The idea of a liberal "west," standing out against fundamentalism, is a fallacy.by Michael Lind / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Since 11th september, political leaders have struggled to define the sides in what is clearly a kind of war. Is it a war between radical Muslims and the US? Is it a war between the Christian west and Islam? Or is the conflict an even larger one-between secularism and fundamentalism around the world?
The most influential attempts to define the post-cold war world have been those of Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Samuel P Huntington, in his essay “The Clash of Civilisations” (1993). Fukuyama famously argued that liberal democracy is the final stage of human political evolution. Huntington emphasises the persistence of pre-modern linguistic, cultural and religious divisions, like those between western and eastern Christendom and Confucian and Hindu Asia.
Each of these schemas captures aspects of reality. But an alternative that deserves consideration is one that defines “civilisations” in terms, not of technological development or culture, but of world view. This approach gives us fewer civilisations than those listed by Huntington-but more than the single end-stage civilisation proposed by Fukuyama.
From this perspective, the most important civilisational divide-one that seems even more important after the events of 11th September-may be the one between supernatural civilisations and secular civilisations. The divide is roughly, but not completely, correlated with the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies and industrial societies. Of the supernatural civilisations, the most significant have been the Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the Indic (Hinduism and Buddhism). The two major Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, conquered most of the world’s territory and people, including south Asia and the Americas. Only China and Japan, among the major non-western nations, escaped Muslim or Christian rule. Today Muslim theocracies like Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia are the most extreme examples of societies based on supernatural religion.
On the secular side of the civilisational divide, there have been three major traditions: humanism, rationalism and romanticism. These three traditions originated in Europe but now have adherents around the world. All three are essentially secular worldviews which do not need to invoke the authority of divine revelation or mystical gnosis (though some romantics are mystics or pantheists and some humanists have been religious believers). In respects other than their common secularism, the three traditions are fundamentally different from one another.
Humanist civilisation crystallised in Renaissance Italy, before spreading to the Netherlands, Britain, and the US.…