Last Updated: Tue Oct 16, 2012 10:24 am (KSA) 07:24 am (GMT)

The clash of civilizations revisited

Samar al-Sayed

An article appeared last month condemning Western children for parental neglect. The author, who could have spared readers mindless offense by sticking to his original topic (the defense of prophets insulted by 21st century media) concluded that it is no wonder they find it so easy to disrespect religious figures when they can’t even respect their own makers.

Seemingly, he says, it is innate for the West to be scornful of all that is honored within God’s framework and that can be the only explanation to their selfishness and insensitivity to what really matters, the family unit.
Such an opening paragraph struck all kinds of familiar nerves that open up the “us versus them” can of worms, again.

Indeed, it is these types of statements that evoke the “clash of civilizations” debate that academic circles have tried so hard to disqualify as being a figment of the imagination, a failure in modern thought, a comfort zone in the glory of ignorance.

Across the horizons of East and West, the masses that are caught up in a frenzied, demanding world order and who consequently have little time to ponder the other side of the globe ask the same questions. Why are they so different? Why do they hate us? Why are they so fanatical versus why are they so morally loose? Why are they so barbaric versus why are they so God-loathing? Essentially, it is “poor them, they are so morally loose; they don’t have our values” versus “poor them, they are so oppressed; they don’t have our values.”

Orientalism, for one thing, could have been bearable at a time when absence made the heart grow harder, when a lack of contact left much for the imagination to fabricate, but the fact that barriers have since been eradicated by a shared global network that transmits image and thought by the dozen renders this type of continued polarization inexplicable.

Some would say that the chaotic nature of the Internet — offering so much with no categorization — has led to the very same loopholes of ignorance that existed before the technological revolution. That means that the power of repetition prevails with the same images of embassy-crashers being played over and over to magnify and manipulate something of little significance or implication. In a sea of endless information, only the obvious, the primitive, the hot topics make it to the forefront. Whether this is premeditated or merely reckless is besides the point. The point is that technology seems to have put us at the same disadvantage as the “dark” ages where imagination accounted for an unknown neighboring continent.

So why does polarization still exist? Is ignorance innate? Is otherness a must? Is dehumanization the only way for one to thrive?

Even I am guilty of the seemingly most justifiable of generalizations. In my years in the midst of an upper-middle class British constituency, it seemed safe for me to conclude that “liberalism” had plagued the largely secular island to the point of no return. Indeed, the Economist further reinforced my view when it published a survey that suggested that 90 percent of the British public do not believe in the marital institution (versus 90 percent of the American public who do). No matter how wrong the school of generalization was, this was one for the books. Years later, I found these people on Facebook and it came as a very confusing revelation to see that most of these girls — unlike me — were in fact married and at a relatively young age at that. My sturdy theory came crashing down.

What it all boils down to is a human need to place information in black and white boxes. Of the many questions that linger unanswered — from our subjective experience of life, to the matter of death, the afterlife and other innumerable factors beyond our control (most notably the actions of others) — we’d like to think we can at least settle some of the mysteries by giving them a bottom line. Consciously or unconsciously, we yearn for absolution, and, failing to acquire it on what matters most to us — accomplishment, affirmation and the afterlife — we make up for it in sweeping, decisive statements and opinions.

For the poor masses across the world, ideology provides salvation. The comfort of knowing that one’s religious sect is destined for glory by their Lord provides solace for those who cannot get their hands on the good life has to offer.

As youngsters, just about every cartoon we developed an affinity for engrained the good versus evil paradigm in our minds. We want that type of certainty because we fear the sheer uncertainty of being alive. Gray is limbo, gray is loathsome, gray reinforces our mortal nature, gray reminds us of our powerlessness.

Feeble in the face of overwhelming realities, the human thirst for control, assurance and immortality permeates into addiction, autocracy and ultimately, arrogance. It is this very arrogance that produces otherness and that gives proponents on either side the power to disqualify one another from existence, to categorize each other in boxes that are safely stashed away in the annals of ignorance until a plane crashes into a building or a movie about a prophet has us right where it wants us. Basking in ignorance on the one hand, basking in self-pity on the other.

Even if others or myself succeed in identifying the origins of ignorance, the sad reality is that most will not take the time to ponder the paradoxes of our existence. The fact is that those who are forsaken with too much freedom are the very same people who have the decency to stand in line at the pharmacy and those who enact oppression are those whose prophet instated the rights of women and emancipated slaves. We cannot forget that the empires of the would-be free first world engaged in medieval savagery and persecution against both “natives” and “others” under its rule whilst the empires of the now shackled third world practiced tolerance and relative assimilation of its religious minorities.

These are the paradoxes that reinforce the fallibility of the human system and such is a limbo that shall remain until a decisive force that transcends the subjectivity of the human experience comes along and sweeps us off our feet.

Until then, our responsibility to think outside our limited boxes and to ponder why the morally inferior are so “ahead” (depending on if one views the current world order as a measure for progress) and why the morally superior are so “behind” remains our truest test. It is, indeed, one of life’s most baffling mysteries and one on which closure is eagerly awaited. Yet it is safe to say that most will opt to keep singing the hymns of narcissistic self-preservation in a bid to triumph over life’s precarious nature. But those of us who are aware of the driving force behind the video makers and the bombers now know better than to slide into the comfort of conclusively false generalizations to make our task of existing that much easier.


The writer is a columnist at the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Oct. 16, 2012

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