May 6, 2016

Babel of Civilisations—History Marches On

Liberal democracy is always endeavouring to reach new heights and will never be completed.

Civilisations, as the largest communities with common fundamental cultural denominators based on identity, do not form convenient and clear wholes; they do not necessarily drift and collide as homogeneous units. It is often more common that there are greater conflicts within a civilisational area; the fault lines may run through people’s sitting rooms or bedrooms and might not coincide with state borders or the geography of political alliances, territorial states and the Westphalian system—all that is considered unchangeable by many. The concept of a sphere of influence may better reflect the dynamic nature of the situation. Thus, we consider that a single culture that gave its name to a civilisation may dominate within a region but we may encounter other cultures—partly juxtaposing, partly coexisting harmoniously—within that single culture. This should not give us the impression that civilisations and cultures do not clash at all.
This article explores cultural clashes in the West and in the near vicinity of Europe. One of the motivations for writing it was an opinion piece published by Kaupo Känd some time ago in which he claimed that Samuel Huntington, populariser of the theory of the clash of civilisations, was wrong since conflicts actually occur between radicals and moderates, not between civilisations as such.1 The following discussion, however, does not focus on Känd’s opinion but adapts the classification of radicals and moderates so that the two terms come to perfectly characterise some views widely held in the West, such as: moderation (read: Western liberal democracy) is applicable everywhere, and civilisations have no fundamental differences but have reached different levels of development on the imaginary common linear axis of progress.
Before I move on to a short analysis, I must explain some terms. “Radicalism” is commonly used to signify the so-called far right or far left extremists, ultraconservatives, reactionaries, fanatics and many others. The Greek word for radical, ριζοσπάστης, means someone who gets to the root of things, and/or opposes previous or existing orders. Thus, the actual description of a radical is in line with the concept of a revolutionary in its more extreme manifestations, and the milder manifestations tally with the modern understanding of reform in the sense of an innovation that does not continue with the status quo but destroys its very foundations and roots out the past.
We cannot put an equals sign between radicalism and conservatism or traditionalism, even if we proceed from the (false) understanding that the latter two signify stagnation, being stuck in the past. Nikolai Berdyaev offered an apt explanation about the meaning of conservatism: it does not glorify the past that existed, for example, a couple of hundred years ago, but the present, which has roots reaching back several hundred years—i.e. conservatism means developing the erstwhile present so that it matures into the present day. Such a concept of conservatism excludes radicalism and envelops true progress. How can we even imagine a progress that is not based on anything, that sweeps everything away or destroys roots? That is not progress or regress but egress—i.e. stepping away, leaving—which is only connected to what was before through juxtaposition that is continued in spite of distancing or standing with one’s back to the past.
In addition to the fact that “moderation” quite correctly refers to a more peaceful approach, in modern language it is also erroneously coupled with Western liberal democracy. But it was liberal democracy that uprooted traditions and existing orders—it was radical in both its peaceful and violent forms. Europe has been distancing itself from its roots, i.e. radicalising, ever since the early Renaissance, and the process gained momentum at the time of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, not to mention the last half-century. Europe has declared the human being (with its subjective will) first in importance, turned the individual into the absolute, and subjected objective suprahuman principles and values to the individual.
Liberal democracy is a suitable general or collective concept for a revolutionary ideology that includes specifically Western mainstream liberal and social democracy (which generally have only cosmetic differences), as well as socialism, national socialism and communism. Despite being in competition, all these ideologies have the same basic principles: freedom transformed into licence (libertas), arithmetic equality, and not recognising anyone as being higher than the individual self. The liberal democratic revolutionary idea is characterised by Alyosha Karamazov’s reflection on the upside-down tower of Babel, where people not only desire to reach heaven through their own efforts but strive to bring heaven back to earth. Such liberal democracy (as a reverse civilisation or, narrowly speaking, ideology) is not synonymous with democracy (a form of fundamental order) as such, which may theoretically waive absolutising the subjective will and align with objective higher values.
From the point of view of various Western civilisations, it can also be said that, strictly speaking, radicals are those who wish to uproot old customs, and the subverters may originate from either within or outside the culture. We mostly encounter one universal opponent: Western liberal democracy, an intruder that imagines itself moderate and rightful (at the same time declaring paradoxically that there is no single truth) and, because of that, classifies everything else as more or less extremist or evil due to alleged backwardness.
The thing is that liberal democracy and its values have not emerged organically from the past—they are not an inevitability that developed along the hypothetical axis of linear progress towards moderation. It is a radical innovation that keeps shifting borders further away, creating new “normalities”, i.e. it is never satisfied—it sets a new goal the minute something has been achieved. The contemporary interpretation of human rights is a good example if we compare it to the understandings that were recorded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is no consensus on whether the phenomenon that presents itself as all-encompassing (while it emerged only “yesterday” in historical terms) really qualifies as something universal. Such a consensus has not been reached even in the West. There are plenty of people here who still cherish traditional European values. These values must not be confused with the branches of various revolutionary movements, no matter that they also compete with mainstream liberal and social democracy. In short, there are two types of reasons behind the increasing polarisation: on the one hand, internal conflicts between branches of liberal democracy—because each of them considers its own principles the best—and, on the other, the clash of traditional and liberal values.
Liberal democracy strives towards the universal—secular Messianism. From that we inevitably come to the theory of the end of history. The latter does not have to mean that there are no challenges or setbacks for liberal democracy; rather, the end of history is an ideal, the general final level of development. The ambition to reach the end of history was primarily linked to the dissolution and transformation of the Soviet Union; we encountered the same desires again in the context of the so-called Arab Spring. These events are discussed below.
Eastern and western Europe—which, despite everything, form a unified civilisation—have never been on the same page, although their differences consist of more or less important nuances; however, both are generally characterised by Christianity (and ancient Greek and Roman heritage) and revolution. On the one hand, we have conservative progress, which maintains traditions and builds on them, and on the other, there is radicalism. Christianity, be it Roman Catholicism or Greek Orthodoxy, is based on an absolute that is superior to the individual: God. The revolutionary movement, which is symbolised by the French Revolution and its heritage in the West and the February and October Revolutions and their consequences in the East, deifies—i.e. makes an absolute of—the individual and his/her subjective will. A Christian became a citizen who turned into a comrade.
