Kierkegaard and Locke
By Ahmad Sadri
The following is a summary and adaptation of a longer article entitled "Civilizational Immagination and Ethnic Coexistence" written for "The Handbook of Ethnic Coexistence" which will be publised by Continuum Press in February 1998.
1. Live and Learn
Every theoretical work is to some extent a biography. My insights on ethnic coexistence originate in my search for understanding what has happened during my life time in the country of my birth.
I, my twin brother and fear were born triplets. The year was 1953 and our mother was terrified by the clatter of the CIA-induced machine guns that ushered in the second reign of the Shah of Iran. Twenty five years later when twenty five hundred years of Persian empire came to an end and the old monarchy caved in under the pressure of a popular revolution, fears appeared dim. New bright hopes for realizing perfection in government moved masses of enchanted Iranians to overwhelmingly ratify the utopian blueprints for the first Islamic City of God.
Now their massive disenchantment with that revolution is fomenting a different kind of rebellion expressed in revisionist thinking about Islam and its regulation of private, social and public life. It has been almost twenty years since that revolution and I am more convinced than ever that the horizon of those who have looked at it through the usual sociological methods in the context of Iranian society and Middle Eastern politics need to be expanded. To explore these new landscapes we need concepts more inclusive than nation states considered in the framework of regional politics. "Civilization" is one such concept.
2. "Civilization": A Conceptual Makeover
The term civilization has been used by philosophers of history, anthropologists, sociologists and archaeologists. In my view civilization is the accumulation of rational responses of city-dwelling human societies to the challenges of their internal order (e.g., political legitimacy, social administration, economic system, religious cosmology, legal maxims and sexual control systems), environment (e.g., technologies of food production and architecture), and external enemies (technologies and organization of war and international relations). The practical side of these rational responses comprise the "material culture" (e.g., art, architecture and technology) of a civilization while their normative aspects amount to its "non-material culture." These impart meaning to the natural and social world and inform the patterns of social, political and economic behavior.
Thus, civilizations contain the sedimentation of two layers of collective rationality: a normative "core" and a practical "crust." Having defined civilizations I must hasten to add that civilizations are not to be taken literally: they do not exist in the same way that planets, flowers and cats do. They are not objective wholes nor do they enjoy an organic unity of their own. Besides, there is no guarantee the that normative cores of civilizations would contain consistent axioms.
Actually civilizational cores are often quite unstable because they contain a variety of incompatible assumptions. One of the main tasks of intellectuals in every civilization is to constantly patch up and mend these problems. They are also the main agent for intercivilizational borrowing.
3. How and Why Civilizations Borrow?
Our world is caught between two forces: centrifugal pressures such as modern communications, that bring civilizations together; and centripetal energies such as ethnic tribalism that thrust them apart. This is happening because the technological crust of all world civilizations has practically merged. Consequently, the distance between the inherently unstable normative civilizational cores has been dangerously reduced.
This explains the simultaneous opposite pulls that we feel in our world. If this reading is correct, then the new forms of fundamentalism and ethnic hatred would represent a hurried withdrawal to the domain of ancient certainties in the face of encroaching ideas that provide a disconcerting variety of new options for organizing individual, social and public life.
The most common form of inter-civilizational contact is civilizational borrowing (not the clash of civilizations as some have imagined). The current problem of the world consists in a split between the two levels of civilizational borrowing. The trade occurs at two levels: the exchange at the practical (e.g. technological) level is less problematic. Borrowing at the level of normative ideas is much more complex. In particular those ideas that, relate to such spheres as religious world view, political legitimacy and management of sexuality are quite sensitive to sudden shocks of cultural borrowing.
Nevertheless rapid civilizational borrowing at normative levels do occur especially at the moments of civilizational transition. The Islamic civilization borrowed heavily from the Greek civilization during the Abbasi Caliphate as the Christian civilization borrowed from the Islamic world during the crusades. And, no one should be surprised at the borrowing of the modern political reformers of Islam from the European traditions of political philosophy and theology.
4. How Civilizations Look at Each other?
The interaction of civilizations or indeed all culturally different groups goes through a number of stages which I will represent through an visual metaphor. We have to care about the lenses through which we choose to view the other.
A. Tunnel Vision: At the most rudimentary stages of inter-cultural understanding the vision of the other is obtained through a single opening into the exotic world. The resulting picture is not only vague but also limited and one sided. As an approach that exaggerates the difference, it can hardly encourage the observer to find parallels in ones own culture for the derogatory or laudatory characters attributed to the other. Nor is there any attempt to approach the self-understanding of the other. Worst of all there is ample evidence to suggest psychological projections play a significant role in this way of viewing the other. Thus our tunnel-vision portrayals of the other reveal, more than anything else, reflect our own neuroses.
