September 11 is a day when two symbols, both religious, meet one another from two opposing ends, both of which have changed the course of history forever. Unfortunately, the date is better known today for the terror strikes of 2001, when four aircraft physically transported terrorism to the US at an unprecedented scale for a nation that for decades had watched terror in India, Sri Lanka and West Asia from the sidelines. This date changed the texture of geopolitics and brought ‘home’ the Clash of Civilizations — eloquently articulated by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, first in a 1993 article for Foreign Affairs and then in a 1996 book.
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic,” Huntington wrote. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
The book placed the expression ‘the West and the rest’ in popular usage.
The other, more important and more enduring event that took place on September 11 was a speech delivered by a monk at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1893. This speech has changed the way the world intersects with religion, faith and civilization, and whose impact will last far longer and reach far deeper than the brutal attack that took place 1,180 km away and 108 years later in the same country. If the 2001 destruction was triggered by proselytizing fundamentalists whose stamp has been hammered across the world since then, the 1893 speech to the West was an exposure to equally-revolutionary ideas from the East.
“Sisters and Brothers of America,” began Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of the World’s Religions on September 11, 1893, only to be interrupted with a standing ovation that lasted three minutes.
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration.
I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering remnant Zoroastrian nation.
If Huntington’s idea of globalization meant a ‘clash’, Richard Hartz, an independent scholar living in Pondicherry, has raised it to a ‘clasp’. In his new book, The Clasp of Civilizations: Globalization and Religion in a Multicultural World, he argues that the capacity to embrace difference is needed as never before. “Globalization has led to a crisis in the world-system and humanity has to choose its destiny,” he writes. “There could be a disastrous clash of civilizations; but Huntington himself, the prophet of this worst-case scenario, gives sensible advice on how to avoid it. If civilizations could ‘clasp’ rather than clash, their diversity might become our most valuable resource.”
Hartz is an ashramite, who has been living in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since 1980 and is part of the team that works to preserve and put together the works of Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfasa, better known as the Mother. While his readings and references are vast, there is no doubt that his leanings veer towards the works of Sri Aurobindo, whose ideas on the remaking of world order he argues “are surprisingly similar to Huntington’s in some ways, but differ markedly in others.”
“The question remains whether the unifying potential of religion can prevail over its divisive tendencies,” Hartz writes.
Its power to sanctify irrationality points in one direction, the spiritual urge towards self-discovery and transcendence in the other. Today both are accentuated. It is yet to be seen whether the aspirations towards peace, harmony and enlightenment found in all religions will outweigh their use as tools of identity politics. But their appeal to what is best in humanity may yet trump the sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism decried by Vivekananda on that now half-forgotten September 11, in Chicago. If so, religions as vital manifestations of human diversity could impart their ardor to a vibrant unity in difference — not a clash, but a clasp of civilizations.
Today, when we remember 9/11 and shun from the darkness of recent history, let us also expand into the light that Vivekananda spread on the same day.