Today’s Russia is an eclectic mixture of competing world-views that are at times outlined more sharply than in the West. Russia did not pull the plug on communism. Russians have nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism, which can also be found there), national socialism and even some liberal democracy. Greek Orthodox Christianity and traditional values have become stronger and more widespread in Russia but they are far from occupying an all-encompassing and exclusive position, although the concept of symphonia known from the time of Justinian the Great (sixth century) is used again and the state and church are cooperating. There are also all kinds of authoritarianism and imperialism; there is a peculiar kind of democracy and many other phenomena in which opposing the West and increasing one’s sphere of influence have an important part. What is important is that today’s Russia is neither unambiguously Greek Orthodox nor a communist, national socialist or western liberal democratic revolutionary system completely based on subjective human will.
It is true that I have only outlined the general situation, but this sketch proves that we should have considered the possibility of Russia continuing with the old order at least in part after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as the option that Russia would return to its Christian and traditional roots. In short, there were several ideological or cultural scenarios that scripted Russia’s conflict with Western liberal democracy.
It is important to understand that the current clash between Russia and the West is deeply concerned with the level of identity and world-views, not simply with material and pragmatic matters or pride and hurt feelings, although these are also relevant. The opposition seems likely to continue and grow in the future on the level of cultural foundations, and the opponents will grow increasingly distant since they do not share values. Despite this trend and the fact that Europe has been somewhat startled by it, we cannot rule out that Russia may turn to liberal democracy—the Kremlin, afraid of “coloured” revolutions, understands this and is working hard to minimise the possibility of it happening (which should be no surprise to anyone, even if they do not like it).
Throughout the ages, Islam has been in conflict with Christianity, and now with liberal democracy too. Christianity had to face conquests and attacks by Islam; Christian forces constantly needed to deter Muslim hosts and had to reconquer Christian lands from Muslims; liberal democracy, however, has started an attack itself, and desires to see in Islam only the potential outcomes that it likes, i.e. development towards liberal democracy. The same thinking is behind the fact that the liberal democratic consensus denies the Islamic nature of terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (and not only because it is politically correct to do so). The reason is that acknowledging this would make it difficult to claim that Islam and liberal democracy are well matched for even the most gifted relativist.
There are still plenty of experts in the West who see the big picture. Graeme Wood, lecturer in political science at Yale University, wrote in The Atlantic in March 2015: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, … [b]ut the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”2 We can add to this the opinion of University of Tartu lecturer Otto Jastrow, published in early 2015: “… Islamic State is the most authentic expression of Islam.”3 We could continue the list, but experience shows that people who do not want to understand something will not understand, and those who are open to knowledge already know. Still, I would like to refer to Üllar Peterson’s article, in which the author wonders about Islamic apologists—“experts on peace and pluralism”—who practise the science of “Koran tolerance”. They do not consider the principles of abrogation and substitution that are crucial in Islam, and refer to peaceful sections of the Koran that are basically null and void for Muslims, ignoring the aforementioned principles.4
Many people in the West claim that Islam is in need of its own Reformation. Although the Protestant Reformation played an important part in the development of liberal democracy, we should not expect the same from Islam. It is not a question of time—Islam is simply fundamentally different from Christianity. Western liberal democracy is foreign to the Islamic world. The so-called Arab Spring uprisings primarily helped to combat corruption, repression and injustice, including state borders that had been drawn according to the wishes of the Western states in the past, but they were also largely a conservative and even democratic reaction against the secular and quite liberal but not free regimes that the West initially supported. The West hoped that these uprisings would be liberal democratic awakenings with a hint of the end of history (similar to events in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s). This hope was based on the belief that liberal democracy is the moderate end of everything.
Do contacts with liberal people from the Islamic world not confirm this claim? No, because “moderate”—i.e. liberal democratic—Islam is an oxymoron, like liberal or secular Christianity. A non-religious liberal democrat is no more moderate than a traditional Christian or Muslim. Does it not sound insolent when a non-Muslim expresses his opinion about what is and is not Islamic? I do not pretend to know what true Islam is like; but it is possible to determine things that are definitely not compliant with Islam by using elementary logic, and some examples are Christianity, polytheism, atheism and liberal democracy. It is arrogant to claim that one item in that list is Islamic. Anyone who states that something from the list is compatible with Islam has an agenda and he sticks out. Liberals who consider themselves Muslims but have really lost their faith are like that.
A non-religious person finds all of this difficult to understand, but we see a similar process in Christianity. For example, when the Catholic Church is electing a new Pope, the Western secular media start to discuss whether the clergy will select a “progressive” person who will transform the Catholic doctrine so as to be compatible with liberal democratic values, only to be disappointed when the Pope turns out to be a Christian and a Catholic. A liberal democrat cannot comprehend that the Catholic doctrine is not a “radical” version of liberal democracy. Such a shift would not be natural, but rather a radically new development that would cut all connections with the past. Similarly, people with liberal views cannot accept that Islam will not develop into liberal democracy. Both Christianity and Islam acknowledge God (albeit different ones), an absolute being higher than the individual, while liberal democracy deifies the individual and focuses on the subjective human will. Islam will not be abandoning its fundamental truths any time soon, and although we cannot exclude such a possibility in the future we must see that it would not be a natural or inevitable development.
In conclusion, over the centuries, the Western (anti)civilisation has gone through big changes, overthrown and uprooted the heritage of Christianity and ancient Greece and Rome, and established an order that is largely based on liberal democracy. The system is unique in the sense that it views the world through a prism that allows categorising all other civilisations and ideologies as “radical” but on their way to “moderation”—a path in which they should be encouraged and supported. Because of this, the liberal democratic world often gets involved in arguments and even military conflicts. And these clashes, like many others, are cultural. Time will show how this will end; in any case, the story is not over.
The views in this article are the author’s own.
1… 2… 3… 4 Üllar Peterson, Islamiriik ja mittemuslimid (The Islamic State and Non-Muslims), Akadeemia No. 3, 2016: pp. 451, 456, 472.


