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A clash of cultures and a history of ideas

13 May 2017
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The Hindu

Ramin Jahanbegloo is a philosopher of Iranian origin, a pacifist Gandhi would have approved of, and a free thinker Tagore would have embraced. He endured a short but unnerving spell of solitary confinement, as an enemy of the state, in an Iranian prison in 2006, before returning to peripatetic security outside his country of birth. Jahanbegloo now heads the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at the Jindal Global Law School in India.

I met him briefly nearly a decade back in Budapest, following his spirited defence of ‘Democracy and Non-violence,’ in a talk at the Central European University in September 2007, delivered with high passion and deep feeling. In the years since, I had lost track of him until now, when his small and profound, yet dense-as-rye-bread work, The Decline of Civilization, landed on my desk.

Jahanbegloo’s book is a short but very detailed account of how the term civilisation emerged and evolved from early Greek times. He gives us a grand tour of the term and the intellectual effort that went into refining it, deploying Eliot and Pound as well as Kant, Hegel, Gramsci and Freud among several others, to buttress his points. He also devotes a full chapter to decivilising – which he defines as a state of ‘thoughtless existence,’ degrading humanity by robbing it of its self-esteem, and divesting individuals of their capacity for empathy as a tool for the recognition of the 'Other'.

The West against the Rest

Civilisation as it evolved in the West, Jahanbegloo tells us, innocuously referred to “advancements in comfort, increased material possessions and personal luxuries, improved educational techniques, cultivation of the arts and sciences, and the expansion of commerce and industry.” But it also was from the start “employed as a normative concept to compare the greatness of one nation or one continent with the failure and backwardness of others.”

It is of particular relevance that the West, which came to dominate the modern world, economically and politically, considered itself ‘superiorly’ civilised compared to the rest. An assumed air of pre-eminence backed by overwhelming force, gave it the heft as well as the audacity to attempt to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world which it considered savage and primitive. This contributed greatly to generating the specious moral justification for the West’s violent imperial ways across the world.

Surprisingly, the duplicity that went with imperialism was widely recognised early on in the West itself, thanks to the likes of Edmund Burke who took on Warren Hastings and General John Burgoyne who went after Clive, for gross abuse of authority and spectacular corruption in India. There were the writers too. The protagonist in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Storyteller, Saul Zuratas, is indignant at the ethnologists, accusing them of taking off from where the missionaries had left off, spearheading the efforts to “wipe out the Indians”. Then there is Joseph Conrad who exposed the West’s “imperial mission” in all its ugliness in Heart of Darkness.: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

Jahanbegloo would have done well to also highlight that civilisations can reform and become more humane and more inclusive. Across western societies, there were movements that sought to eliminate the most egregious wrongs that were perpetrated on unfortunate people unable to resist western resolve and power. Here it is useful to recall Burke’s fervent plea to the British, to be “the refuge of afflicted nations,” and to “stand a sacred temple, for the perpetual residence of an inviolable justice.” The abolition of the slave trade was the result of deep disquiet of an obvious cruelty practised on a mass scale and the U.S. civil war, as we all know, was famously fought on Lincoln’s stand that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”

Jahanbegloo’s short work doubles up as a tribute to two of modern India’s most famous figures, Gandhi and Tagore. He feels that their more inclusive and spiritual understanding of civilisation distinguishes it from its western variant. As he elaborates, “from the Gandhian philosophical standpoint, civilisation is not only a matter of economic or technological progress or a process towards the creation of a modern state, but an opportunity to enter a bigger dimension that transcends the predominant characteristics of modern civilisation like power, ego, greed and authority.”

Tagore believed that India needed the West as much as the West required India and asserted that, “we must accept truth when it comes from the West and not hesitate to render it our tribute of admiration.” However, as Jahanbegloo brings out, Tagore was no uncritical admirer of the West, clearly aware, “that in spite of its boasted love of freedom, it has produced worse forms of slavery than ever was current in earlier societies.”

‘The threatening Other’

Jahanbegloo is particularly scathing in criticising the ‘us /them binary,’ stating that, in The Clash of Civilisations Samuel Huntington talks about how Islam is shown ‘as the threatening Other.’ This a point that Romila Thapar concurs with in her introduction: “The Islamic world has been described as the source of international terror, forgetting the terror that has been created by other agencies of superior civilisations both in the past and the present.” On this, we can agree with Thapar and Jahanbegloo, but only up to a point.

We do need to take a much more forthright stand on the kind of terrorism that is blighting the world in the name of Islam, destroying the very ‘capacity for empathy’ which Jahanbegloo correctly insists is, “one of the fundamental pillars of human civilisation characterised by its aptitude for rational thought.”

Jahanbegloo’s failure to bring the greatest contemporary Indian philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, into the discussion sticks out. While standing for an inclusive definition of civilisation, Radhakrishnan was no less critical of the direction western civilisation had taken, “acting on the maxim, spare the slave and smash the rebel.” As a work of original enquiry and deep scholarship the book is worth reading. That it even has one of the best takes on Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, makes it well worth owning too.