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Clash to clasp: an alternative discourse on civilizations

Gautam Chikermane’s tweets

Whether civilisations today are ‘clashing’ or ‘clasping’ is more than a question of semantics. If the news environment and wars are seen, the clash is clearly visible. The attempt to force fundamentalist religious ideologies down the throats of nations, using violence as a tool, is gathering momentum. From Iraq to Syria and Libya to Nigeria, the violent face of Islam is wreaking havoc. Ironically, the first victims are Muslims themselves.

In that reality, you can’t argue with Samuel P. Huntington, whose brilliant 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, laid the foundations of examining religion as a conflict zone. In his 1993 essay for Foreign Affairs, he wrote:

Civilization identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.

It is easy to see Huntington’s work as the last word, when weighed on scales of current affairs that have been dominated by a religion that has been hijacked by its violent and fundamentalist leanings. A narrow view of Islam has captured our minds today and it is very easy to extrapolate and transplant that view onto all Muslims, even those suffering and the first victims of this onslaught — the Syrian refugee crisis is not going to be the last of this phenomenon. Clash, we believe, is the new civilizational intercourse, violence its market, death its currency.

Independent scholar Richard Alan Hartz, who has an enviable body of work behind him as part of the team that is preserving and putting together the works of Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfasa (better known as The Mother), disagrees. In his new book, The Clasp of Civilizations: Globalization and Religion in a Multicultural World, he argues that the advantages of cultural diversity “may outweigh the challenges it poses” and harmonises — rather than contradicts — the outlook of the West with that of the East, using intuition as his dominating theme:

The antithesis between the rational, scientific West and the intuitive, mystical East is as much an oversimplification as the supposed opposition between Platonism and Aristotelianism in Western culture itself. It is true that the empirical, logical side of the Western pursuit of knowledge has at times overshadowed the more idealistic though no less rational impulse towards transcendence. Sometimes reduced to an undercurrent, it is this Platonic aspect of the Western mind that has the most affinity with corresponding elements in Eastern civilizations.

If material success, scientific breakthroughs and an overall sense of prosperity is a metric of civilizational dominance and aspiration, there is no doubt that the chasm between the ‘West and the rest’ is huge, even if much of that has been written with the blood of religious sanctification, ruthless colonial exploitation of economies and an appalling sense of human contempt through slavery. At such a point, it is very easy for ‘the rest’ to fall back on the only source of strength they have — religion’s most primitive expression — and use it as a tool of identity. In such a state, ‘clash’ can easily capture our minds. Hartz doesn’t try to reverse or change this. Instead, he argues for a higher synthesis:

For a relatively brief period in recent history, the West forged ahead in the quest for knowledge, as in other areas, while older civilizations retired from the limelight. Those civilizations are now returning to center stage and reinventing themselves under modern conditions. The synergy of intensively interacting cultures cannot fail to stimulate humanity’s continuing efforts to understand itself and the universe. Intuition has played an important, if not always acknowledged, role in the advancement of knowledge even in the West at the height of the age of scientific rationalism. All the more are our intuitive faculties likely to flower as Eastern civilizations, which have traditionally cultivated them, assimilate what they have learned from the West, rediscover their own genius and turn their reviving creative energies toward the future.

But can the unifying potential of religion prevail over its divisive tendencies? Hartz offers hope:

Its [religion’s] 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.

Looking at it from the point of view of trade and flow of products, services and ideas across nations, I find that the ‘clasp’ of civilizations is the dominating theme today, not ‘clash’. This is not merely because of our iPhones or cars, each of which carries multiple citizenship, but equally in the transport of ideas like democracy, science and governance institutions from the West and Yoga, spirituality and toleration from the East. Even the weapons the Islamic State uses to perpetuate violence have Western origins — something the world leaders need to put an end to. On the other side, the refugees escaping from them end up in Europe, not in other Islamic countries across the borders.

Perhaps, the ongoing ‘clash’ of civilizations will lead to a ‘clasp’, as a new equilibrium is established for humanity, as the West understands that the rational mind is not the pinnacle of man’s evolution and the East realises that finally religion and morality have to give way to a higher state of being. Sri Aurobindo articulated this in his 1918 book, The Ideal of Human Unity:

A spiritual religion of humanity is the hope of the future. By this is not meant what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite. Mankind has tried unity by that means; it has failed and deserved to fail, because there can be no universal religious system, one in mental creed and vital form. The inner spirit is indeed one, but more than any other the spiritual life insists on freedom and variation in its self-expression and means of development. A religion of humanity means the growing realisation that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one, that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth, that the human race and the human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here. It implies a growing attempt to live out this knowledge and bring about a kingdom of this divine Spirit upon earth. By its growth within us oneness with our fellow-men will become the leading principle of all our life, not merely a principle of cooperation but a deeper brotherhood, a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life.

The Clasp of Civilizations  is an important book. It offers an alternative discourse from the one that’s plaguing us through actions of the few, the denial of the intelligentsia, the us-versus-them traps that the politically motivated are laying, and into which the rest of us keep falling.

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