Published on Thursday, July 21, 2005 by the International Herald Tribune
Traditional Culture Strikes Back
by William Pfaff
RETHYMNON, Crete - The war of civilizations, as Samuel Huntington unfortunately phrased it, takes place in time rather than space.
The bombers in London and the insurgents in Iraq may think that they are avenging themselves on Western civilization. Some in Washington, London and Tel Aviv may think that they are blocking the ambition of radical Muslims to create some marvelous new caliphate to rule the world. Both are wrong.
The civilizations at war are modernity on the one hand and the traditional world on the other. The Islamic fundamentalists' terrorist attacks on the West are merely a sideshow - a bitter but doomed reaction to a war that modern society has already largely won, with liberals and conservatives united in their battle against the values, assumptions and mode of life of the vast majority of non-modern mankind.
We Westerners believe we are creating, as Roger Cohen recently wrote in The International Herald Tribune, "a century that will make a diverse world more unified, prosperous and free than ever before."
The liberals and the conservatives of modern Western society firmly believe that. It is inconceivable to them that the traditional world, in which everyone except themselves lives, remains a valid choice for those who live in it.
The modern world is the aggressor, determined - without even seriously thinking about it - to destroy the backward civilizations of everyone else, which it sees as discredited remnants of the past. To destroy them is progress. Progress leads - where?
Here we run into the problem of utopia.
Utopia in a world dominated by religion is a reward for a worthy life, and is enjoyed in an afterlife. It exists outside of time. Or after time has come to a stop, in a timeless paradise.
Modern civilization has substituted a material utopia for religious salvation. Since the Enlightenment and the modern scientific revolution unseated religion as our society's dominant intellectual force, material and social progress has replaced religious salvation as the goal of life.
To take an obvious political example of modern utopianism, the American campaign to deregulate global finance and open the world to U.S. business investment may have American material interest behind it but it was accepted by the Clinton administration and nearly everyone else in America and Western Europe as a progressive idea that would make societies everywhere richer by bringing them into the international trading system.
However, deregulation and the globalization of the world economy casually destroyed what already was there: self-sufficient economies functioning within traditional trading patterns, artisanal manufacturing for local or neighboring markets, subsistence agriculture - and the cultural assumptions that went along with all of this.
No Westerner gave much thought to the damage being done. The West was bringing progress. Progress was membership in the world trading system and participation in a global consumer market with cheap goods and mass-produced food promoted by globalized communications.
The downside - destruction of self-sufficient societies and the uprooting and proletarianization of their people - simply seemed inevitable, bringing these people into the modern world and putting them on the road of progress.
From this perspective, invading Iraq was a regrettable necessity, making a New Middle East and setting it on the way toward a better world. But where is this better world?
Since traditional society is held together by traditional religion, the modern West has in fact been waging war against traditional religion. Why should it be surprised when the defenders of traditional religion strike back?
More to the point, when there are young men whose fate has been to be born between modern and traditional worlds - in ghettos in or around London, Madrid, Paris - without any possibility of living fully inside either of those worlds, who should be surprised when they attack what they see as the source of their distress?
Islam now includes tens of millions of young people either born in Western ghettos or sent out of traditional societies to study hyper-modern subjects in what their own civilizations would regard as godless societies.
There is a crucial factor in this that few in the West understand. Modern Western civilization is the product of Western history and culture. The West is what it is because of its past. Nobody imposed foreign ideas on the West. Hence the West is at home in the modern world. The modern world was created by, and belongs to, the West.
But the West is trying to impose not only foreign ideas on everyone else, but ideas that contradict and would destroy the fundamental values and assumptions of non-Western societies.
It says: This is progress. Our progress is your destabilization, the destruction of your cultures, the creation of millions of culturally alienated, deracinated, displaced persons, ripped from their own past to become integrated into a radically materialistic ethic.
It should hardly be surprising that the reaction to this is nihilistic violence.
William Pfaff addresses the latest issues and long-term ramifications of current events, often before other political observers take note. Original and provocative, Pfaff studies European, Middle Eastern, Asian and American concerns through a prism shaped by the experiences of an American living abroad. Pfaff is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune based in Paris.
© 2005 IHT