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For the Last Time: “The West”

Revisiting the myth of the clash of civilizations

Reflections on the Paris attacks

As information about the attacks in Paris, which left at least 128 people dead, gradually unfolds, I feel overwhelmed and disturbed. I am overwhelmed by the quantity of affective response to which I add my own grief, but I am also deeply disturbed by the way in which this affective reaction is channeled and communicated. So, I took a deep breath, put on my thinking hat, and started to write.

When Benoit Challand and I published The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations, I often wondered whether we had proved again Hegel’s dictum: philosophy, like the Owl of Minerva, only begins its flight at dusk, when reality has already completed its course.

In that book, we argued that Huntington’s thesis of a “clash of civilizations” owed its success more to its imaginative appeal than to its analytical capacity to grasp the complexity of the world we live in. Drawing from centuries of orientalist and occidentalist stereotyping and theorizing, the myth of a clash between Islam and the West had been given further emotional appeal by the shock of 9/11. The result of the combination of the two was that people no longer perceived the actions of individuals and groups acting out of a more or less complex set of motivations; rather, they perceived entire civilizations clashing with each other. As such, despite its theoretical flaws, or perhaps precisely thanks to its theoretical flaws, the myth of the clash of civilizations had turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: people believe that such a thing existed and thus made it real. Whether the issue at stake was a jihadist group attacking symbolically charged places according to the logic of the metonym (the part for the whole of the West), or military attacks defending our Western values, the logic was one of a contraposition between two imaginary blocks: civilizations.

The book came out in 2010, at a moment when discourses about an ongoing clash between Islam and the West seemed to be fading away. Five years after, I am now wondering whether it was not exactly the opposite: perhaps the book was not too late but rather ahead of its time. The worst was yet to come.

Since then, indeed, the myth of the clash of civilizations proved to be a recurrent framework through which people around the globe looked at the events unfolding in front of their eyes. The idea of a clash of between Islam and the West seemed to have become a Hydra that constantly grew new heads each time a severe critique seemed to have cut one off. Even when people explicitly denied the clash, they still behaved in such a way that conveyed the opposite message. For instance, even discourses about a “dialogue” between civilizations still reinforce the idea that we are part of a world divided into civilizational blocks, which can act, dialogue, or clash as if they were individuals. But this map of the world is not only empirically misleading, since civilizational blocks exhibiting clear-cut boundaries, as to give strength to the analogy with individual selves, do not exist; it is also normatively problematic because it reproduces a dominational logic intrinsic to the notion of “civilization,” in which cultures are implicitly hierarchically ordered on a scale according to how far each has attained “civilization.” The other end of the scale, of course, is “barbarism.”

Again, more than in its analytical purchase, the force of such a framework resided in its capacity to condense and convey emotional responses that went well beyond mere theory: people feel and act on its basis, particularly at times when they feel threatened. We concluded the book with an invitation to go beyond “civilizations” and stop seeing the world in terms of more or less civilized individuals and cultures. At the time, this seemed to us the major message emerging from 150 pages of analysis of Arabic, English, American, French, German, and Italian sources. What I would like to add now is an invitation to go beyond the equally problematic concept of the West.

As I read the streams of information on the web, Facebook, and other social media, I cannot but fail to notice the constant recourse to that term: “the West.”

On the BBC website, Frank Gardner, BBC Security Correspondent, argues that the West is an inevitable target. I wonder which West Frank Gardner has in mind: France? or Paris? or London? or New York? Why not Poland? or Luxemburg? In other words, are we not talking about a particular subdivision of the West when we say “the West”? If so, why don’t we call it by its own name? It is hard to evaluate messages circulated in the media, but as far as one can read, all sources report that the group that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks explicitly presented them as an act of retaliation against France’s bombing of Syria, and not just as general attack against the whole of the West. People go to concerts and enjoy Friday nights out in Brazil and Switzerland, too, but ISIS is not likely to attack those countries because they are not currently bombing the Middle East nor displaying any peculiarly imperialist policy in the region.

Is this general category of “the West” not ultimately more concealing than it is revealing? Or even worse: is it not a recurrence of that same logic of a contraposition between monolithic civilizational blocks that we should dismantle in the first place? Be it phrased in terms of a clash between “Islam versus the West” (which prevails in English sources) or of “Islam versus the land of infidels (kafir)” (which is the most common version in Arabic), the underlying paradigm is the same.

But perhaps here lies its appeal. Precisely because it over-simplifies the world, the myth of the clash of civilizations works as a mapping device that enables us to orient ourselves within it. The question then becomes: in which direction is it orienting us? The answer is quite clear — and quite troubling.

Le Monde reminds us that France is the “country that jihadists love to hate,” but it also reassures us that President Hollande intends to continue bombing Syria, and that prime minister Valls wants to “destroy” the enemies of the Republique. A new spiral of war and retaliation seems to be on its way.

The website of La Stampa leads with a report that there was a refugee among the terrorists (now thought to have been a false refugee using a counterfeit passport), while Italian prime minister Renzi confirms the persistence of a terrorist threat to “the West” and points to the dangers of those “who want to question our own way of life.”

But where is this West to be located? The West of what? Can there be an absolute East and West in a rotating globe? If not, what are we doing when we speak of the West?

The West is clearly not just a geographic direction: it is an imaginal being, imbued with cultural and political myths. Properly speaking, east and west are only relative notions. In a sphere such as our globe, there is no absolute spatial point that enables us to determine a clear East and West (with capital letters). When we speak of “the West,” we literally transform a rotating globe into a bidimensional planisphere. But not any possible planisphere: rather, one with Europe at its center. And it is only because it has a center that we can say “West” without further qualification. So whenever we say “West” we are implicitly assuming West of Europe, and thus presupposing the reified gaze of the Europeans who first looked at the globe in this way during the heyday of colonialism. Now this does not mean that talking about the west is immediately imperialist or even racist, but the very colonial history of this map should raise suspicion. In the first place: why transform a sphere into a plane and thus make absolute notions out of relative ones? Why keep pretending that Europe is at the center? Why look at the world as if it were a bidimensional map with the Americas as its extreme western boundary and Asia as the extreme east? Why not take the perspective of China, which calls “Western Asia” what we consider to be the “Middle East”?

In sum, the biases conveyed by simply speaking about “the West” are too harmful to keep reiterating them. It gives us the illusion that there is a such a thing as the West and that it is for the defense of such an imaginal being that we are both enduring suffering and reproducing it in our turn. Maybe we should stop perceiving the world in such terms and face the complexity of a world that has too many colors to be unified within any over-simplifying framework. As I look at the beautiful image of the Tower Bridge in London dressed in tricolor and as I receive more and more notifications of Facebook friends adopting the French flag as their profile pictures, I think of the question that Cinzia Arruzza raised on Public Seminar after the Charlie Hebdo killing: “Is solidarity without identity possible?” Perhaps such a solidarity is not only possible: it is both mandatory and urgent.

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Chiara Bottici

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