B. Double Vision: The next stage in understanding the other comes with the realization that each civilization including our own is a complex and enclosed universe of meaning and that it is unfair to perceive a foreign culture by only one of its aspects. This recognition is the first requirement of the science of anthropology. The methods of living among the natives for long periods and suspending all judgments about them were adopted by the forerunners of modern anthropology. Armchair verdicts about the virtues and vices of "savagery" were thus shelved in favor of a value- neutral investigation and careful cataloguing of the varieties of cultural universes.
This "relativistic" stage represents a real advance over tunnel vision and a radical reversal of common ethnic prejudices. Yet, it can not be considered the ideal cognitive spring board for ethnic coexistence. Like tunnel vision, double vision is a neurological disorder. It is caused by the inability of the brain to superimpose the two pictures relayed by the eyes to create a single perspective. The picture produced by one eye lacks depth, but seeing double causes confusion. Yet, cultural relativism remains a necessity at the beginning of the ethnographic research. For those with an interest in ethnic coexistence the creation of fairly objective portrayals of the other is a necessary step.
C. Depth Perception: In the perception of a normal person a superimposing of the pictures provided by the eyes produces an integrated, three dimensional view of the world. Now, by a grand leap of logic --complements of our marvelous metaphor-- we land in the field of ethnic relations.
We must start with a picture of the "self" by a specific reading of the evolution of our own civilization. Then we produce a picture of the other, using careful historical, ethnological and sociological tools at our disposal. Ideally we must be able to overlay the two pictures and arrive at a unified view. Like games of optical illusion, this picture will allow us to look at it twice and see different things each time. It may even let the two stories to merge into one, allowing us to read our own history as if it belonged to the other and vice versa.
Studying the history of any nation including our own would be a boring affair if we did not pause to ponder the question: "What would have happened if?" Why not use this tool in the study of inter-ethnic relations? Why not read the different histories of the various ethnic entities, whether within a single civilization or across them, as if they were the same story with different endings? I think that we can utilize these methods in inter-ethnic dialogue to gain a new perspective on, or probably "see through," our obdurate differences.
If we look at our own history as a different version of others' we will understand it in a new light. Reading the history of others as our own story with a twist, leads to a more sympathetic reading. This method allows us to see many similarities between distinct identities and break down many differences to their common elements. We might be only just a historical accident away from the fate of our neighbors.
Sometimes intended or unintended consequence of a reform, an invasion or even a natural disaster at a sensitive historical moment makes all the difference in the world. Comparing the destinies of nations within civilizational frameworks to determine whether and to what extent their various possibilities and potentials are actualized can be more than a clever way of understanding their course; it may be a good foundation for coexistence as well.
5. Theocracy in the Prism of Western Religions
One of the mistakes made by most Orientalists is to take the present contrast between the Islamic block and the so called Western societies as signs of fundamental differences. Nothing could be father from truth. Western civilization should be so defined as to include the Judaic, the Christian and the Islamic sub-civilizations. Why? Because their normative cores are all steeped in the two rather incompatible sources of inspiration: Abrahamic religions and Greek philosophy.
The inclination to merge religion and politics is not endemic to Islam. This is a common civilizational "bug." Indeed the West has always fostered a common temptation for ideal Republics (e.g., Plato), Utopias (e.g., More), and, Cities of Virtue (e.g., Al Farabi). Mixing the Greek desire to found an ideal political community and the Abrahamic belief in one omniscient personal God who is also the lawgiver makes a fertile ground for "theocracies."
It is not uncommon to hear that Christianity naturally separates religion and politics while Islam has always merged the two. This is only partially true. That is, we have to pay attention to the historical circumstances of the emergence of these two religions within the context of the Western (or Abrahamic) religions.
Christianity, based as it was on an apolitical gospel preached to the demilitarized Jews of Palestine could not advocate the establishment of a state. Conversely, given the conditions of Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammad, a religion without a state could not survive, if it could be imagined at all.
From the point of view of the common heritage of Abrahamic traditions it is instructive that Christianity that was -- due to the social conditions at the time of its birth -- the least political of the three Western religions, got the most practice in mixing religion and politics, crowning pontiffs, exalting "defenders of the faith" and "crusader kings", and, founding occasional Christian republics.
The assertion that Christianity does not mix religion and politics would have been news to John Calvin, one of the leaders of reform Christianity with tens of millions of followers in today's Christendom. Calvin's Geneva (1541-64) where such infractions as speaking or passing tobacco in church were publicly punished by lashes and where people like Servetus (the Spanish physician and theologian) was burned to death after Calvin's "fatwa," was not exactly a democratic and secular state.
Such institutionalized practices as religious tolerance, separation of church and state, and, finally, secularism do not represent innate tendencies of the European mind or of its "Enlightenment." They were the fruits of bitter and protracted historical experimentation with centuries of Papacy and long, bloody religions wars.
"The Shining City on the Hill" (the theocratic image of the first Puritan immigrants to the United States) of Western imagination can not be wished away; it must be lived out, and; it must be outlived. If the Christian West is secular now it is because it has done this. Once such a large scale historical experiment has been performed, the way to the secular city will be wide open.
