Westerners and Non-Westerners Seek Universal Ties

`THE clash of civilizations.'' In the post-cold-war world, where the outline of the future is but dimly discerned, the phrase has a cataclysmic ring. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington suggested the possibility in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs, and the current issue has several commentaries taking issue with him.

It's been my contention for many years that there's a fundamental difference between the Western and non-Western view of modern civilization. To Westerners, American or European, civilization is the fruit of centuries of development of two melded traditions - the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, enhanced and enriched by the Renaissance and the Reformation. Both traditions may have been foreign originally to Gauls or Germans, Angles or Vikings. But, over the centuries, they have become warp and woof of the Western mental tapestry.

To the non-Westerner things are not that simple. He has his own proud traditions and likes to think that when the ancestors of today's Britons were forest-dwelling savages painting themselves blue, his ancestors were clad in silk and discussing the finer points of poetry.

But his own modern civilization is not an organic outgrowth of those days. Nor are old traditions, in isolation, sufficient to satisfy his intellect or to define the institutions he needs to interact with the rest of mankind in the modern world. As the forebears of today's Westerners had at some point to mix and match the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, so the non-Westerner must mix and match that which is indigenous with that which came from without.

Whereas the writer V.S. Naipaul, himself the product of the melding of the New World with the Old, hails the approach of a ``universal civilization,'' Huntington defines the world in much narrower terms. ``Arabs, Chinese, and Westerners,'' he writes, ``are not part of any broader cultural entity. They constitute civilizations.'' And civilizations, like nation-states, can clash. One Armageddon-like possibility Huntington sees is an alliance of Confucian and Islamic civilizations against the West. Sharply rebutting this thesis, the Chinese writer Liu Binyan, a courageous dissident against Marxist authoritarianism now living in America, says that ``for most countries the task is not to demarcate civilizations but to mix and meld them.'' He asks, ``Will the 21st century be an era when civilizations can merge, thus helping people to break old cycles of dehumanization?''

``Huntington is wrong,'' writes the distinguished Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami. ``He has underestimated the tenacity of modernity and secularism in places that acquired these ways against great odds, always perilously close to the abyss, the darkness never far.''

I have recently gotten to know several Iranian workers in Japan. They are not refugees from the ayatollahs; they are of middle-class origin and have no political axes to grind. Most of them fought in the eight-year war with Iraq. They came to Japan as blue-collar workers, hoping in four or five years to acquire a nest egg large enough to build a new house or to start a small business back home. But while they define their religion as Islam, none are fanatic about it, and for all their complaints about Japanese discrimination, they agree that basically Japan is far less repressive than Iran. The police don't take bribes; they don't arrest young men and women for walking arm in arm; romantic songs banned in Iran can be played freely in Japan. For a Japanese, it is no compliment to be told these things; he takes them for granted. Yet 150 years ago Japanese society, too, was rigidly stratified and regulated. It was the mixing and matching of Western civilization with traditional indigenous ways that created the Japan of today - a people who take so many originally Western ideas and institutions for granted that they are puzzled and hurt when Europeans or Americans will only accept them as honorary Westerners.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is that civilizations, like individuals, do change. All non-Western civilizations have had to adopt aspects of Western institutions, for sheer survival. You can call this process the Westernizing of non-Westerners, or the universalizing of what started as a Western tradition. Westerners, too, may find that if a truly universal civilization is to evolve, they cannot be bystanders, that without surrendering their own values they will also have to engage in a certain amount of mixing and matching. Therein lies hope for the future of mankind.

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