Saturday, January 01, 2011

Over The World: War of Civilizations

It does not take long to undo civilization. An insightful urban myth, as told in India, involves a High Level Japanese delegation and the then Chief Minister of Bihar, one of India's poorest and most lawless (at least then) state. The Japanese, for whom the Buddhist shrine in Sarnath (allegedly Buddha's mausoleum) is one of the holiest places on earth, were dejected looking at the state of Bihar and offered to help: Give us Bihar for seven years and we shall turn Bihar into Japan, they said. The Chief Minister, famous in India for his quips, reportedly answered: Oh, give us Japan for seven minutes and we shall turn it into Bihar.

But my context for today's post is not Bihar, nor economic development, but Egypt. Watching the television in the comfort of the Christmas break should be a pleasurable thing, but it is not. The stories of violence keep monopolizing the headlines. Today's news tells me the bombings in an Egyptian church which killed a score of praying Coptic Christians. This follows the stories of violence against Christians in Pakistan and Iraq, and comes at the back of the stories of bombings in Nigeria. The war of civilization is reaching the grassroots.

The reactions to this is an invariable sadness. I watch Hosni Mubarak ranting against 'wicked terrorism' but we have been here before. That model of keeping corrupt geriatric autocrats to keep a country in dominion has failed, and people like Mubarak, corrupt Cold War era Dictators who has lost control over their own people (indeed by betraying them), is the problem. He will possibly arrest some random people and torture and kill them, but that will only farther fuel the war. The war of civilizations, if there is anything civilized about it at all, has started and these tinpot dictators can't stop it.

So, is this the beginning of the gory end for us? Admittedly, human beings are indeed eternally inventive, able to pull up a miracle just when things look so bleak, and move up to the next level just when we reached the age. As John Cleese says in the remake of the The Day The Earth Stood Still, we are capable of change at the precipice. In fact, he says, ONLY at the precipice. However, it must be said that our ability to redeem ourselves is only matched by our ability to self-destruct, and at moments like this, the latter is a reality while the eventual redemption is only a hope.

But this self-destruction and redemption cycle must also be understood more closely. It seems that human societies flourish and move forward when they are diverse and generative, while they invariably comes to a point like this, when certain societies suddenly shut the door and try to stem the flow. This is point when the inevitable self-destructive degeneration takes hold; the slippery slope to abyss opens up. This is why, so far, history has moved in cycles; there was always a door opening somewhere when the window closes. We had world wars, which sucked in most of the world's armies into a long period of madness, but even then, there were those spots in the world which was progressing towards freedom and openness, there was a man standing in the middle of all that and preaching non-violence. However, today - we are now in the middle of a truly global war, not just involving nations but people, and the media and messages are across the world are indeed so uniform. This makes one wonder where the generative diversity will actually come from.

Also, these self-destructive cycles of violence invariably occurred at times when a group of people leave their individual judgement at home and opt to become an willing slave to some over-arching group identity. In fact, mapped in parallel, one can see the rise and fall of societies almost exactly in line with the construction of such identities. This is one such age, and the prevalence of war of civilization in every sphere of life and in every corner of the globe is too real to ignore. For all optimism about human inventiveness, this is a 'global' all-encompassing affair which must be addressed soon.

The point is that this war of civilization, despite its recent eruption in the Middle East, is underway everywhere. The Our Way/ Their Way divide is all but evident in Europe. The Swiss banning Minarets, the French unnecessarily banning the Burqua, insisting on free speech when the Danish cartoons clearly hurt people's sensitivities (Would a newspaper in Europe put a cartoon with Jesus leering, from his cross, at Lady Gaga in her Christmas dress?) - are all the bits of the same war. When you have the power and the money, you use power and the money; when you don't have them, you use a bomb. Neither is justified, but none of these are more justified than the other.

I am not trying to be an apologist of Islamic fundamentalism, nor trying to create an impression that the violence against Christians is a reaction to the treatment of Muslims in the Western societies. This is only a statement of my sadness how we are bringing the war of civilization unto ourselves, undoing the thousands of years of civilization with the inescapable self-destructive rage as we have done so many more times in the past. My theory of history as a pendulum is prescient indeed; just when we are about to break free, we are driven back home and even swerved the other way by the inevitable gravitational pull. The Openness/ Closeness cycle of the societies is one such thing.

In the end, Amartya Sen makes a point which must be remembered at times like this. He says, human beings have many identities. We are at the same time, father and son, husband and lover, Hindu and Technologist, Owner of a house and lover of music, blog-writer and car drivers. A Life built on flexibility and openness, when we can move from identity to identity depending on the context, is what keeps a society going. But, the moment we allow one identity to take over all our other identities, like being Pastor Jones who believes he can solve the world's problems by burning a Koran or those terrorists who kiss their daughters good-bye and blow up other people's daughters in search of their own martyrdom, violence becomes the way of life. In a way, surrendering to this sort of meta-existence is a violence against yourself: Subjugating my identity as a reader of English books to my identity as a Hindu Indian could be the first blood for my murderer self.

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