised by a renowned scholar.
That the multicultural fabric didn’t quite hold, that the myth of a united continent fell 30 years after the Concert of Europe was inaugurated, did not demolish what George Steiner referred to as “the idea of Europe.” The myth survived, and it incorporated the US soon afterwards; it was this myth that led someone to call World War I a “war to end all wars” and Roosevelt to call World War II a war that would “end the system of unilateral action.”
But in neither case did the idealists win: World War I led to the Versailles Treaty, which alienated Germany and planted in it the seeds of fascism, while World War II led to the United Nations and the European Union, the former of which the Trump administration thumbs its nose at, and the latter of which Britain is getting away from. However, the idea of Western civilisation still held on.
In the eighties, with the impending fall of the Berlin Wall and Communist Bloc, the two ideologues of the Jathika Chinthanaya, Gunadasa Amarasekara and Nalin de Silva (predicting, and preceding, Huntington), bisected the world into two civilisational halves: Judeo-Christian and non-Judeo-Christian.
Terming “Western civilisation” as “Judeo-Christian” is something that right-wing political commentators in the West engage in almost all the time (as witness Donald Trump’s exhortations to protect Judeo-Christian values). As Kevin Schultz points out in an article in the New Republic, however, the word is something of an anachronism, a catchphrase the Right appropriated to justify their hostility to its opposite – whatever that is non-Judaic and non-Christian, particularly Islam. In other words it was defined NEGATIVELY, in opposition to the Other.
For Amarasekara and de Silva, it is the Judaic-Christianity chinthanaya that drove much of the West towards a post-Westphalian civilisational consensus in the 19th century. Presumably, parts of the West that did not conform to this consensus, because of the limitations of its rulers or because of revolutionary movements that prevented them from participation in a capitalist order, were incorporated to the dominant chinthanaya following the collapse of Communism. This fits in neatly if with Huntington’s central premise: that the fall of the Iron Curtain brought to the fore the civilisational clashes which the Cold War had concealed.
Except that where Huntington talked about a conflict between Islam and the West, de Silva and Amarasekara rationalised that conflict between not two, but three cultures: Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and (Theravada) Buddhist.
Huntington does not talk about the latter, and in fact doesn’t even list it among the cultures he sees the world as being divided into (he doesn’t as much as conflate it with Hinduism). One can say that de Silva and Amarasekara were overestimating the role played by Buddhist societies in the international order, but at the same time it is clear they were being prescient, if not far ahead of Huntington: as the rise of populist yet unethical evangelism, mass scale conversions, and onslaughts on temples and shrines have shown, Buddhism has become as much of a threat to the Judeo-Christian order as Islam, if only slightly less so (as evidenced by the rise in popularity of Buddhism in Western society). Despite this, it’s clear that rifts between Buddhism and Christianity have been superseded, at present, by those between Islam and Christianity.
In next week’s column the breaking up of Islam into various sects, ranging from the secular to the mystical to the downright fanatical, in response to Western imperialism will be detailed, but what needs to be noted is that rifts between these two, combined with the shift to ideological fanaticism in the Muslim world, did not arise from itself. It was not a suis generis or opa pathika phenomenon.
ISIS is only the latest manifestation of a long line of hostilities. How it came about and whether it will end are questions not even prophets are, I suspect, qualified to answer. The tragedy will keep on unfolding. From our side, we can only watch.
To be continued…