Civilizational Immagination and
By Ahmad Sadri
1. Live and Learn
2. "Civilization": A Conceptual Makeover
3. How and Why Civilizations Borrow?
4. How Civilizations Look at Each other?
5. Theocracy in the Prism of Western Religions
6. To Judge or Not To Judge
7. Let Nations Speak
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.
My current interests lie in placing the Iranian revolution and its aftermath in the broader canvass of the cultural changes and civilizational exchanges within the Western world. This enterprise has had a few unanticipated dividends. The utilization of units of analysis larger than nation-states suggests a way to make sense of our world's fin de siecle dilemma: despite the realization of many of the promises of modernity in the second half of this century, we have also witnessed the rise of some of the most virulent varieties of religious fundamentalism and ethnic hatred. Reworking, adapting and finally reviving such concepts as "civilization" provides a meta-language for addressing, and even transcending, cultural and ethnic differences. In the meanwhile we have to acknowledge the apprehensions of current social sciences regarding such broad concepts which is partly due to careless use or ideological misuse of them. Both of these problems afflict Samuel Huntington's thesis of clashing of civilizations. which at once simplifies and reifies international tensions as signs of an impending civilizational armageddon.
2. "Civilization": A Conceptual Makeover
The world around us is being pulled in two opposite directions. There is no doubt that it is literally shrinking due to the technological enhancement of the means of transportation and the information revolution. Global news and computer networks, linked stock markets and the formation of international bodies consisting not merely of national delegations but also of grass- roots observers of environmental and political ills are all signs of the realization of the cozy modernist vision of a "global village." Despite the protestations of the "postmodernist" intellectuals, some of the most sanguine predictions of the much maligned mid-century modernists are coming to pass as well. There is no denying that the world is gravitating towards liberal democratic politics and capitalist economy.
Unfortunately for the modernists, however, the world is also gravitating towards new ethnic tensions that seem to lead with shocking spontaneity to mass brutalization and genocide. Besides, the existing ethnic and religious tensions are running roots in new depths of the kind of tribalism that was supposed to have vanished from the modern world. I think that the schizoid situation of the world calls for a descriptive as well as a prescriptive approach. Here I aim to combine the two without mixing them. But first, we have a lot of serious defining and redefining to do.
The term civilization has been used by philosophers of history, anthropologists, sociologists and archaeologists. Instead of delineating the different stages and shades of meaning in the history of this term, I will simply offer my own definition in accordance with the needs of my research project. Civilization is the accumulation of organized and institutionalized 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 libido economy), environment (e.g., technologies of food production and architecture), and external enemies (technologies and organization of war and international relations). The practical and instrumental side of these rational responses comprise the "material culture" (e.g., art, architecture and technology) of a civilization while their substantive and normative aspects amount to its "non-material culture" which 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 and substantive "core" and a practical and instrumental "crust." Having defined civilizations I must hasten to add that for the following four reasons 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. After the following four caveats we will return to the question of the state of the world as posed at the outset of this section.
A. The Inherent Instability of Civilizations: There is a level at which we can consider a civilization as an objective but rather tenuous and frail entity. The most basic characteristic of the substantive core of any civilization is conflict. I start with the assumption of an elemental incompatibility of axioms and values that underlie every civilization. And, practical problems are bound to abound at the stage of applying the principles in daily life. Value dissonance, inconsistencies and contradictions between ethical, religious and philosophical axioms, and, between them and the practical demands of life compel every civilization to constantly work at mending, patching up, dissimilating and even systematic deception to allow the pretense or maintain the impression of an orderly and unified view of the world informing a clear set of guidelines for action. The fate of tragic heros of the world of fiction and drama (e.g., Agamemnon, Hamlet, Loman) provides opportunities to ponder the manifestations of deep cultural contradictions at the level of personal conduct.
In so far as civilizations exist, they are weak and conflicted creatures who are too absorbed with their own maintenance to care much about "clashing" with other civilizations. In other words, the concept of civilization is useful only in the study of the internal complications of human societies and not terribly effective in explaining external conflicts.
B. The Question of Agency: In this sense civilization is an objective entity by proxy, that is it owes its objectivity to a certain stratum of intellectuals who are its architects. The qualifying phrase "in so far as they exist" in the above paragraph signifies the fact that civilizations exist through the agency of a stratum of "intellectuals" who are their creators and carriers. The reason we date civilization back to the end of the fourth millennia BC when Sumerians first settled the first Mesopotamian cities, is that only at this time were human societies able to support a stratum of intellectuals (scribes, priests, school masters, administrators, etc.) who focused on the elaboration of the instrumental and substantive collective responses to the challenges of their internal order and external adversaries. The invention of writing allowed the collection, preservation and systematic development of all of the civilizational collective rational responses and enabled successive generations of intellectuals to work on their elaboration and further rationalization. Of course the irrational cores of life, (e.g., sexuality and aggression) and the sources of internal and external chaos (e.g., anomie, insurrection and invasion) are never vanquished. These contribute to the inherent instability of civilizations. The recognition of the role of intellectuals in the definition of civilization is essential. To talk about civilizations in isolation from those who are its main creators and carriers is to hypostasize it. Civilization is an objective entity partly because of its "agents", a certain stratum of intellectuals.