The wishes of the fringe sects notwithstanding, it is safe to say that the Christian West is not likely to go back to theocracies. It is true that secularism is enshrined in the western constitutions. But this is the effect of the civilizational changes, not their cause. Unless it represents a civilizationaly grounded experience, no secular document can ever compete with the allure of a theocracy, anywhere in the West. That is, the validity of secular constitutions depends on previous historical experience not vise versa.
Theocracy is no longer within the range of possibilities of the Christian West because; it has been outgrown; the temptation has been indulged.
How about the theocratic temptation among Jews? Jews, partly due to their disembodied existence in the diaspora seem to have jumped over the theocratic experiment to found a democratic and secular state in Israel. The truth is that Jews have not had the chance to experiment with mixing religion and politics since their expulsion from the Holy Land.
There was a kind of a Jewish enlightenment (known as "Haskala") in the seventeenth century but the conditions of the diaspora did not allow the Jewish civilization as a whole to be affected by it. Thus Jewish Enlightenment pervaded only the more assimilated sections of the Ashkanazim of the central and Western Europe. Enlightenment remained marginal to the Jewish civilization, as it did in the Islamic world, because it never infiltrated the critical cultural areas where the temptation for theocracy resides.
The secular nationalist ideology of the state of Israel did not originate in the religious sectors of European Judaism but among the "enlightened" Jews. I am not about to argue that jews have to go through the theocratic stage as this would be the position of a dogmatic evolutionary theory. There are no paved roads in history.
But, if the increasing strength of the messianic right wing in Israel is anything to go by, the un-indulged temptation for theocracy is not quite extinguished. An economic or military disaster may easily revive the old longings for a "really" Jewish state in Israel.
Islam is the youngest of the three Western religions: we are only in our Fifteenth century. The theocratic temptation has been particularly -- but not uniquely -- strong in Islam but founding a pure Islamic Republic after the pattern of the earlier Islamic states occurred only in Modern Iran. Here Moslems seem to have indulged for the first time their desire for a "City of God" free of all residues of traditional authority that accompanied the previous Islamic Kingdoms and Caliphates.
If it is true that the path toward secularism could only pass through the city of God where the temptation for theocracy has been indulged, we can see the beginnings of this path in the Iranian post-revolutionary thought. The revisionist thinking of people like Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari and Abdolkarim Soroosh thus rides on the same kind of disillusionment that informed various intellectual movements of modern Europe.
Soroosh's thoughts are original to Islam not because no one has thought of reforming Islam before. The Islamic Enlightenment like the Jewish enlightenment has a long history. The difference this time around is that the new bold thinking about Islam is not happening in the relative vacuum of intellectual circles. Rather it comes at the heels of a massive experimentation with the idea of theocracy. It does not translate the experience of Europeans for the Moslems. Rather it formulates their own disenchantment with their own illusions. The new Islamic reform thus represents a collective attempt to go beyond a common threshold of the Western civilization: theocracy.
If we accept the premise of "inter-civilizational borrowing" we would not be surprised that the new Islamic political and theological thought is borrowing from its civilizational neighbors. This process allows the post-revolutionary Iranian intellectuals to learn from the experiences of those who have traversed the same path before them. Echoes of the thoughts of Christian theologians and modern political philosophers from Kierkegaard to Locke can be heard in arguments of the new Islamic reformers of Iran.
Today the majority of the non-Islamic and non-Persian viewers of Islam and Iran follow the method that we dubbed "tunnel vision." They are ahistorical and one-dimensional. This is particularly true of the media images of Islam and Islamic cultures.. A smaller minority adopts the more scientifically vision that we associated with "double vision." While far less prejudiced and more evenhanded, these attempts fall short of an ideal approach to the issue of cross-civilizational "understanding."
Adopting the method of "Civilizational depth perception" will allow the non-Moslem and non-Iranian observers to go beyond the apparent differences. "Civilizational imagination" will admit the Christian West to a view of the present Islamic fifteenth century that invites comparisons to their own fifteenth century of religious wars and serious quandaries about the interface of religion and politics.
It could take them beyond the perception of present contrasts and persuade them to heed the commonalities of heritage and perchance foster a new empathy for the historical changes that are transforming the Islamic world.
* Other articles by Ahmad Sadri:
Another look at Rushdie -- ... the author of "The Satanic Verses"
Reintroducing the wheel -- On a possible "breakthrough" for the "Islamic civilization"
Searchers: The New Iranian Cinema -- What's so special about recent Iranian films?
* THE IRANIAN Ideas section
* Iran News
* Complete list of Iranian online media
About the author
Ahmad Sadri who is currently Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, received his BA and MA degrees from the University of Tehran and his Ph.D from the New School for Social Research, New York. He spent the last year on a sabbatical leave in Iran and Jordan. He is the author of "Max Weber's Sociology of Intellectuals" (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994) and recently co-translated a volume of articels by Abdolkarim Soroosh to be published soon by Oxford University Press.