Tiit Kärner, physicist and publicist
Ideologies and parties are categorised on the basis of their position on the right–left axis, liberalism or conservativism, the nation they represent, etc. However, there is one category that is crucially important: whether we consider ourselves to be simply players on the stage of Life where the play of History is being performed, or whether we believe that we can also make the rules of the game. In the first case we must find the best way in the existing framework of rules, which presumes that we understand them. In the second case we control the entire play; we are not simply players but decision-makers who determine the rules of the game. Ilmar Vene writes in his book Pahustumine ehk Uusaja olemus (“Getting Worse, or the Essence of Modern Times”): “The modern man tossed God aside but could not give up faith and rebuild the entire system upside-down, by deifying the human being”.
The people who continued acknowledging objective rules—either divine or natural—are called conservatives. They paid for it with the narrowing of their range of choices. The creators of rules, on the other hand, got a wide playing field. They became social democrats, communists, (national) socialists, liberal democrats, etc. who fight for the ability to determine their own rules and who have only one thing in common: they oppose the conservatives. Ilmar Vene writes: “Here we comprehend the main opposition of the Modern Age to the full: the religion of humanity decidedly opposes the (natural) scientific mainstream”. The new ideologies showed their real power when they reached the masses via the print media. When everything is up to the individual, then what stops the things we desire from materialising? The individual, of course. The game is called the 20th (and 21st) century.