C. The "Character": of Civilizations In this sense civilization consists in a real, socially and historically specific, if pale, ambience of commonalities that have lost their moorings in particular historical circumstances. Our impression of the particular character of various civilizations is not precise, but it is not necessarily illusionary either. A lot of social scientists have opted not to pursue our vague impressions about the psychological and social characters of people from similar ethnic groups and national origins, let alone civilizations. But, it is possible to ground, (sociologically as well as historically) these differences and save them from the company of ethnocentric prejudices. National and civilizational characters exist because the life-style and world view of a rather thin stratum is often used as the template for other classes, social groups and strata. In certain historical periods, a given status group or class takes a stance and adopts a way of looking at the world which distinguishes it. The cultural triumph of such a stylized pattern of life and weltanschauung causes it to serve as the frame of reference for a society or a civilization as a whole.
D. Civilization: as an Ideal Type We may also use civilization as a heuristic device. In this sense it is mainly a "concept," an "ideal type" that allows a general view of the processes that might be otherwise too multifarious and rich in texture to be intelligible. Thus, civilizations could also function as conceptual tools and to this extent they are creatures of mercury: they merge and divide according to the interests of the observer and the need to sum up the sociological or historical common denominators of similar societies. These commonalities may not be consciously present for the members of the societies in question. Here the scientist is given a license to lump and divide as long as the bases of his or her categorizations are accepted by the community of practitioners within the discipline. Of course this consensus itself represents a civilizational inclination but, it is the aim of this article to argue that such civilizational distortions are not quite as pernicious as they might appear.
3. How and Why Civilizations Borrow?
The current problem of the world to which we alluded at the outset of the previous section consists in a split between the two levels of civilizational borrowing. Social sciences have occasionally tried to come to grips with these two trends but never at the same time. They have tried to capture the meaning of the worldwide unifying trends wearing such rose-tinted lenses as the modernization theories and the theories of global communication. Recently the postmodernists have spurned this approach as naive and have opted for less ambitious research projects that are best fitted to studying our world's discontinuities and divisions. Here we aim to provide a frame of reference that would make sense of both of these processes.
The most common form of inter-civilizational contact occurs when civilizations borrow from each other. The trade occurs at two levels: the exchange at the technological level is less problematic. To borrow at the level of ideas is much more complex. In particular those ideas that, relate to such spheres as religious world view, political legitimacy and libido economy are quite sensitive to sudden shocks of cultural borrowing. Another problem stems from the fact that in pre-modern times civilizational borrowing occurred more gradually and through the agency of a few intellectuals who exercised control over the process of exchange. The continuous advances in the field of communications since the industrial revolution have both facilitated the borrowing and expanded the base of contact between civilizations. The technological borrowing continues with such success that the cultural varieties of the world are threatened by the resulting uniformities imposed by the adoption of the Western technologies and its related patterns of life. But, worldwide spread of culture is not the monopoly of the West. The internationalization of certain products of the Eastern civilizations like acupuncture and martial arts proves this point.
In short, this is what has happened to the world: the instrumental crust of all world civilizations has practically merged. Consequently, the distance between the inherently unstable substantive 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 problem is that on the one hand borrowing and adoption at the level of core ideas has lagged behind that at the level of technic. On the other, the adjustments necessary for accepting a global framework for the interaction of civilizations has not taken place.
4. How Civilizations Look at Each other?
The interaction of civilizations or indeed all culturally different group goes through a certain number of stages which I will represent through an ocular metaphor. I don't mean to imply that these stages are rungs of a evolutionary historical ladder. Although there is a sense in which the dominance of the three patterns of looking at "the other" follows a historical order; the previous forms are not eliminated but often remain as alternatives on the list of options in the area of intercultural understanding. Thus, 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. But the one sidedness and the unfairness of this stage of relating to the other is the least of its problems. 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, our own neuroses. We can assume a continuum that links prejudices -- that in our metaphor will be equated to the fantasies of a blind person about the reality beyond ones reach -- to the tunnel vision or understanding of the other by generalizing on the basis of a single characteristic.
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 signification, and that it is unfair to perceive -- let alone judge -- a foreign culture by only one of its parts. 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. Some Western moral philosophers who continued to enjoy the luxury of only reading about the primitive people rather than facing the myriad of cultural varieties, have been scandalized by the inability of the anthropologists to pass the most elementary moral judgements about the superiority of the West. Thus, flames of philosophical debate have time and again been stoked around the straw man of "moral relativism."
