Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri

Pattern on the sand

What is at stake is not the clash of civilisations, contends Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri*, but the very concept of humanity itself

Every term, however clear or simple, involves a concept reflecting a world view. This is why it is not feasible to divorce terms from their historic contexts. This axiom applies to the term "clash of civilisations". The very term itself reflects a concept that is central to Western modernity. Here we must note that this Western modernity implies the application of reason, science and technology, but it does so, while divorcing them from any values. It is an application, therefore, that is "value- free", as the expression goes.

The question arises then: in the absence of constant, general human values what becomes the final arbiter of the conflict and strife that are an essential part of the human condition? Without such values the individual or ethnic group becomes the ultimate frame of reference that determines right and wrong. What the individual or group perceives as being in their interest becomes "the good" and what is against their interest becomes "the evil". The resolution of conflicts, in such a context, is propelled by force and individual will.

This is the modernity adopted by the West, which places itself (not man or humanity) as the centre of the world. Interpreted in this manner, Western modernity becomes both imperialist and Darwinian.

The Darwinian face of Western modernity was gradually revealed to the rest of the world when it sent to it its colonialist armies to consume (non- Western) countries' abundant resources, transforming them into "useful matter" and a source of raw materials, cheap labour, and a permanently accessible market for Western goods.

One of the history books narrates that an Algerian "sheikh" was once told that the French forces had come to his country to spread modern Western civilisation. The answer came, brief and revealing: "Why then, did they bring all of this ammunition with them?" The sheikh perceived, at the very onset, the relationship between Western imperialist modernity, and the framework of conflict from which such modernity emanates. This revelation has been perceived by many others since then.

The West's era of geographic discoveries and renaissance, the 17th century, was also that in which it embarked upon the extermination of millions. As the Algerian leader Ben Bella once said "this modern industrial god has assassinated a whole race [the red race or native inhabitants of the two Americas], captured the cream of another race [the black race] through the enslavement of millions. Ben Bella then refers to the inhabitants of Mexico who were exterminated, in addition to those of Algeria of whom millions were also obliterated in the course of repeated revolts against French colonialism. Add to this the Opium War in China, and the famines that afflicted India as a result of the implementation of modern Western property laws. Add to this the inhabitants of the Islamic Turkish territories annexed by Czarist Russia, and the two world wars, which together cost humanity some 70 million lives.

The protagonist of that marvellous novel The Season of Emigrating to the North written by Sudanese writer El-Tayyib Saleh most aptly summarised matters when he said "I hear... the sound of the Romans' swords in Carthage, and the clash of spurs of Allenby's horses stampeding the earth of Jerusalem. The boats glided across the Nile waters, for the first time carrying guns not bread. Railways were built to carry soldiers, and schools founded to teach us to say yes in their language".

These colonialist armies came, and killed the Arab and Islamic countries, and plagued their peoples with all sorts of colonialist patterns. It was a colonialism that collaborated with society's traditional and reactionary forces and in the process tried to obstruct the Arab world's modernisation. It aborted the experiment of Mohamed Ali and quelled Ahmed Orabi's popular revolt. Modern Western armies, in contrast, supported the khedive and ended up with inhabiting our countries, which now know nothing of modernity except its repressive security apparatuses.

The modern Western world cultivated in our midst by force of arms, using a group of settlers claiming that Palestine was a country without a people, and that they were the Jewish people now returning to the land of their fathers in accordance with the Torah.

Western (Darwinian) modernity expostulated the idea of infinite progress as being humanity's ultimate aim. But from the actual implementation we now know that the driving force for such progress has been the subjugation of the globe itself in the interest of the West and its inhabitants. The most important indicator of this progress has now become an ever-increasing consumerism. This has led to a situation where the Western populations which constitute 20 per cent of the world's inhabitants currently consume 80 per cent of the globe's resources. What the American people alone consumed in the past century exceeds all that mankind has consumed by the course of its history. An ecological crisis now threatens us all. One study has mentioned that if the pattern of Western consumerism were to prevail, humankind would need five earths from which to extract raw materials and two into which to dump the waste. This means that the modernist Darwinian project is one that cannot really benefit any entity other than the West itself, and some third world ruling elites.

The American Darwinian rampage in Iraq is yet another expression of the deliberate awareness by the ruling American elite, of this reality. The aim has now become to dominate this Earth's rapidly diminishing natural wealth in order to preserve for the American individual his consumption, epitomising the ultimate promise of modern Darwinism.

Many Western thinkers have come to see the dark aspects of Darwinist modernism. Expressions like "the crisis of modernism", and "crisis of meaning, or ethics" have become familiar in Western social science discourse. The thinking of the Greens parties, just like that of the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements and the Frankfurt school, as well as advocates of sustainable development and compassionate globalisation, all of these attempt to curb a Darwinist modernism that threatens, not only the Earth's inhabitants, but the very humanity of mankind itself.

Western-style modernity has proceeded from the premise that man is the centre of the universe, and concluded with Michele Foucault's wisdom that: "A man can only respond with philosophical laughter at those who still want to talk of the human being and his universe and liberation. Man will become relegated to little more than a pattern on the sands of a beach, soon to be wiped out by the waves. The world started without mankind and will end without it. What is most certain in this age of ours is not the absence of God, but the demise of mankind itself."

What is at stake then is not a clash of civilisations, then, but the discrepancy in the manner in which two world cultures perceive the individual or human being. The first sees man as useful matter and an instrument while the second regards him as unique and distinct from material things, an end unto himself.

It cannot be said here as some have claimed, that the first view is western (Christian) and the second eastern (Islamic Confucian). In East as well as West there are those who would subscribe to the first, anti-humanist view. Just as there are those who reject such a view, ardently advocating humanism. It has become inevitable that those who defend humanity and humankind should stand up to the Darwinist, value-free modernity that thrives on conflict, strife and never-ending consumerism. Perhaps only then we will be able to -- God willing -- attain a humanist modernity based on our shared humanity, a modernity that will be in the interest of all mankind. And God knows best.

* The writer is emeritus professor of comparative literature at Ain Shams University.

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