Milvi Martina Piir, historian and writer
There are some common characteristics in the plurality of ideologies in the context of this article. First, there are universal aspirations that it would be unfair to attribute only to liberals or democracy. The same aspirations can be characteristic of Islam, conservatism, human rights, even universal love, if we are to consider it an ideology. As all of the aforementioned phenomena are universalist, they inevitably tend to incline towards the radical end of the spectrum. Second, ideologies are logical and systematic, and usually admit to no common traits with other ideologies. The people who follow ideologies, however, are rarely completely logical and the same individual can well be a Muslim in the kitchen, conservative in the sitting room and liberal in the bedroom—if we restrict ourselves to that potential combination only.
Really, when will the individual—a curious being by nature—“grow tired” of “shifting borders” and “creating new normalities”? World history and literature show us how people try to understand their lives. The fact that individuals rebel against the norms that constitute their realities is as paradoxical as the constancy of change. Even though one might not choose one’s freedoms and relative values, most people would not be satisfied if the alternatives ceased to exist. Ideologies form a united front in this with their Universalist exclusiveness.
In the context of this article, I would word the question on whether a school of thought has emerged organically as follows: will traditional Western Christianity, which embodies “true progress”, be replaced by the allegedly radical liberal democratic “anticivilisation” that has been nurtured within Christianity, or the equally traditionalist Islam that also carries “true progress”? Despite the shortcomings of liberalism and democracy, I prefer the scenario that still allows authors to write articles so that they can “express their personal opinion”.

Hille Hanso, freelance journalist
I would like to focus on that part of Mikael Laidre’s article that is concerned with the so-called Muslim world, which the author claims is incompatible with liberal democracy due to the character of Islam. About 20% of the world’s Muslims live in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states that the author refers to in relation to the Arab Spring and which he deems to be in “the near vicinity of Europe”. Thus, it is too pretentious to speak about all of civilisation in this context. Nevertheless, we can discuss (without making generalisations) what Arabs—whose majority religion’s “purest form” is, according to the author, practised by ISIL—think of democracy, the Arab Spring and extremism. Let me highlight some interesting examples from the 2015 AOI (Arab Opinion Index), the largest public opinion survey in the Arab world. People from 12 states belonging to the Arab League, nearly all in the MENA region, were polled.

It is probably surprising that 72% of respondents from Arab states generally support democracy, while 22% are against it. Mikael Laidre’s claim about democracy being incompatible with Islam is fully supported (“Strongly agree”) or supported (“Agree”) by only 5% and 15% of respondents respectively. However, the majority of respondents do not agree with the claim (“Oppose”) or do not agree at all (“Strongly oppose”) (40% and 31% respectively).
It is interesting to explore how religious the respondents from Arab states perceive themselves to be. Sixty-three per cent think they are “religious to some extent”, 9% consider themselves non-religious, and 24% are “very religious”. Public opinion is quite similar in Turkey, where only the proportion of non-religious people is higher.
Arabs are more positively disposed towards democracy than we usually think. The survey states that “… 79% of Arabs believe that democracy is the most appropriate system of government for their home countries, when asked to compare democracy to other types of rule, such as authoritarian regimes or representative democracies where electoral competition is limited to either Islamist or non-Islamist/secular political parties, or to theocracies.”1
Thirty-three percent of respondents strongly agree with the statement “the government does not have the right to use religion as a means of winning public support”, while 44% agree. Only 15% disagree and 5% strongly disagree. The respondents are divided into two groups over the “separation of religion and state,” but the proportion of respondents who support this is slightly bigger.

The respondents listed a number of solutions for stopping ISIL, all of them political: “supporting democratic transition in the region (28%); resolving the Palestinian cause (18%); ending foreign intervention (14%); intensifying the military campaign against ISIL (14%); and solving the Syrian crisis in line with the aspirations of the Syrian people”.2 By the way, 89% of respondents consider the activity of ISIL negative and only 3% give a positive assessment of the “purest form of Islam”.
It can be gleaned from the survey results that a large proportion of respondents are afraid of the supremacy of both Muslim and non-Muslim political movements. The survey’s conclusions state that the public does not trust political movements in the Arab states because of their controversies, disorder and conflicts. “The lack of consensus between these two broad categories of political movements can be exploited by anti-democratic forces to agitate for a return to authoritarianism, and will therefore prove to be an obstacle on the path to democratization.”3
Naturally, there are plenty of other serious challenges in MENA states, such as the low level of popular involvement in social movements (a characteristic of authoritarian societies); the states’ controversial attitude towards Israel; corruption; deficiencies in the functioning of state authorities; unequal treatment; unequal distribution of wealth; and combining Sharia law with state laws. Instead of considering religion the source of all their problems, it would be a good time for moving on to political, social, economic and environmental analysis.

Peeter Raudsik and I published an in-depth article (entitled “Madala maa ahtake horisont” (“The narrow horizon of a lowland”)) on why Islam cannot be treated as a “thing in itself” and how other social factors influence the interpretation of Islam and life in MENA states in the 1 April 2016 issue of the weekly Sirp.
1 The 2015 Arab Opinion Index… 13 May 2016 2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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