Here I do not wish to enter into this debate. What I would like to emphasize is that this anthropological, relativistic stage represents a real advance over tunnel vision (of which the moral philosophers mentioned above often suffer) and a radical reversal of common ethnocentric prejudices. Yet, I do not consider it the ideal cognitive spring board for ethnic coexistence, and this must be clear from the niche it has been assigned in our ocular metaphor. 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. Cultural relativism is a necessity at the beginning of the etnographic 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 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 cause 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 the others' we will understand it in a new light. Reading the other's history 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.
It also could turn out that only difference is time. Since most conflicts occur within rather than between civilizations, we might even develop something akin to an evolutionary scheme. I am well aware of the tortured history of this concept in social sciences but will not belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that similar "objective possibilities" especially within civilizations could provide a finite number of possibilities. Comparing the destinies of nations within civilizational frameworks to determine whether and to what extent these possibilities 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
OnLet me offer a synoptic example of my own using of the comparative civilizational outlook suggested above. I start by viewing western civilization, as divided into Judaic, Christian and Islamic sub- civilizations, for they are all steeped to their cores in the two rather incompatible sources of inspiration: Abrahamic Religions and Greek philosophy. And, they all seem to foster, among other things a common temptation for ideal Republics (e.g., Plato), Utopias (e.g., More), and, "Cities of Virtue" (e.g., Al Farabi). The Greek obsession with an ideal political community in combination with the Abrahamic belief in one omniscient personal God make a compelling case for theocracies.
Even the historical conditions that shaped the different initial political positions and messages of these religions did not make much of a difference in the strength of this common desire. Christianity, based as it was on an apolitical gospel preached to the demilitarized Jews of Palestine seemed to be the least likely candidate of the three to establish theocracies. Ironically, the apt political climate of Europe allowed it to get the most practice in crowning pontiffs, exalting "defenders of the faith" and "crusader kings", and, founding occasional Christian republics (e.g., Calvin's Geneva). Such principles as religious tolerance, separation of church and state, and, finally, secularism were not the result of abstract insights, but the sweet fruits of bitter and protracted historical experimentation with centuries of Papacy and long religions wars. "The Shining City on the Hill" of western imagination can not be wished away; it must be lived out, and; it must be outlived. And, this is exactly what the Christian West has done. 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 ensconced in the western constitutions but this is the effect of the civilizational changes, not their cause. Unless it represents a civilizationaly grounded insight, no secular document can ever compete with the allure of a theocracy in the West. That is, the validity of secular constitutions depends on their historical experience not vise versa. Theocracy is no longer within the range of "objective possibilities" of the Christian West because; it has been outgrown; the temptation has been indulged. Few may contest this argument. But it will be difficult to account for it unless we assumed a civilizational approach. Only within such a framework, can we study huge social and intellectuals processes that last for centuries and affect large cultural and transnational regions. Where are the results of such experiments stored? Certainly not in the quotidian consciousness of the masses. Rather they are preserved in the sphere of non-material culture of a civilization whose carriers are the very-much-material, flesh-and-blood, intellectuals. They remember such experiments and maintain, reconsider and advance them. They also help enshrine such lessons in constitutions and laws that perpetuate them, and, in social institutions which reproduce them as laws, mores, and political culture.
Jews, partly due to their disembodied existence in the diaspora seem to have jumped over the theocratic experiment to found a democratic, secular society. But, it was exactly the conditions of the diaspora that galvanized the Jewish civilization as a whole from the effects of the Jewish enlightenment (Haskala), in a section 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 pervaded the critical cultural areas where the temptation for theocracy resides. 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, no ineluctable laws in history. Indeed, everything else being equal, Israel will probably continue its existence as a secular state. But, if the increasing strength of the messianic right wing politics in Israel is anything to go by, the un- indulged temptation is not quite extinguished. And, unlike the Christian West, everything may not remain equal in Israel. An economic or military disaster may revive the old longings for a "really" Jewish state. This is not an inevitability, but a an objective possibility. Taking note of such possibilities and preparing for them would be prudent.
What we said about Israel also applies to the case of Turkey's jump to secularism. The case of modern Iran, however, is different. 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 previous Islamic Caliphates. Thus the present revisionist thinking of people like Abdolkarim Soroosh represents a real "civilizational leap". We can not begin to estimate the importance of his revisionist Islam in isolation from the climate of the post- revolutionary Iran. Soroosh is theorizing (with a great deal of intercivilizational borrowing, of course) the immense disappointment of Iranians after two decades of an actually existing theocracy. Most adult Iranians remember the revolution in which the overwhelming majority of them played a role at least by participating in demonstrations and referendums. The disillusionment especially after the anti-climax of the Iran-Iraq cease-fire, is expressed in an anecdote in which a man walks backwards in the middle of the street repeating unintelligible syllables. When he is asked what he is doing the response is: "I am taking back my demonstrations!" The thought of Soroosh is original to Islam not because no one has thought of reforming Islam before but because he represents a collective attempt to awake from a recurring nightmare of the western civilization. Civilizational borrowing will allow Iranian intellectuals like Soroosh to learn from the experiences of their civilizational neighbors, namely Christian theology and western political philosophy. Civilizational depth perception will allow the non-Iranian observers to go beyond the apparent differences to gain a new empathy for what is going on in Iran.
This argument is pregnant and quite likely to raise more questions than it answers, especially in its present synoptic form. But, I have posed it here just as an example of the kind of flights of civilizational imagination that might ease existing ethnic tensions. We must try to see apparent conflicts less as arising from essential racial and cultural differences and more as a function of common civilizational, or inter- civilizational problems. With the use of civilizational imagination we may see others at the same historical crossroads that we have faced and vice versa.
6. To Judge or Not To Judge
Rushing to judgements is almost inevitable in tunnel vision. If, out of consideration for the recent etiquette of political correctness, the judgement is not blurted out, there remains a suppressed inclination to "call a spade, spade." Knowing the pitfalls of using one's own cultural system as a tribunal to judge others, social scientists have renounced judgements all together. The strong case for this attitude would posit the observer at the position of an objective instrument that records but does not judge. Cultural relativism does not advance beyond registering the radical multiplicity and even incommensurability of human cultures. It does not aggravate the ethnic tensions, the way prejudices and single-criterion-judgements do. But it is not much help either.
In my view the process of engaging in ethnic dialogue can not do without a good-faith attempt to understand the other by using all of the tools provided by the sciences of history, anthropology and sociology. And, an attempt must be mounted to find common civilizational parallels, possibilities and pitfalls. But, we must not shy away from judgements either; our scientific protestations notwithstanding, we are all "human". I do not assume that excluding human judgements in the field of intercultural understanding is either possible or desirable.
The apprehensions of social sciences about judging others due to inevitable distortions that shape our views are misplaced. The problem arises from the assumption that the knowledge of the other is a one way street. The gaze of knowing is assumed to be directed only from the western to the non-western world. But we are advancing to a point where we may not have to maintain this assumption any longer. If we agree that the task of knowing the other, is not the solitary "burden of the white man," but the process in which different parties exchange glances, we might also assume that the distortions, mistakes, misperceptions and wrong judgements will be corrected in time and during the process of an intercivilizational dialogue. This is true because the economic and political hegemony of the powerful nations and their monopoly of the means of knowing is not nearly as total as it used to be a few decades ago. In such a world we may finally be able to exchange the heavy burden of being saintly "objective" and antiseptically "non-judgmental" for the lighter one of being fair.
7. Let Nations Speak
The colloquia of ethnic coexistence must avoid the discourse of cultural relativism and its questionable moral progeny: "sensitivity training." The worst thing that we can do is paper over our judgements. Even those judgements that are the result of blind prejudice or tunnel vision must be acknowledged and dealt with. The next necessary step for a useful dialogue involves a degree of cultural relativism. In order to gain a fairly "objective" view of the other we must consult, if not conduct, an objective historical, anthropological and sociological search. This does not exclude engaging in moral judgements at a later stage of the game. Ethnic coexistence is itself a moral position and it can not be accomplished by avoiding judgements, especially those that are rooted in civilizational positions. Of course, like charity, judgements must start at home. It is called self-criticism. Every meeting of the ethnic minds must begin with self-criticism. I prefer to start such a meeting with an AA-style (Alcoholics Anonymous meetings start by a public confession of the problem-drinkers) washing of the proverbial dirty laundry in public. The next step would be holding a festival in which all confront their prejudicial and tunnel-vision pictures of each other. But any lasting attempt at conflict resolution must be extended beyond these stages to a non-emotional scientific plain where "objective" studies of one onther are conducted and the results compared.
Civilizationaly determined angels of reflection, would only add character and interest to the perspectives that will be gained in "depth perception". Some of the inevitable distortions that are caused by mistaken interpretations will of course be corrected in the process of cultural exchange. But other distortions will remain as tokens of the civilizationaly grounded differences of values and points of view. Such distortions are integral to our human condition: we are finite creatures whose interests are determined by the tiny slice of time and space allotted us. Even the most scientifically minded among us can not help but view our social world through the prism of a particular time and place. Acknowledging this rootedness will allow us to recognize our point of view as a point of view and use it as a tool for narrowing down the plethora of information in the subject of our study. To use yet another ocular metaphor, the consciousness of the blind spot, will turn it into a discriminating lens.
* 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, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, has written this article for "The Handbook of Ethnic Coexistence" which will be publised by Continuum Press in February 1998. Sadri 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.